Managing employee conflict on your farm operation

Jim Versweyveld
Take the time to understand both sides of the issue.

While farm managers across Wisconsin have a lot on their plates this time of year, probably the last thing they care to deal with is two employees who are not getting along. As much as leaders may want to avoid the issue, hoping it will go away, it could actually escalate and get worse if it isn’t dealt with quickly.

Leadership is often about doing things that many would rather avoid. It’s best to address the conflict directly, before things get out of hand.

Regardless of the size of your farm workforce, it’s very likely that employee disputes will occur from time to time. Disagreements can arise on the farm where the pace is often fast and expectations are high. Personality, communication style, work ethic and even cultural differences between farm workers can lead to conflict, leaving you as the farm manager to sort the issues out. 

Competing agendas often create conflict. Two employees may have varying views of what the team should be focusing their efforts on. It may require your leadership to set the priorities, when two employees disagree on which tasks to tackle first. Summertime’s long hours and hot weather can also add challenges, as patience and tempers wear thin.

Even other employees not directly involved in the feud, may be impacted. Just being around unchecked conflict can be stressful and distracting. Groups of like-minded workers can form quickly on either side of the issue, impacting productivity, morale and even safety.

Here are some tips for you to address the conflict and get your team focused on the work at hand:

  • Avoid jumping to conclusions based on one side of the story. Often the truth lies somewhere in the middle, so it is important to take the time to understand both sides. It may be helpful to talk with the feuding individuals separately so that you can listen to each perspective and evaluate what is creating the conflict.
  • Don’t react in anger.  As frustrating or seemingly petty as the issue may be, take the time you need to manage your own emotions. Be a role model for treating others with respect, so your employees see how you expect them to behave. Raising your voice or using words that you may end up regretting later won’t help.  Your reaction to the situation could actually add to the existing conflict unless you react with a cool head and with reasonable and constructive guidance.
  • Help both parties stick to the current issue, versus dredging up issues they may have had in the past. Focus on the real or perceived impact to the farm business and avoid personal attacks. Set ground rules on how your employees will speak to each other. Name calling or other aggressive acts can’t be tolerated, regardless of the issue.
  • Avoid “taking sides”. The truth is, you may actually agree with one employee and not the other, but it’s important for you to appear impartial and unbiased. Your employees can perceive your stance with one side or the other as favoritism, which can hurt your relationship with the entire team.
  • Establish your expectation that the team will get along and work things out between themselves. Promote open communication where employees are encouraged to resolve conflict on their own. Don’t create an environment where they run to you every time a minor disagreement comes up.

Lastly, remember that not all employee conflict is a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t escalate too far. Sometimes differing opinions can be a way to challenge the status-quo and think of creative ways of doing things differently.

For additional information on managing conflict or other farm human resources topics, see the UW Extension web resources at Becoming the Employer of Choice.

Jim Versweyveld

Versweyveld is the Agriculture Extension Educator for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Division of Extension in Walworth County.