Farming with a “Toddler”

When you’re a successful farmer, you shape your world. It’s your job to level mountains and create new ones by sheer determination. You have many employees who work for you – and when you say “jump,” they say “How high?”

Salesmen and service providers take the same attitude because they want your business.

You’re the boss. Dinner is served at home at whatever time you want it and not to mention where you want it. (God bless those farm wives.) Your world becomes based on how you want it. This is the world of a successful businessman or woman. The closer your reality becomes aligned with your goals, the more successful you are. This may sound familiar and feels like life is pretty awesome, but … every profession comes with a vice.

For instance, most salesmen become challenged by alcoholism at some time in their careers because it’s their job to drink alcohol while entertaining clients and making sales.

But what is the vice many successful farmers face? It’s narcissism.

The Toddler Way

Sigmund Freud made an analogy of narcissism to childlike behavior – and I don’t mean the innocent kind. Toddlers demand things and want them instantly or they’ll throw a temper tantrum. Or they play victim and dish a platter of flattery until they get their way. They feel like this is only right because they are the only ones who matter and their needs are more important than anyone else’s. This not only describes a 2-year-old but the worldview of a narcissist – except they are 2 years old going on 36 or even 63. Narcissism is the mental disorder of “you.” People with this disorder are arrogant, self-centered, manipulative and demanding. They are convinced they deserve special treatment. They have difficulty tolerating criticism or defeat. Sometimes it’s not fun to be around them.

As a business owner, when you tell everyone what to do daily and the farm becomes your fiefdom that rotates around your commands, it is very easy to fall into this mental trap. This is a serious occupational hazard for many farmers. That is because it is hard to be in a partnership, or even a family relationship, with anyone who acts like a toddler. Many farming partnerships and marriages are falling apart because of this.

Every farmer has a weakness that, if transformed into a strength, would make a farm 10 times better. Some farmers are procrastinators, and others have anger management issues. It doesn’t matter what the character flaw is – everyone has flaws and, if they are improved upon, the business culture would be better.

The Blame Game

Most mediators will come to a farm where the family has problems, get everyone around the kitchen table and then play a game of survivor. Everyone starts throwing blame at each other for everyone else’s problems, with someone getting voted off the island. A decade ago, I got called out to a farm to “fix my son” who had an irrational temper. The father spent a solid half-hour giving me examples of his son’s poor behavior. After talking to the farmer’s daughter and wife separately, the truth came out that Dad had a short temper too. Essentially, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Doesn’t describe anyone in your family, does it?

Instead of having the two men sit down and argue for several hours about who had more of a short temper, leading to irreparable words and tears, I came up with the solution: “Let’s not throw stones but just admit that a few family members share a short temper, and over the next 90 days we are going to try to support each other on fixing this family’s bad habit.” (This is a methodology often used in helping people quit smoking.) It was a five-minute discussion with a challenge everyone accepted, and 90 days later it was a different business environment. Over two years, this family took on a new challenge each quarter and made eight character changes to their family business culture. The day I showed up, Mom’s bags were sitting by the door, and today that family is a positive place to thrive. The emphasis was on self-improvement rather than throwing of stones.

I learned about this method by accidental experience, but it’s the hallmark of what I do now. I’ve used this method of continuous improvement to fix about any family problem under the sun. However, narcissism has eluded me for a while. That is because if you are truly narcissistic, you will never truly recognize you are narcissistic. It is the conundrum of the mental disorder. You think getting a drug addict to rehab is tough? Getting a narcissist to admit they have a problem is 100 times harder. It often is impossible to keep a farming partnership together if one person is a narcissist, and this has truly been the challenge of my lifetime. How do you help someone fix a problem they don’t and won’t recognize?

You skin the cat a different way …

As farmers, we are proud to tell everyone about how humble we are. It’s how we see ourselves.

Pride isn’t the sole element of narcissism, but if it was an omelet, this would be the eggs. In a business environment where narcissism is at play, pride is a spin-off problem that many have. The one thing you can get everyone onboard with is the need for humility. Within a successful business environment, everyone can buy into the concept that if everyone was a little bit humbler, the farm would be both a more productive business and a better place to work.

If we applied humility to each tendency of a narcissist, it would look something like this:

  1. They’d stop being arrogant and start seeing other people in the room.
  2. They’d get realistic and start seeing themselves at a human level.
  3. Their need for praise doesn’t rule their lives. They know when they’ve done a good job.
  4. A sense of entitlement is squashed, and they don’t feel like they deserve more than they earned.
  5. They don’t exploit others.
  6. They are able to express empathy and understand and share the feelings of others.
  7. They don’t envy others or believe the neighbors envy them.
  8. They respect personal boundaries.
  9. They are considerate of the value of other people’s time or needs.
  10. They start being grateful for the little wins and appreciate others’ contributions.

If your family can talk about the above 10 points and then pick three points to work on over the next 90 days, it will change your farm. It’s key not to talk about these changes as an accusation, but as an attitude of “If we became better at this, we could go from good to great.” Everyone can get behind that.

For instance, one farm started saying “thank you” and started being more grateful (i.e., started high-fiving) every time they had a little win on the farm. This might seem wishy-washy, but it made at least $100,000 difference. For instance, their milk quality improved with SCC going from more than 300,000 to 180,000 because staff started caring about doing a better job for employers they liked. The day I showed up, they had two employees quit, and they had over a 40% annual staff turnover. They were constantly understaffed, causing training and production problems. A year later, they had only 10% staff turnover. Why? Because two family members went from having narcissistic behaviors and only focused on their needs (thus being miserable to work around) to being focused on their employees’ needs and making everyone they worked with happier. They went from being crabby to being fun to be around.

A Culture to be Proud Of

Being aware of the dangers of narcissism, having an environment in which everyone tries to do the exact opposite is the foundation for creating a farm culture everyone wants to be part of. Whether you have a narcissist on your farm or not, evolving your culture to address this mental disorder will radically evolve your farming environment and take every partner’s character from good to great.

Originally published in Progressive Dairy.