Understanding Courageous 
Communication

By Kraig Peel, Ph.D

              Last month’s article centered around creating a positive culture in your agricultural operation. This month I want to discuss how to change and maintain a culture where employees want to work for you. 
My experience managing ranches afforded me the best classroom where I learned many important lessons. As a faculty member at Colorado State University (CSU),  I was fortunate for the freedom and opportunity to develop a master’s degree program---designed just for managers of agricultural operations. The degree program had many contributors and we were all working toward the same goal of helping people become better managers. 
           I taught the first course in the program at CSU designated to lay the foundation for the program. I struggled to find materials and or books we could use that would be beneficial and appropriate.
There are pickup loads of self-help books on the market and while I searched through the many volumes of  books to help managers, I finally concluded that   most of the books focused on how to manipulate your people to do what you want them to do. My past experiences has taught me that manipulation will only get you so far and definitely will not get you to greatness. Greatness is accomplished when everyone is committed to the same goal and the success of the operation. My text search culminated with a book called Courage, the backbone of leadership, written by Gus Lee.  
            Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. 
           After I found Lee's book I discovered he lived in Fort Collins. I contacted him and we became good friends. For five semesters, he contributed to the campus-based course for graduate students. 
The course has been taught online for seven years and the feedback from students is always the same: “This was not a course, this was a change of life!” The content in the book resonated with me so strongly that I quit looking for anything else. I am not saying it is better than Good to Great or the other 10 top sellers, but it is different and I feel like it fits our agriculture better than the books that are focused on Fortune 500 companies. The rest of this column is the result of what I learned from Lee's book.
          I often ask people, “What is the opposite of courage?” The most common answer is "cowardice" but I believe the opposite of courage is "apathy."
         As managers, often we do not respond to situations in a cowardly manner but instead, we just don’t say or do anything. When we do not respond or address a situation, it is likely to worsen.
Last month,  I talked about a dairyman who had some employees he did not deal with and when things finally came to a head, he found those employees were actually hindering his entire operation.  If the dairyman would have addressed issues with his employees, he might have been more productive for several years. Lee calls this "courageous communication." For me, I know it is courageous communication when it is a conversation that I really don’t want to have! Fortunately, this concept goes across work and into personal lives. I have used this with my wife and my kids repeatedly.
          I can speak for myself and the many graduate students and other managers  I have had the privilege of mentoring over the years. The more we practice courageous communication and reject the easy route of apathy, the easier it becomes to have the tough conversations. When hard conversations come up regularly in an organization, I have witnessed the development of trust and accountability past anything that is forced, based on a formula. Employees start to trust the manager and understand  they are committed not only to the organization but also to the employee. When this type of relationship develops, it becomes a teamwork atmosphere and everyone knows all are held to the same standard. This prevents the perception of favoritism and again, fosters teamwork. 
          I have been fortunate for the opportunity to apply these principles in a multitude of settings with many different personality types. The result continues to be successful. When employees are committed to the organization, the bottom line will always be better.
          Next month I will address how to develop the standard and discuss how managers set the tone on every operation.