It’s not ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to team building on the farm

It might seem something only office workers should waste their time on, but team building fits farming too

The options are endless. Companies send their employees out rock climbing. They hire fancy consultants to host trust-building days. They send their executive boards fly fishing, or arrange a day of more traditional community service work where everyone can work side by side and roles are often reversed.

Less adventurous businesses can even do the traditional with a golf tournament or company picnic.

But on the farm? Really?

Although it may seem very modern, the idea behind team building actually dates back to research from the 1920s. Over time, however, it has evolved from a general objective of improving interpersonal and social interaction among team members to paving the way for measurable progress on important goals and tasks.

Jolene Brown, a farm business consultant and farmer from Iowa who regularly speaks and consults in Canada likes to use a sports analogy when describing the ideal farm team. As she puts it, strong team performance starts with (1) a good coach, (2) having the right players in the right positions, (3) everyone knowing and sharing a solid game plan, and (4) regular practice.

Team-building activities are geared to optimizing all of these facets. They can foster team members getting to know each other better, and they can improve communication between team members. They can also help employees work better as a team instead of individually, and help them adapt to change or simply boost morale.

Most importantly, the team must be built on a solid foundation of communication, trust and accountability, says Gordon Colledge, a farm adviser in Lethbridge, Alta.

Michel Painchaud, CEO of Painchaud Performance Group in Winnipeg says team-building exercises can be very useful if (and she says it’s a big IF) the exercise has a clearly defined expected outcome. “Don’t do a team-building exercise for the sake of building the team,” Painchaud says. For a team-building activity to be successful, you have to understand what it is that you are trying to accomplish, and you need to select the tool accordingly, she says.

“Each employee’s style should be taken into consideration before a team-building event is selected,” Painchaud says. Otherwise some team members may not be receptive to the activity.

Some managers think a barbecue, bowling or a pizza party are great ideas but your employees may not agree, she explains. “What you think is fun may be painful for others.”

Besides, sometimes it isn’t team building that is really needed, she continues. Sometimes the problem is conflict, so what’s really needed is conflict resolution coaching. Or what’s needed may be a strategic planning session to get everyone on board.

Sometimes having a workshop using a personality assessment tool with a trained facilitator can be a good team-building exercise, continues Painchaud. The important thing is to be clear on what you are trying to accomplish.

Wendy Sage-Hayward, a family enterprise adviser with the Family Business Consulting Group and a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business agrees that team-building exercises are useful when carefully chosen to match the goal.

Activities can vary from fun activities geared to create cohesion and connection between the generations to more serious developmental workshops, Sage-Hayward says. There are many activities available on the Internet, she adds.

It’s important to choose activities that are appropriate for the target group. “I wouldn’t use the same exercises to create cohesion among a multi-generational business that includes children as I would with a board of directors,” she explains.

For example, when Sage-Hayward was working with a multi-generational automotive family business that included children aged seven to 15, she had the family members break into teams to build a Lego car kit. It was an enjoyable activity intended to make meetings fun for the kids and to increase cohesion between the generations, she says.

One of the activities that Brown has used involves having participants work in teams to make the tallest tinker toy tower that they could make in seven minutes. The exercise demonstrates the importance of leadership, communication and teamwork, she says. Some “grow” the tower too fast without building a proper base. Others spend so much time on the base that there is no time for growth.

Kristi Nylen-Burns, one of the owners at Windy Poplars Farm, a cattle and grain farm in Wynyard, Sask., uses team-building exercises at their quarterly owner-operator meetings. “We use the team-building activities to start the meeting off on a lighter note,” she explains.

One of the exercises Nylen-Burns created involves giving two equivalent sets of Lego blocks to each of two teams. The teams had to build a machine which was judged according to criteria such as: Does it do work? Does it perform more than one function? How well did we work as a team?

Points were awarded for each category and each team voted on the criteria. This allowed for honest self-reflection as well as an opportunity to see the merit in someone else’s work (e.g. the creativity, esthetic appeal, functionality, etc.).

“It was both fun and engaging,” says Nylen-Burns who adds that it’s important to have a good understanding of the people who are participating so that the exercise is inclusive. “Ideally you want people turned on and tuned in, not feeling self-conscious or awkward.”

Other ideas and resources can be found on the Internet, including at, where you can search for team-building advice and techniques.

One tactic Colledge has seen work effectively for team building is to take the annual meeting off site to a room at a restaurant or a hotel. “Providing lunch and getting away from the farm helps to develop a common approach with common goals,” says Colledge. It encourages people to work in a more professional manner than they would if they were sitting around the dining room table at home, he explains. One farm family, he says, had a successful team-building result when they took their annual meeting to a hotel with a water slide. They also included a family council meeting to deal with issues relating to the family as a whole.

Richard Cressman, a farm communications adviser in New Hamburg, Ont. finds the challenge when working with farm families is that the issues tend to be similar from family to family, but the uniqueness of the personalities and the situations almost always demands a unique approach for each family.

Cressman says he is always working on team building but it isn’t stuff you’ll find in a textbook. “The central premise to everything I do with families is that you cannot make or hope that someone else is going to change,” Cressman says. “You first need to start with working on yourself and then start to address the big picture.”

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Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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