Agronomists as drivers of practice change
Author: Cam Nicholson (Nicon Rural Services) | Date: 27 Feb 2018
Call to action / take home messages
As an agronomist, temperament typing is a valuable tool to help make you more effective in the advice you give.
To use this skill effectively you need to:
- Identify your own temperament type;
- Develop observation and questioning skills to identify your client’s temperament types; and
- Learn how to adapt your advice to better match the clients’ temperament.
The effectiveness of an agronomist is strongly influence by the connection and rapport made with the client. I imagine we all have clients that we click with, where our advice seems to strike a chord and adoption follows. Yet we may also have had interactions with other growers, that no matter how hard we try, the message just doesn’t seem to get through. Why might this be the case?
Part of reason may be the ‘pitch’ we use in conveying the information. Work in the Southern Grain and Graze program examined how temperament influenced the messages received by the grower and how creating a range of ‘products’ and approaches around the same message, and then using the most appropriate one based on their temperament, could improve the effectiveness of uptake.
Temperament is the combination of the mental, physical and emotional traits of a person that shapes how they learn and communicate, make decisions and consider risk. For a farmer these traits ultimately reveal themselves in how they farm. A neat workshop or gates that don’t swing or tracks with potholes that have been driven around many times are all indications of the temperament of that farmer. So are the comments they make in conversation, both about the farm but also other non-farming or family matters.
Rod Strachan first discussed how ‘skewed’ rural temperament types required a rethink of how the research and advisory sectors engage with farmers (Strachan, 2011). After extensive testing of more than 3000 farmers across Australia, he described a unique farming culture that was markedly different to the wider Australian population. Information collected by Strachan and colleagues using Myers Briggs Type Indicators (MBTI) was further refined to describe four distinct temperament types (based on Kiersey, 1987). Additional investigations, although nowhere as in-depth as Strachan, were conducted around the agricultural advisory sector, one retail organisation and natural resource management personnel (Nicholson, 2017; Nicholson & Long, 2015) (table 1).
Table 1. Distribution of temperaments in selected rural industries, advisors and the Australian population
Beef farmers (n=1,336)
Cropping farmers (n=1,418)
Crop advisors (n=123)
NRM facilitators (n=185)
Australian sample (n=19,994)
SJ = Sensing, judging, SP = Sensing, perceiving, NT = Intuitive, thinking, NF = Intuitive, feeling.
The data showed about 80% of farmers were the ‘SJ’ or ‘SP’ types. These are people who like detail. They focus on the present and what is real and concrete. They like to learn using all five senses and work through problems from the beginning, progressing in a logical, incremental and sequential way. While they like to see facts they trust their intuition, local examples of success and past experiences to inform their learning. You would describe them as practical and down to earth, if not a bit conservative. Importantly they are inclined to resist change, or only change once there is good reason to do so.
The remaining ‘N’ types (NT, NF) jump in the deep end, motivated by the possible outcome, big results and what could be. The details get worked out as they go. They value innovation, can be speculative and are imaginative, liking theories and possibilities. They learn by connecting patterns or bits of the jigsaw. They are future focused.
Table 1 also shows a distinct difference between the ‘support fraternity’ and the farmers they are potentially engaging with. While the sample size is small and may be biased because of who participated in the surveys, it does show a proportional skew compared to the farming population they are likely to be engaging with.
Rarely does a person’s temperament neatly fit into one of these four types. There are always grey areas, but people tend to be more dominant in one (or possibly two) types. Further there is no better or worse type. They all have their strengths and weaknesses.
So why does this matter? Primarily because our default or natural tendency is to approach learning, communication (advice), decision making and consideration of risk associated with a practice or approach that same way that we would like to. By recognising the different temperament types we are engaging with, our approach can be modified to better match the client.
More on the four temperament types
Undertaking the complete MBTI analysis takes about one hour (Briggs Myers, 1980) and results in 16 possible personality descriptions. Personality type can then be condensed into one of four temperament groups (Keirsey 1987), but relies on completing the initial MBTI. Shorter but less comprehensive approaches are available but still take time and are often intrusive on the audience.
The Grain and Graze program (Nicholson & Long, 2015; Nicholson et al, 2015) has taken the MBTI approach and temperament typing to create four descriptions, and colloquial names, that can be used by advisors to quickly align behaviours they observe in their clients with a temperament type (table 2).
Table 2. Description of the four temperament types
They are proud of the industry they work in and believe what they do is of great value and service to the community. They like being called a farmer and achieve great satisfaction from growing products that look and taste good.
Dependables have a strong work ethic. They value consistency and routine, often getting pleasure out of doing the same task day after day until the job is done e.g. shearing, sowing, harvest. They are careful and value reliability, consistency, loyalty, security and order, so tend not to ‘rock the boat’ and protest. If they don’t like something they simply don’t participate. They like to be helpful and will often involve themselves in the local community through sport, services e.g. fire brigade or local committees, but more as a helper than a leader.
Their skills include attention to detail, reliability and a capacity to work to a deadline. They like solid facts and are good at developing policies and procedures. They dislike change for change sake, but will take on new innovation once it has been tried and tested and a process or guideline has been developed, usually by the pioneers. They are more risk averse than the other groups.
If you visit their farm, most are likely to have a shadow board in the workshop with the tools neatly arranged in their place. A whiteboard will show the jobs list and this is marked off as completed. Machinery is neatly parked around the sheds, most gates swing and the woolshed is tidy after shearing is over.
They like to be provided with a detailed plan from their adviser. Being clear about things like pesticide or fertiliser rates is important to them and will double check the detail. They like to have a contingency plan for alternatives like an early or late break.
Doers like farming but don’t hold the same level of consistency and routine of the Dependables. They like to jump into things and get them done even if all the detail hasn’t been sorted out. It is common to see them with multiple activities on the go at any one time, many of which will not be finished.
They work hard, often at a frantic pace but generally have a good sense of timing. They are more likely to take on new ideas, are at their best when the pressure is on and don’t mind taking risks. They will do whatever works for a quick and effective payoff even if they have to ignore convention and rules.
They are good with detail, realistic, open minded and fairly tolerant but are impatient with theories and abstractions.
They also have a shadow board in the shed, but not all the tools are in their place. However they usually can put their hands on what they need when they need them. Machinery will often be in pieces, taking a part off one implement to put on another so the job gets done. Enjoying practical hands on activities, they are likely to favour spending time in the technical aspects of farming such as fixing machinery, building fences and making things. They like working in the business not on the business.
While they still value the detailed plan from the adviser, they don’t follow it as closely as the Dependables.
Pioneers will try almost anything and will often be the first in the district to try something new. While they love getting their teeth into the start up, they have to concentrate to sustain interest once the project is past the design phase.
Pioneers are consistently good at generating new ideas. Their strengths include problem solving, strategic planning and understanding complex systems. They see patterns in complexity and are the innovators of new technology. Their potential weakness is failing to focus on the needs of other people because they are too wrapped up in the next thing.
The Pioneers are likely to have several projects on the go at once, this may show up as an untidier farm yard. They will often have trials on their property; evaluating new products or ideas. They are often the first in the district to try something new such as a new crop or pasture. Gates often don’t swing, the woolshed still has the oddments from shearing lying about and there are a lot of ‘I must get around to that’ jobs to do.
When working with advisers they will talk conceptually about the plan for the year, identifying the goals and outcomes and are not so interested in the detail of the plan, as they will work it out as they go along. The adviser will often find the plan they prepared has changed since their last visit.
Team builders are genuine people with integrity. They are always trying to reach their goals without compromising their personal code of ethics. They speak mostly of what they hope for and imagining what might be possible.
They tend to focus on the people needs of a business or community and make great community leaders. They support inclusive decision-making and firmly believe the strength of the business lies in the people. Their strengths include developing a vision and empowering others to join them. They often avoid conflict, strive for harmony and may ignore problems in the hope that they will go away. Team builders are more likely to recognise the sometimes difficult role women can experience in farming businesses and where conflict can arise. They recognize the differences between genders and work to accommodate these.
Team Builders with staff will like their adviser to visit early in the week so activities can be planned to ensure the staff have family time on the weekend. It’s important to them to have a harmonious team and value social events to show their appreciation.
An alternative (fun) approach has been to use a series of photo cards that depict the types of behaviours described in the four temperament types. Usually only 5 photos of each temperament type is required to enable some determination to be made. An example of each of the four temperament types is provided (figure 1) and the full set is available by contacting the authors.
Figure 1. Examples of images for the ‘SJ’ (dependable) top left, ‘SP’ (doer) top right, ‘NT’ (pioneer) bottom left and ‘NF’ (team builder) bottom right.
Adapting the message
Once the temperament type is known, advisors need to recognise the subtle differences required to extend the same message but by using different approaches. Suggestions on some possible ways to enhance engagement are taken from Nicholson and Long, 2015 (table 3), along with an illustration on how the insights from table 3 can be applied using integrated weed management as a topic.
Table 3. Four broad temperament types and key considerations for enhanced engagement
Key considerations that may enhance engagement
Example: Weed resistance issues
Consider a cropping operation that is beginning to encounter major herbicide resistance problems because of the over reliance on repeated use a small number of chemical groups. The grains industry (who are usually represented by ‘N’ temperament types), see the likely solution in an integrated approach to weed management (IWM). To achieve this would require some major changes to the practices and possibly the enterprise mix on farms. There is growing experimental data to support the need for change, some good theories about what to do and some useful extension materials.
The four temperament types will respond differently when confronted with this problem (as will some advisors). The same thinking can apply to individuals or if dealing with a group of farmers.
The Dependables and Doers (~75% of the farming population) will struggle to recognise the long term implications of the problem because they tend to focus on detail and not the big picture (tactical not strategic). They would rather work solving today’s challenges than think too much about the future. The long term is too far away and possibly too confronting to think about, so they tend gravitate to dealing with the here and now.
The Dependables are more likely to be focussed on finding the next chemical to hit the market than implementing an IWM program. IWM is just too disruptive and the GRDC should just invest in new chemistry. However the next chemical is the starting point for discussion, because this is where their thinking is at. While exploring what’s new on the horizon, we also discuss how the problem has arisen (not their fault) and that it is a paddock by paddock problem that we don’t have all the answers to. We offer farmers the opportunity to submit some of their own samples for resistance testing (this creates ownership of the problem) to determine the extent of the issue we are facing.
Once the results are available, a further discussion is held to examine the findings and their meaning. At this discussion some simple alternative strategies such as annual fodder crops, crop topping or green manure crops may be raised, as this is relatively easy to try and reversible if it doesn’t work. For both the findings and alternatives, we discuss their past experiences with these alternative strategies and anecdotal stories of resistance. To test these ideas we think are worthy (even if some may not work to learn from as they are strong experiential learners), we offer to set up a small trial of different fodder options (strips in a paddock) and do some basic monitoring that are observed over time. As we reflect on the results, we look to take the next small step towards change.
A slightly different approach is used with the Doers compared to the Dependables. Elements such as weed resistance testing are included, but we talk up the ‘crisis’ element of the problem and that a solution will require us to think differently and take a punt (appeals to their greater appetite for risk and solving ‘in the moment’ problems). We present a few ideas of what others who have faced similar problems are using e.g. windrow burning, chaff carts, crop topping and invite them to a meeting we organise where speakers from outside the district will talk about what they have done. A short trip follows.
At a debriefing from the presentations and trip, we ask who would be willing to try a paddock with an alternative approach. We offer to undertake some monitoring of things like weeds and dry matter production so we can quantify the effect of the treatment. Results are discussed with the individual but we also hold a follow up meeting where the experiences of individuals are shared with others. Particular emphasis is placed on how we could make these ideas work at the whole farm level. A few shining lights are approached to talk to members of the dependable group.
For the Pioneers and Team builders we start with the problem, warts and all and the long term implications to their farming business. We discuss where we need to get to (the goal) and some high level strategic approaches that might help us get there. We act as an investigator, finding out about different approaches the farmer thinks may work. We avoid designing a solution for them, instead feeding in ideas, testing and critiquing the approaches they are formulating. For the Team builders our questioning also includes asking about the reactions of other people in their business to the possible changes being proposed e.g. bringing sheep back onto the property.
We make a commitment that their pioneering endeavours are not lost to the industry by capturing their ‘journey’ in a case study that can be used by others. We also make contact within the industry to make sure key decision makers know about what is happening (good news story) but also so they can shape the investment agenda.
Using temperament typing in agriculture is relatively new, but early experience through the Grain and Graze program suggests it has potential to greatly enhance the interaction between farmers, advisors and organisations that invest in extension activities.
An important aspect will be to better understand the temperament type of the advisory sector so appropriate activities can be conducted to tailor any potential knowledge and skills training that might be offered.
Briggs Myers I (1980), Gifts Differing, Understanding Personality Type. Davies–Black Publishing, Mountain View, California.
Keirsey D (1987). Portraits of Temperament. Del Mar California USA. Prometheus Nemisis Book Co.
Nicholson C, Long J (2015). Using temperament typing to improve your approach with clients. Rural Extension and Innovation Systems Journal. 11 (1) 144-151.
Nicholson C (2017). Understanding advisor temperament type. GRDC internal report.
Nicholson C, Long J, England D, Long B, Creelman Z, Mudge B, Cornish D (2015). Farm Decision Making: The interaction of personality, farm business and risk to make more informed decisions. GRDC Canberra.
Strachan R (2011) Myers Briggs Type Indicator Preferences by Industry and Implications for Extension. In Shaping Change: Natural Resource Management, Agriculture and the Role of Extension. Australasia Pacific Extension Network. Eds: Jennings J, Packham R and Woodside D.
The work undertaken as part of the Grain and Graze program is made possible by the significant contributions of growers through the GRDC. The author would like to thank them for their continued support.
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