Farming strategies redefined by the people factor

Australian farmers are leaders in technology adoption and production efficiency, however, when it comes to understanding the "people factor" in management decisions the agriculture industry trails behind.

The study of decision-making psychology is common in government and corporate areas, farming is "behind the eight ball", the Department of Primary Industries rural resilience officer, Ted O'Kane said at a decision making workshop hosted by the Upper Lachlan Landcare grazing group.

Introducing the "people factor" in decision making (L-R) Ted O'Kane, Paul Hewitt and Ruth Aveyard. Photo: Clare McCabe.

Introducing the "people factor" in decision making (L-R) Ted O'Kane, Paul Hewitt and Ruth Aveyard. Photo: Clare McCabe.

Research conducted by the Grains and Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) is "valuable". The research is in the role of emotion, intuition and personality types and farm management decision-making.

"For most of the past 150 years, agricultural research and education has focused almost entirely on production with little or no attention paid to the social and human influence on the success of farm businesses."

This is starting to change. 

The GRDC research showed that the only real difference between the top 20 per cent of farmers, and the rest of their industry, was the ability to consistently make more well-informed decisions in a timely manner.

"The GRDC's work has changed the focus from purely production and the idea that people will always make logical decisions. 

"The traditional rural culture of stoicism and independence makes it hard to convince farmers that they will be better managers if they get in touch with their emotional side and the human stuff," he said.

The research shows it is not possible to make even a simple decision without emotional input.

While, emotions are essential to reference experience and avoid lengthy analysis of complex information, they can be misleading and should be treated with caution and self-awareness.

Mr O'Kane uses a simple explanation, "emotions are simply a response to something we care about."

Farmers have an emotional connection with their land - held by successive generations - livestock and farms are obvious emotional drivers. 

These attachments can be problematic, particularly at times of chronic stress, such as drought. 

Mr O'Kane said that this response had manifested itself in a form of "decision paralysis".

"Some farmers put off the hard decisions until it was too late."

Mr O'Kane is a former farmer, he said, that farming is a complex and volatile business and factors outside of the farmer's control, such as the weather and market, are in itself a form of stress.

"We can have influence on how we respond to stress, and the other human factors, by understanding the role that our emotional and mental state have in all of the decisions that we make."

Short episodes of stress are beneficial to deal with immediate challenges, however, prolonged, or chronic stress, and the physiological response can have negative impacts. 

The physical and mental response can impede the ability of clear vision, and making sound and informed decisions. 

Mr O'Kane said, there were many factors which influence our choices and decisions: personality or temperament type; thinking style; social context; peer norms; drug and alcohol use and; lack of sleep.

"Decision making is not an exact science, some might say it's a slippery art, but, there are many ways we can improve our skill level and our chances of making better decisions. If we are more aware of the many subtle, sometimes unconscious, processes that form our thinking.

"Evolution has produced hundreds of mental shortcuts to help us survive... they are mostly helpful, but not always."

To assume that farmers are good at making decisions, even if they make common complex decisions and manage risk, is flawed logic, he said.

"Just like pasture assessment or livestock breeding, we need to see decision making as a skill and make an effort to get better at it. If we want to survive and thrive in an increasingly difficult farming environment."

A tool to build that skill is the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI) - used by government and business - to identify different thinking preferences and how these influence human behaviour.

The HBDI tool identifies an individual's preferred way of approaching problems, and decisions, while indicating areas that were sometimes avoided.

The rural resilience program is qualified to use the HBDI process with farmers and rural business to assist them identify strategies to improve management in communication, problem solving and decision making.