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  • Writer's pictureNeal McIntyre

What Working Cattle Taught Me About People and Conflict


I was born and raised in a very rural, agricultural part of South Georgia surrounded by farmland and pastures. In fact, I still live in the same area on our family farm. My father was one who enjoyed farming and raising cattle while also working a full-time job off of the farm. While I have never been one to find any type of enjoyment or satisfaction in farming, I have enjoyed raising cattle and attending events such as cattle sales, cattle shows, etc.


If you know anything about cattle, you must get the cattle up every so often to work them to treat them for parasites, flies, branding, etc., and other medical-related purposes, such as artificial insemination, pregnancy checks, etc. As a young boy, I generally hated these times as seemed like we always did this whenever it was either very hot or freezing cold. As I got older, I started enjoying these moments more, and now they’ve become a large part of the memories that I have of my father.


Like a lot of things that you mundanely do in life, working cattle never really seemed to have a larger purpose or meaning. It was just something that you did occasionally as something that I thought was essentially checking a box on the to-do list. As I’ve gotten older and reflect to those times, I’ve come to realize that those moments have taught me quite a lot about working with people and resolving conflict.


Before I go much further, I need to make it very clear that I am not in any way comparing people to cattle - as we are supremely more complex creatures. What I am suggesting is that there are lessons or principles learned from working cattle that can be applied to our interactions with others. So by now, you’re probably wondering what these principles are.



Lessons From the Corral


It’s Best to Lead. Gathering cattle up in the corral is often more difficult than you may think. This is mainly because cattle are very perceptive creatures - they can sense when something may be up or different than normal. To help with this, a week or two before we worked cattle, we’d normally start to feed them in the corral to get them accustomed to following us right into the corral itself which helps to reduce their nervousness of going into the penned area. When the day comes to work them, you never drive them towards the corral as they’ll go wild and scatter. Instead, if you lead them, they’ll follow right behind you into the pen. 


People respond better to being led than being driven.

Results are rarely achieved by force. In my younger years, I remember trying to do whatever I could to help rush us through the process of working cattle. When the cattle were in the corral, I’d oftentimes try to rush them into the chute by forcing them along. This rarely worked efficiently as it more often caused the cattle to become more excited, uncooperative, and more difficult to manage. Ultimately, it made our time of working the cattle longer instead of shorter.


People perform better when not threatened or forced.

Be prepared for anything. When you’re working cattle, you have to be aware that anything can happen! There have been plenty of times that I’ve seen spooked cattle either bust through corral panels or jump over them to escape. Then there are times where you have to be prepared for outside interference as I’ve been stung plenty of times by wasps who unknowingly had built a nest inside the opening of the metal cow panel. You also have to keep your head on a swivel as even your most friendly cow can tend to become aggressive when penned up - there have been plenty of times I’ve had to quickly jump up the panels to avoid a charging cow or bull. 


People are emotional beings who respond differently to situations.

There’ll be times when you get hurt. From getting stung by unexpected wasps to being either kicked or headbutted by a cow or bull, there’s always the potential for you to get hurt while working cattle. Even the most docile animal that you have may injure you for the simple fact of being nervous and in a different environment where they do not know exactly what you want them to do. I can’t count how many times my father and I have been bowled over by a charging cow, luckily we were never seriously injured. 


People will disappoint and hurt you even if it’s unintentional.

Everybody communicates differently. While this isn’t as much about the cattle as it is about me and my father’s interactions, people have their own communication styles and manners. Before his untimely death, my father and I had grown very close but if you were within earshot of us while we worked cattle, you’d never have guessed this. Granted, we had become a very good team at working cattle but there were still things that frustrated us. It never failed, when we worked cattle, we’d get frustrated at the cattle, frustrated at ourselves, and frustrated with each other. It wasn’t uncommon for both of us to be yelling, fussing, and cussing at each other while we worked. In spite of the frustrations, we got the job done. What would probably surprise most everyone is that once the job of working cattle was done, my father and I would leave the pen and everything would be normal again between us - no sign at all that we had been yelling, fussing, and cussing at each other for most likely over an hour.


You’ve got to learn how to communicate and connect with those around you.

You’re going to get dirty. I’ve always been a clean freak! In fact, my family has always joked with me about how I can’t stand to get my hands dirty. I’ll admit, I’m a little obsessive-compulsive about that. No matter how many times you’ve worked cattle or no matter how careful you are, you’ll always walk away from it dirty. When it’s dry out, you’re going to get dusty from the dirt that the cattle kicks up. When it’s wet, you’re going to get mud on you. Regardless of the conditions, you’ll always end up with cow crap on you. This is just something that you have to accept and be willing to work through. 


Interpersonal issues are usually messy and dirty, but you work through it with grace.

Some things require a rapid response. As I got older, I guess you could say that I got promoted in working with our cattle. Somehow, I managed to transition from being the one to get the cattle to go into the chute to being the person to work the head-catch gate. I got used to working the head-catch gate but it wasn’t a position that I really enjoyed. It wasn’t bad if you had a cow that was slowly walking up the chute into the head-catch gate and you had plenty of time to close the gate to catch her. The problem was that the slow cow walking up the chute could take off in the blink of an eye and start barrelling down towards the head-catch giving you a fraction of a second to catch her - that’s what I hated as it required instantaneous reaction. If you were just a tad too slow, you’d miss catching the cow and she’d be off in the pasture untreated.


Some interpersonal problems require an immediate response with very limited information.

Enjoy the small things. As hard as it may be to imagine, there are a lot of things about working cattle that I enjoyed and that I miss. Yes, the process was frustrating, messy, and uncomfortable at times but I wouldn’t trade it for anything now. There were things about the process that, looking back, I find enjoyment and pride in but the real enjoyment usually happened in the days and weeks after the difficult time of working the herd. In the days and weeks after, my father and I would check on the herd every day. Sometimes this involved us simply stopping, turning off the truck, and sitting on the tailgate just watching the herd. It was in these moments that we experienced real peace and pride because we knew that the herd was looking and performing phenomenally due to the tough times that we went through working them in the corral. 


Always accept and appreciate the differences, strengths, and weaknesses of those around you.


Conclusion


I never imagined that the lessons I learned while working our cow herd would have prepared me to better interact with others and to resolve conflict but it has. Our relationships with others will, at some point or another, cause us to be disappointed and even hurt. While this may be unintentional, the results are always the same - we feel deflated and stung. In spite of whatever hurt we may experience, it’s important to strive to treat others with respect, compassion, and forgiveness.


There are also certain things and conflicts among people that we simply do not want to know about. Depending on our position with these disputing individuals, we may have no choice but to get involved. In these situations, we have to accept the fact that things will probably be dirty and ugly and that even though we may be trying to help resolve the issue, we may end up getting dirty ourselves simply by association. Yet we still must work through this with the understanding that we can always wash off after everything is settled. 


As organizational leaders, we must get to know our employees and co-workers. We must learn and understand how they communicate, how to connect with them, and how to motivate them. I’ve worked with several supervisors who tried the old threats and intimidation tactics to get people to perform effectively and efficiently - this doesn’t work and it creates a very toxic work culture. As an effective leader, we’ve got to motivate those around us without creating an environment where we’re forcing or driving people to perform.


Maybe it would be beneficial for every organizational leader to gain experience working cattle. If anything, they’d quickly learn that you never want to be positioned on the south end of a northbound bull as nothing good comes from being there! Yet that’s where a lot of executives try to lead their organization from.


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