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People Power: Cell phone rules vs. guides


By Robert Milligan


I recently read an article on cell phone use by farm employees. The article addressed cell phones as a problem requiring written policies, including a disciplinary process. It suggested on-the-job cell phone use could be a reason for immediate dismissal. The more I thought about the article, the more frustrated – even angry – I became. 

Why? First, a cell phone should be looked at as a communication opportunity rather than a problem. Second, the approach in the article clearly portrayed a ruled-based approach to supervising employees.

The situation is an opportunity to clearly illustrate the difference and superiority of a relationship-based approach for supervising employees. The key issues are autonomy, “chalking the field” and problem identification.



Experts agree empowered, productive, developing, motivated employees require:

1) autonomy – the need to be in control, making decisions about their work. 

2) relatedness – the need of human beings to relate to those around them.

3) competence – the need to have confidence he/she can excel in the job.

Every position on a dairy can be structured to provide these to employees. 

The most challenging of the three, especially for first-line employees, is autonomy. Autonomy allows employees to use the three attributes human beings uniquely possess: 1) They can think and make decisions; 2) they can ask questions and provide input; and 3) they can feel (have emotional responses).

Making decisions so they feel in control of their work – autonomy – is an important way  employees derive meaning from their work. Meaning precedes motivation.

It is not always clear how to provide autonomy to first-line employees, i.e. milkers using standard operating procedures. What decision can they make on their own? But how about cell phone use? Why can’t employees make decisions about when cell phone use is beneficial to the business? 

To make good decisions, employees must have competence and commitment. These two requirements lead us to the next two sections.


‘Chalking the Field’

Many of us watched the Olympics. What must athletes know to make great decision? The answers are the score and rules of the game. 

How does this relate to a cell phone use decision? The score in sports is the criteria for decision-making. For cell phone use – like most decisions – the criteria are not as clear as in sports. The criteria are, however, just as important. For cell phone use, the employee must understand what the farm is seeking to accomplish – the vision, values, goals and performance expectations.

What are the rules of the game for cell phone use? The answer is the cell phone use policy of the dairy farm. As you know, I call this “chalking the field.” 

“Chalking the field” contributes clarity to autonomy when it includes: a clear  explanation of every detail; the importance and need for expectations; opportunities to ask questions and provide input; and detailed descriptions (policies, manuals, job descriptions) accessible to the employee.

A rule-based policy provides clarity. It does not, however, contribute to autonomy – employee decision-making.

We know employees can abuse a cell phone policy even when it is clearly stated. That takes us to the second requirement for autonomy: commitment.



The second requirement for autonomy is that the employee is committed to making decisions in the best interest of the business. In this case, cell phone use decisions are made in the best interest of the dairy, not on the personal desires of the employee.

Every employee begins a new job with a high level of excitement and commitment to doing a good job. Why do employees lose commitment, instead of becoming increasingly committed to the success of the farm? 

It is possible something in the employee’s personal life can cause a reduction in commitment. However, more commonly, the loss results from the behavior of the supervisor or farm leadership: under- or over-supervision, lack of feedback, failure to establish clear performance expectations, or negative feedback when redirection would have been appropriate. The employee feels he/she has been treated unfairly, and commitment declines.

The implications are monumental. If an employee is judged to misuse their cell phone, it is no longer appropriate to simply assume the employee is at fault. Rather, the supervisor must ask the question: What is the cause of the misuse of the cell phone? Is it lack of understanding (competence); lack of commitment, or employee error?



A rule-based approach presumes employees will misuse their cell phone unless there are clear rules and specified discipline.

The alternative is a policy to guide employee cell phone use. The farm leadership/supervisor work continuously to maintain employee commitment to that policy and to the dairy farm business. 

In this approach, cell phone policy misuse results in an analysis of the cause and a discussion with the employee. A rule-based disciplinary procedure would only be used as a last resort.



Robert Milligan is senior consultant with Dairy Strategies LLC. He can be reached via e-mail: rmilligan@trsmith.com ; phone: 651-647-0495; or website: www.dairystrategies.com.