When John Torres stood up before some 50 farmers and agricultural service providers last week, he said he wanted one thing to be clear: “If you were worried about coming here and doing a Dr. Phil and sharing all your emotions, don’t worry. You won’t have to do that.”
Flanked by a projector screen and a Christmas tree, Torres was running a conflict-management workshop for members of Vermont’s farming industry. Dressed mostly in blue jeans and sweaters, his audience had come from all corners of the Green Mountain State. Some tapped away at laptops; others knitted. Nearly all availed themselves of the free coffee, crackers and cheese at the back of the conference room at South Burlington’s DoubleTree Hotel.
True to his word, Torres never solicited an emotional confession from anyone during the workshop — in part because everyone had already done that with him. In advance of the event, all attendees had taken online assessments that included the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a questionnaire that asks a range of hypothetical questions meant to determine your personality type.
After delivering a short lesson on Jungian psychology, Torres, director of leadership development for the American Farm Bureau, handed back the individual results and launched into an explanation of its four main sets of traits. Under the Myers-Briggs rubric, human personalities are marked by these contrasting variables: extraversion-introversion, sensing-intuition, thinking-feeling and judging-perceiving (see sidebar for more information).
The assessment classified Tina Burt, a dairy farmer sitting near the back of the conference room, as an ISFP — an introvert with sensing, feeling and perceiving qualities. In her late thirties, Burt wears many hats as the owner and manager of a 220-head dairy farm in St. Albans: accountant, payroll manager, laborer, equipment operator. While Burt enjoys the solitary nature of the farm work, she acknowledged, “You get so involved with working alone, you almost forget how to work with other people.”
Burt signed up for the workshop, she explained, to help her interact with suppliers and her four employees. Appreciating that her own introversion had been confirmed by the test, she joked, “It’s good to know that there are people as screwed up as I am.”
If anything, Torres set out to destroy that stigma. The E-I axis of the Myers-Briggs tends to be the most controversial, he explained, because our culture places a premium on being outgoing. While extroverts thrive on interaction, introverts can emerge from their solitude with much to offer — unless groupthink drowns out their quiet voices.
On this day, the quiet types had plenty of company.
After a buffet-style lunch of tacos and cornbread, Matt Chaput — an ISTP with a black beard and shaved head — expressed similar frustrations. As the hoof trimmer at Chaput Family Farms, a large dairy farm in North Troy, Chaput’s boss happens to be his second cousin — and an extrovert to boot. Although the farm holds regular meetings for its employees, Chaput doesn’t always go. He only recently trained under a hoof-trimming expert from Wisconsin, and now likes to focus as much as he can on that task.
Sometimes, he blows up when people try to talk to him. “I’m trying to process things I’ve learned,” Chaput said. “My boss said I don’t work so well with people, and I thought it would be educational for me to learn a little about why.” As a youth basketball coach, Chaput added, he has already learned that every member of a team has a different personality.
Louise Waterman, an education coordinator at the state agriculture agency, conceived of the workshop as a way for producers and service providers to understand their personality types, leading to better management practices. To that end, Torres devoted a healthy chunk of the program to the topic of managing conflict.
According to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, another assessment all attendees took ahead of time, there are five ways to manage conflict: competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding and accommodating. After having everyone write down in journals a time they did and didn’t manage to get their way, Torres explained the merits of each approach.
“If it’s not affecting your bottom line, and if it’s not affecting the safety of your organization, do you need to win every time?” Torres wondered aloud, trying to illustrate the need for managers to remain open to their employees. Simultaneously, he warned, too much collaboration can lead to inaction.
The latter point may have been the greatest takeaway for Spencer Welton (INFJ), a self-described “Myers-Briggs junkie” who runs Half Pint Farm in Burlington’s Intervale with his wife Mara (ISTJ) and is president of the Burlington Farmers Market steering committee.
“We hear that collaboration is the pinnacle all the time,” Welton said, “but it’s meaningful to hear that it can be cumbersome.”
In the 20 years they’ve been together and the 11 years they’ve managed a farm, the Weltons said they’ve invested significant effort in understanding each other and the personalities of their two employees.
Nevertheless, Spencer Welton said, “it still takes events like this to beat it into me.”