Cowboys are people too.

While you’re trying to wrap your mind around that concept, consider this: “Communication is the key word,” says Jen Livsey of Corpus Christi, TX. “Employees like to know what they are (supposed to be) doing, how well they are doing at it, and why they are doing it.”

And, remember, mind reading is not a form of communication.

Livsey, who works as a drought insurance specialist in the Farm Credit System, recently completed a master’s degree at the King Ranch Institute of Ranch Management at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, where she analyzed employee management on large ranches. While that’s been exhaustively studied in other sectors, there was previously no information specific to large ranches.

In her study, Livsey surveyed 15 of the top 25 largest ranches in the country, all managed by a non-family member. The survey analyzed employee management from both the general manager’s and the cowboy’s perspective.

In broad terms, she learned that while monetary incentives are important, ranch employees value clarity and communication. And, in that regard, the size of the ranch or the number of employees doesn’t really matter.

“Humans want to be valued; they want to feel they’re a part of something bigger than themselves,” she says. “Most people want to do a good job and they want to be clear on what it is they’re doing. I think those three points – what, how and why – translate to any size of business, including family ranches.”

Engaged employees

In short, communication means feedback from the manager or owner. Getting that feedback is part of making employees feel engaged, that they’re a part of something they can be proud of.

However, there were differences between general managers and cowboys on what “engagement” really means. “One thing that was surprising is that employees, on average, rated themselves as more engaged than the general managers rated their employees,” Livsey says.

In her mind, it’s communication. “For a general manager, an engaged employee ideally does XYZ. In an employee’s mind, unless he’s told differently, it’s showing up for work and completing his tasks for the day.”

However, true employee engagement goes beyond that. “It’s problem solving or offering a new solution or bringing something to attention that needs to be fixed,” Livsey says. Unless the manager communicates that expectation to employees, it’s not generally going to happen.