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How to inspire your team during a crisis without falling into toxic positivity

The CEO of an agriculture tech company shares techniques for leaders and their teams to find genuine reasons for optimism.

How to inspire your team during a crisis without falling into toxic positivity
[Photo: ijeab/iStock]
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There’s no shortage of things to get us down these days, from a global health crisis to political and social instability to climate change-induced wildfires. As we prepare for a socially distant winter, without the usual rituals and celebrations, spirits may dip and settle into a low mood.

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The onslaught of bad news is so relentless, it begs the question: How do we cope with it all? Fatalism isn’t helpful, but positivity that isn’t grounded in reality is no better, and can actually poison your expectations.

As a leader, the past six months have brought home for me how much my own mental state affects my team and vice versa. Pretending everything is fine isn’t effective when we’re all going through serious disruption. Moreover, diving into work as a way to cope can only last for so long.

Fortunately, I’ve found a few strategies to manage the onslaught of challenges of this year. They may not be perfect, but they’ve helped me find hope and real opportunity, as well as genuine reasons to be optimistic, for myself and my company going forward.

Drop the “business as usual” act

When the pandemic struck in March, there was a pervasive sense of panic. We couldn’t help but feel anxious as we tuned in to government press conferences and watched as our world-as-we-knew-it turned upside down.

My first instinct was to work through it. I scheduled myself into meetings every minute of every day—even scheduling in times in evenings and weekends. I didn’t make time to sleep in, read a book, or give myself a spare minute to just do nothing. It worked for a while, until it suddeny didn’t.

Mounting stress can only be subdued for so long before it eventually erupts. Unfortunately, my burnout caught up with me at one of my company’s team-wide meetings. Instead of helping ground the team by making space and listening, I was unfocused and short-tempered. I ended up putting everyone even more on edge.

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At the time it felt like a disaster, but it led to a personal reckoning that changed my outlook. To paraphrase child psychologist and educator Haim Ginott, I suddenly realized that my mood creates the climate in the room—albeit, virtually. My response determined whether I escalated or de-escalated the crisis, whether I’d be a “tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.” If I wanted to be the latter, I had to be healthy enough to lead.

Focus on what you can control

After that tumultuous day, I cleared my calendar and caught up on rest, exercise, and meditation. I also doubled down on my commitment to support the mental health and wellness of every employee via our employee assistance program, and ensured our entire team took a wellness day as a reminder that taking time off is encouraged. In the soul-searching that followed, I identified three key questions that I’m using now to help me keep a cooler head: What is in my span of direct control? What is in my sphere of influence? Finally, what is completely out of my control?

With the intensity of today’s concurrent crises, it’s easy to get caught up in doubt, but ultimately, your energy is better spent on action. When you zone in on what you can change or influence, filtering out the rest, your field of vision narrows to things you can look forward to and express hope over. Once I made this shift, I was better able to be the kind of leader I wanted to be and the moment called for.

Use specific “filters” to help prioritize and boost spirits

To find a personal balance and a framework for moving forward in a healthy, positive way, I reached out to our team, including board members, and senior staff, to come up with a new way of approaching our work together. The result was four “filters of focus” to help our team make decisions and shape our collective outlook.

First, we consider the health and safety of our team and their families. That means ramping up wellness supports, encouraging people to make use of vacation time, and creating an atmosphere where people feel safe speaking up and asking for what they need.

Second, we need to make sure we preserve our business continuity and meet our objectives, especially amid a crisis. That means meeting our deadlines and commitments to clients and partners, and focusing on the most important business goals and outcomes.

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Third, we made the decision to pursue initiatives that we are uniquely positioned to address in response to the pandemic. Honing in on areas where we were best positioned also helped strengthen the pursuit of our company purpose. For example, we could have pivoted to making hand sanitizer, but we saw an opportunity to contribute something from our wheelhouse. My company has expertise in computational chemistry, so we lent our skills in machine learning and AI to modeling COVID-19 mutations.

Lastly, the final filter is preparing for growth and future opportunities. Our company’s mission is to protect plant and human health and ensure an Earth that thrives and provides for everyone. The September wildfires are a stark reminder that addressing climate change is still an imperative. Even once we’ve figured out how to live with the virus, the public-health impacts of climate change could be even worse if we don’t continue to work on solutions. In recent months, we’ve created a proposal in order to better support farmers with tools, while aiding agriculture to build economies and meet climate goals.

This big-picture thinking wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t found a way to reconnect to our core goals and the role we can play in creating a better future as an organization.

There’s no getting around the fact that the world is in a tough spot. This year has demonstrated that change is the only certainty, and we’re not out of the woods yet. No doubt there will be more challenges to overcome. But having a structure in place (and focusing on the things within your control and the difference you can make) will set up you and your team to weather this enduring storm.


Karn Manhas is the CEO and founder of Vancouver-based Terramera, a global agtech leader fusing science, nature, and artificial intelligence to transform how food is grown and the workings of agriculture economics.