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Channeling the Power of Activism Inside Your Company

The answers are rarely black and white, but here’s what I’ve learned about harnessing people’s passion towards purposeful work. 

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A year ago, Dyson shifted production from vacuums to ventilators. Sharp went from making LCD TVs to surgical masks. Distilleries and manufacturers everywhere started turning out hand sanitizer.

With the crisis peaking, the question from people inside my own company was: What about us? Should we pivot our own labs from agricultural research to sanitizer production? It would involve turning away from our core mission—setting aside work on one pressing challenge and taking up another equally pressing one. What was the right thing to do?

A year later, this question remains as salient as ever. How exactly do company mandates and social imperatives come together? From global health to climate change to social justice, what lines do we draw when it comes to activism and engagement in the workplace?

The answers here are rarely black and white, but here’s what I’ve learned about harnessing people’s passion towards purposeful work.

Why ‘Apolitical’ Isn’t the Answer

Politics sometimes get lumped in with money and religion as dangerous territory in the office. But the impulse to shut it down isn’t the answer.

Take Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong’s attempt to keep his company apolitical. In a blog post that went viral, Armstrong said employees should work elsewhere if they wanted to be activists. But that stance drew criticism from other tech leaders and alienated large parts of his team.

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Ultimately, this approach overlooks key realities. First, even if employees aren’t talking about these issues, they’re still thinking about them, which has real repercussions in terms of focus, performance, retention and more. Moreover, even doing nothing—ignoring “politics” altogether—is tantamount to taking a stand for the status quo.

That’s why, while it’s not always comfortable, it’s imperative that leaders provide space for expression and discussion. “Space” risks being reduced to an empty buzzword these days, but at its heart, it means making sure your team feels psychologically safe and has openings to raise issues and concerns.

At our weekly all-hands meetings, for example, we reserve time for open questions and discussion. Taking a page from companies like Shopify and Google, we’ll have “Ask Anything” sessions with leadership to foster internal dialogue. Team members can also anonymously submit questions, see others’ questions and upvote the ones they’d like to hear answers to.

The goal is to let people feel heard while giving them a safe platform to talk about the issues that are on their mind. But the process doesn’t end there. Providing space for dialogue is different than committing to action. For that next step, a different matrix comes into play.

Find a Common Cause

Of all the causes to address, which do you pursue as a company? And what’s the best course of action? To me, the answers have to start with company mission and values.

Our mission is framed around a core question (How can we use technology to unlock the intelligence in nature?) and goal (to reduce the global synthetic pesticide load by 80 percent). Having a clear mandate like this provides a North Star to rally employee activism around. In our case, the application of technology to global problems is what we do. So, it only made sense to act in the face of COVID-19.

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From there, it’s a question of how. Here’s where Ancient Greece—and the practice of stoicism—proves handy. Often misunderstood, the Stoics weren’t indifferent as much as archly pragmatic, committed to expending energies where they would have maximal impact.

What does that mean for us? Rather being overwhelmed by the enormity of the world’s problems, our energy is better spent on actions we can take. For me, this starts with asking three questions. What’s in my span of direct control? What’s in my sphere of influence? And what’s completely out of my control? Dwelling on the latter leads to stagnation and negativity, whereas focusing time and effort on what we can do leads us forward. Ultimately, this approach helps foster a culture of pragmatic altruism: doing good and doing what’s possible.

In our case, this meant that instead of shutting down our lab and turning it into an antibacterial bottling station, we tapped our own technology to help. Working as part of a collaborative project, we used our artificial intelligence capabilities to identify future mutations of the coronavirus and predict outbreaks. In the end, the best thing we could do to help solve the world’s big problems was to do what we do best.

The Benefits of Investing in Your Team’s Passion

At the end of the day, companies that find ways to channel, rather than suppress, employee passions stand to reap a very real return.

The impact on recruiting and retention is hard to overstate. Research shows top employees seek jobs where they know their work will make a difference and where their opinions will matter. A recent study found that 94 percent of millennials want to use their skills to benefit a cause and 63 percent said the primary purpose of businesses should be “improving society.”

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An activist spirit has direct bottom-line benefits, too. Study after study has shown that companies with a more diverse workforce out-innovate and out-perform others. To me, there’s no secret here. People who bring passion to causes around them bring that same passion to bear on their job. To suppress passion in one arena is to compromise it everywhere; conversely, fostering passion among your team lifts all boats.

To be clear, workplace conversations about social and political issues aren’t easy; in fact, they’re often challenging and uncomfortable. I’ve experienced this firsthand.

But by opening a space for discussion, you give your team a chance to connect their individual passions with the collective purpose of your company. The result is a more engaged team, a stronger business and, when done well, real steps toward a better world.

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 economics of agriculture. 

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