At some point in my career, I got into a conflict. This was not an ordinary conflict.
Generally, I try my best to avoid conflict. Sometimes I provoke gently. My intent is to get insights. But I only provoke elements within a system that I like and I want to help. Nobody is stupid enough to stick their hand in a hornets nest.
I’m also quick at assessing and taming the situation. Nature of the business. In fact, one of my previous managers had this to say about me, quote: “Adeel diffuses the bomb by injecting humor into situations”. It’s not everyday, that you get to hear about a brown guy who diffuses bombs. That’s what I told my manager at the time and we all got a good chuckle out of it.
So yeah, I avoid conflict, unless someone is being extremely irrational, egoistic or they are pouncing on the under-dog. This particular situation involved almost all of those situation. Plus, there was just too much bigotry for anyone to not do anything about it.
It started with this one individual or maybe a group. I had switched groups and this was a non-technical alien world to me. This individual was someone who could not tolerate professional, objective criticism of their work. Where dissent was an alien entity and had to be eliminated at every opportunity. This was a big problem, because the primary task was to come up with strategies that were supposed to make our operations more resilient. How could we not look at things objectively and try and find faults in them? So ironic. I think, the individual took a cue from the group?
Let’s start with the individual. This individual was a perfectionist. But unfortunately, they stressed out about the wrong things. How the font size should be consistent across the board. What type of font one should be using. This individual even came up with a naming and numbering convention for 200 folders in a shared mailbox that everyone was supposed to leverage. It didn’t make them too happy, if this undocumented structure and rationale wasn’t followed. This individual focused quite well on the details, but they just didn’t have any class. There were a gazillion different small things like that. I’ll spare the details. Oh also, this individual could not understand abstract concepts and wasn’t technically savvy. So they tended to ignore problems in our operations that revolved around technology or were relatively complex. Another big problem.
Overall, there was so much emphasis on the cosmetic aspect of things. That it was inhibiting us from actually focusing on the things that we needed to focus on. We weren’t focusing so much so on the risks. We were focusing on how to make our documents, our sites look clean and professional. As well as how to become more fluent when it comes to the delivery of our sessions. These are not bad things by themselves, but again the focus just wasn’t right.
I was cognizant of the fact that I should not be overtly critical. I realized that there was a couple years of effort, that had gone into coming up with the framework. No matter how cosmetic and unstable it could actually prove to be. Hence, I was extra careful in my choice of words and letting my thoughts be known.
I forgot to mention that this individual was in a Leadership position at the time. Also, they had a history of not being able to control their compulsive behavior. Previously, there was another individual that used to work on the same team and that individual was not treated too well. I’ve been in conversation with this other individual and they told me that they still had trouble delivering meetings. Based on the ‘conditioning’ they had experienced in the past. Unfortunately, I only found out about this a bit later. Meaning, I had already joined that team.
Things were fine for the first 8 months to an year. We all just rolled up our sleeves and did everything we could to support the operations. But as I learned more about the operations, I came to realize that our whole approach was wrong. The whole thing was going to collapse and there were a number of reasons for that. But most importantly, there was only one backup strategy. And we would have literally lost hundreds of thousands of dollars each day, if our strategy failed for any given reason. Talk about ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’.
Initially, we were all working pretty efficiently, whatever that means. There were days where we were putting in 10-12 hour days and did whatever we could to support the operations. Since I am a big believer in open and honest communications. I had even shared some of the information with this individual and they had acknowledged that we need to get our focus away from some of the things we were doing. So that we could buy back our time and focus on the things that we should really be focusing on in the first place. We had huge blind spots in our operations and all of us knew that these are the areas that we should really be focusing on.
The structure and framework of the work that we were supposed to conduct was coming from another team. Don’t want to get into too many details. But let’s just say that it was an extremely bureaucratic framework. It was all theoretical. It was detailed and complex. Follow this methodology and you were guaranteed to fill your day with busy work. Lots of it. However, no one really knew how it contributed towards the bottom line. The bottom line wasn’t based on a dollar value figure. So projects could go on for years on end. There was a ton of scope creep. But most importantly, there was a huge disconnect between the people that were in the weeds (us) and the people who came up with this methodology in the first place.
Oh, it doesn’t end there. The more you peered into things, the more you realized that this was the corporate culture across a significant chunk of the Enterprise. Specially, within the subset of the Enterprise controlled by one senior executive. To highlight defects and to show healthy dissent in doing so, was equal to be labeled as an antagonist. Disciplinary measures would soon follow. At times it felt like someone had taken a page out of 1984. People were genuinely scared to speak what was really on their mind.
Anyhow, coming back to where we started. I realized that this wasn’t exactly the fault of the individual that I have described above. They were just a strong Type-A personality/left brain personality, who were doing what they were told. No problems there.
So I started leveraging and combining my skills as a trained Analyst and I started systematically dissecting the faults with the methodology we were following. The whole thing was broken. It was a huge deal, considering some of the clients this company would service. There were big, glaring gaps all over the place and the focus just wasn’t there. Meaning, the same cosmetic, look good mentality was pervasive on a systemic level. To further compound the problem, there was a culture of complacency when it comes to issues and topics raised by people in the weeds. Meaning, issues raised by Analysts like ourselves. So you had to play the ladder game multiple times each month, just to get traction on non urgent/important items. If the item wasn’t endorsed on the executive level, then no one would even touch it. Eventually, this resulted into a reality where there was a huge disconnect between what was good for the system and how the Analyst saw it (being in the weeds) vs what was actually being done. The methodology became outdated. The meetings were always very unidirectional and people on the other side (Analysts) became increasingly jaded.
I guess I was the only idiot. The only idiot that refused to become complacent and take no for an answer. So, I kept dissecting the methodology and kept finding flaws. But the culture within the overall group, just didn’t tolerate that kind of stuff.
Previously, I had come from a Technical background where these kind of things were cherished and promoted. Navigating the politics in the non-technical world was a completely alien world for me. People spent 60% of their days in meetings here. I really wondered what that was doing to the efficiency in that group. It was a big group.
Over the next couple of months I became obsessed with the mission at hand. We weren’t getting traction on the issues that we needed traction on. So I started looking for something else to chew on. I started doing Enterprise Analysis on my own time and at my own expense. When I am plugged in, then I am plugged in. I tend to get into a zone for an elongated time frame and remain there till the mission is complete. The words relentless singular focus comes to mind. That’s just how I operate.
I had done enough research on the group that I was referring to. So it almost became a weekly thing that I pulled something from my hat and brought it to their attention. It took them 2 months on average to just respond to those queries. The situation was akin to being on a ship. A ship that had structural and safety issues. Then it finally caught fire and everyone was always busy fighting the fires.
We kept doing our busy work and kept exceeding the deadlines.
Soon, I noticed a stark difference in the attitude of this individual that I was referring to. Can’t really blame them for that. Because I was spending a lot of time on research and coming up with stuff that was very antithetical to the kinds of things that were generally discussed. I was spread out pretty thin too. Because I started probing ourselves (team), the wider group and even the Enterprise. Yikes! What was I thinking!??
Then, as if almost overnight, things took a wrong direction.There was an entire series of events. I can’t really recall each one of the events at the top of my head. But, here are some of the things this individual and some of their ‘friends’ said to me. This individual was well-connected across rank and file and had a lot of influence. The following are some of the things that were said to me. I am not making this up:
Upon identifying an image of the Canadian Defense Minister in the elevator, this individual remarked at me “Why would you be interested in Canadian politics”. They paid a special emphasis on the word you. I was caught off guard and couldn’t really think of saying anything. So I just let it slide.
Then, after a couple of weeks and out of nowhere this is what I get to hear “I’m about to unleash a K-9 unit at the cubicle next to me”. This was a conference call and there were 4 or 5 people on this call. This other individual goes to me “Adeel, don’t you sit next to xyz?”. Again, I was stunned. Generally, I would just cast this away as a joke or leverage humor to ridicule what was said. But there was climate change man. I’m not stupid. I could clearly tell from the tone of the voice about what was being said. Shit, I was the ‘enemy of the state’ and this guy wanted to put me in the Abu-Gharaib that he was maybe building in his basement. LOL.
I remained calm and retained my composure. I realized that I was probing the design (how things work) across the board and this sort of stuff should be expected? I thought wrong.
I was caught up between multiple realities. I was pumping out ideas left, right and center on what the Enterprise should be doing. It was astounding, because it felt like the ideas were getting implemented at lightening speed. Almost overnight. Not sure if that contributed towards the animosity from the group that I have mentioned. But, I knew I wasn’t making friends in some circles. And they knew that they couldn’t do anything about the problem I had become for the time being.
I really struggled during this time. Because, previously I had a lot of respect for this individual. Like I said, this individual did not possess technical chops and did not take criticism very well. Plus the inability to completely not get abstract concepts. But, I could fill all those gaps. We made a great team. I was willing to work around that and respect their opinion. I was even willing to coach and mentor this individual. Because I had been exposed to Leadership earlier on.
Clearly both of us had good intentions from the get go. We had each others back. But something had changed in the matrix. Trust was eroding after a series of bigoted comments. Even then I tried my best to reconcile. But in my gut, I knew that this was not going to go back to it’s previous state.
Slowly, my attitude started to change as well. I did not take to these bigoted comments very well. I held this person accountable by following the necessary procedures that had been outlined. This instilled a certain fear in this individual. But, this individual was not going to give up. So they tried to flip the situation around by drumming up support. This individual was very well connected in that group.
I stopped going above and beyond and just did what I was told. My sense of motivation and drive for that job was sapped. And it was the very first time in my career that I did not give my 100% when it comes to the work I am involved with.
At the same time, I wasn’t messing around. I did not take these comments very well and I made sure that this individual understood that.
However, the busy work was just not cutting it for me. I became increasingly active on the research and collaboration front. I mentioned the ideas that I had researched, engineered and contributed. Being a divergent thinker, I could clearly see how the industry was evolving and what we were going to go up against. It was a total and utter disruption and it seemed like very few people (across the org) understood that. Even fewer understood the fact that time was running out fast and that the overall approach to work across the organization was clearly outdated for the kind of industry that we were in.
Now, we were entering another dimension. Some really ‘weird’ occurrences started to emerge. People that I had barely met once or twice before started to befriend me at work. I didn’t think of the conversations much at first. But after a couple of months, when I connected the dots, I realized what was going on. Fortunately, this was only limited to one or two individuals. But this is how the conversations tended to take an abrupt turn. Literally out of nowhere:
- For instance, we’d be talking about where the Enterprise was headed. Then almost out of nowhere this individual would start a conversation about 9/11. I remember they specifically asked me what my thoughts were about building 7. And I remember telling them that I don’t know much about it. But that I realize that building 7 was not very close to the twin towers. The conversation ended shortly thereafter and I did not think much about it.
- Then another time, this same individual would ask me things like “Do Muslim people actually teach their kids how to pickup weapons from a very young age”. I didn’t really know how to answer that question. I’ve always grown up in multi-cultural neighborhoods, even when we were living in the middle east. But this individual was very insistent and they said that they quote “even read it in the Koran”. I’ve been fluctuating in this space between agnosticism and belief since I was 21. This guy creeped me out anyways. Slightly perturbed, I let out a chuckle and asked this individual to show where that’s mentioned in the Koran. Not really knowing where that conversation was going. Exit.
- Then this individual from the parent group that I was referring to. They quite randomly pick up the phone one day and decide to educate me on the supposed connections between the quote ‘police and the mafia’. The pervasiveness of the different gangs across North America. They mentioned a group called Triad. First time I heard of them. Their closing statements being, that they had friends in the police. Also, that sometimes the mafia waits 8 months before they want to take down a target. I swear I am not making this up. I had known this individual for a number of years. It was the same individual who had expressed some gripe against some demographic/community and only because their kid ran into a quarrel with a kid from that community at their school! This was also the same individual who had once advised me to watch “Lord of the Flies”. When I told them that I had seen that movie and that it was very unlikely that this would ever happen in real life. I remember distinctly that this individual smiled and said “Really? You think so”.
There is not enough space on this blog-post to talk about all of these perceived shenanigans. All of these people had a couple of things in common. They had zero technical chops. They were extremely subservient. And they all thought that dissenting voices and criticism is something really really bad and it should be stopped at any cost. They could definitely function as guards in milgram experiments.
It was a little late in the game. But I realized that I had pissed off far too many people. Personally speaking, my approach was wrong. I was openly criticizing, instead of going directly to the source and telling them “Look we have a systemic problem and here is the data to help support that argument”. This was clearly building animosity. But, I could not fathom that people would actually stoop down to this level and resort to bigoted statements to be able to get their message across. Whatever their message may be. Besides, again, these kind of things are cherished in the technical world. Sigh…..
I did not want to ruin careers. Also, I did not want to be perceived as that guy who starts shit up for no reason. So I kept it limited to the one incident that had already started and the one mentioned above (single individual). So during the final HR hearing when they asked me if something inappropriate was said by this one individual that I have mentioned. I bit my lip and simply said “No”. The case was closed and this individual got moved to another department 2 months later. I sincerely thought things would go back to normal. But oh well.
I realize that I’ve mentioned a couple of things here. But I wasn’t the least bit intimidated by the web these people were trying to weave around me. My intentions were good. Yes, once again, I’ll admit that my approach was terrible. But, no one ever tapped on my shoulder to tell me that I should tone down my rhetoric. What they did instead was to use downright ugly tactics and maybe they wanted to exacerbate the whole thing. They were trying to antagonize. Call it my inexperience or my stupidity, I guess there were times when I was clearly antagonized. I remember this one situation where 12 Analysts were saying one thing and the group on the other side was insistent that things be done a certain way. Which made no logical sense whatsoever. I wasn’t too happy on the conference call that day. I was also getting dejected by the entire ordeal. I started questioning my purpose. Why I was doing what I was doing. I started questioning my love for the organization. I told myself that I should do this for my friends. Because if the organization fails, then we all take a hit. That’s not rocket science. I went through a gazillion different thoughts like this in my head at the time. Like I said the whole thing was quite jarring. I started exhibiting very mild symptoms of depression. Only that I did not realize it at the time. They kicked me when I was down.
Also, after a certain amount of time, I started acting irrationally. Not bat shit insane. In the words of Viktor Frankl “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” This could not be truer in the context of the time and space that I was stuck in at the time. These guys were trying an innumerable number of tactics on me. I wanted out. I just didn’t know if that was the right thing to do and how I should go about doing it. But in my heart, I knew that I was fighting for the right reasons. So I remained steadfast and ‘kept on taking hits’.
These kind of people are leeches. They don’t care about the institution that they serve, they just care about their own selfish interests. They use lie, deceit and manipulative measures to get their point across.
This entire ordeal had a significant impact on me. It exposed me to the ugly side of corporate politics. Maybe things really get this ugly in companies all over the world. Or maybe this happened to be one of those rare occurrences.
In addition to some of my admissions above. Once again, I’ll even admit that I made some mistakes. I have a propensity to become intensely focused and a fair bit of that focus is emotionally driven. I understand objectivity. But to really believe in something, I have to go pretty deep and understand how things operate. I use unconscious processing to quickly make sense out of things. Oh look at me! I am so kool! Okay, well, I know it’s going to sound weird, but really, I have to feel things. I’ve done this for systems, designs and even my own cognition. It’s a tough journey, but immensely rewarding. Hard to explain though. What I’m really saying is that I tend to become intensely passionate about things.
I’ve found myself crying, in professional surroundings….. I’ve also found myself saying stuff that I did not mean at the time. But these setbacks are enough for me never to do those kinds of things again. I can be brutally honest and I thought this kind of stuff would be cherished. Because we are cutting through the chase and talking about the things we need to talk about. I was wrong. However, I am not a bigot. I have always supported the under-dog. These people were bigots. And it seems like they had their own twisted reason to support the inefficient status quo. A creeping culture of process that was killing dissent and innovation.
Now that I look back, I’m not at all concerned about everything that was said to me. What I was saying or who did what. Clearly this is my side of the story and it’s the way I have perceived it. I’ve never really gotten into a situation like this, in a career that has spanned 15 years.
But then again, I also haven’t been in a situation where there is so much at stake. A huge part of me was completely committed in helping this organization. I had the experience and the capability to conduct research that I genuinely believed could help this company. I felt good that so many ideas that I helped engineer, actually saw light of the day. I didn’t feel so great when I got nothing back in recognition. So keeping the kind of conditioning received, at some point, I simply stopped pumping out ideas. The connection was lost and there was no charm in what I was doing. I found myself reading magazines and books at work on a daily basis. Couldn’t care if I was fired or let go. Then the heavens intervened.
I was exhausted. Emotionally, physically and mentally. Completely drained. There were moments, where I just sat in front of my wife and cried. Tears bawling out of my eyes. I had no idea what was going on. I also became verbally abusive…….. The stress had built up and clearly it was impacting my relationships at work and outside of work. I was too engrossed in what I was doing, to try and be able to pin-point and correct that at the time. I also became withdrawn.
If losing control over ones behavior and emotions was not scary enough. I also lost my sense of drive and even a sense of purpose. Short sting of identity crisis soon ensued. Life really was about to hit me in the head with a brick.
I don’t think about these issues anymore. But I sense that I’ve taken more hits than the ones I have mentioned above.
Sometimes you come across people and you know that you and that individual would make a great team. That is how I felt when I first came across the individual that I mentioned towards the beginning of this blog-post. I was willing to ignore their short-comings and just focus on the enormous positives they brought to the table. I’m a right brain and whole brain + Type A personality. This individual was a left brain + Type A personality. If only we had learned to co-exist and respect each other.
But, I realize that behavior is a very hard thing to change. Just read my previous blog-post. It has taken a couple of setbacks for me to realize that I too have some behavioral short-comings. Who doesn’t or hasn’t had them? But, I don’t ‘take them to work’ and/or they are not as explicit. All this time, I had been really careful about how I operate. Specially after one bad judgment call in the past. Once, I was overtly critical of the management style of this one individual. This individual started crying in front of me and I vowed to never make that mistake again. Meaning, don’t criticize individuals. Highlighting defects in the design is okay. So that’s what I did. If this was karma hitting me back 1000 fold, then karma is also harsh.
There are some things that you just can’t put up with. You have to take a stance somewhere. That’s what I did. There’s more to this story, but I don’t have enough words. For a long time I thought we could patch things up. But I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ve lost a friend and what I had envisioned is almost never going to happen. We can never team up.
About the system. My gut feeling was right from the get go. A significant chunk of the entire system relied on superficial values. Not only did the entire system failed at harnessing dissent. But the system also failed terribly at protecting voices of rational dissent. I’ve seen a fair number of people who had been demoted or not promoted over a number of years. And they happened to be the vocal voices, some more voices of rational dissent. “We should do this because it makes rational sense and vice versa”.
Fast forward in the future. The entire system completely crumbled and almost collapsed. Entire hordes of people had been let go. The minions, entire swath of the executive suite. No one, I mean no one, was spared. Ironically, I predicted all of this well in advance. I even charted out the series of events that were going to transpire. And you know who I shared it with? With the very individual that I have mentioned a number of times in this blog-post. For a system that went to elaborate lengths to kibosh dissent and be comfortable in the success it had achieved. This was a moment of reckoning. But, overall, it was a sad day for everyone.
New age business is not about control. It’s about creating the best platform. For people, for technology and for innovation. I specifically left out the word processes. Because too much of that kiboshes dissent. Which is tied in with innovation. Just read any book on innovation. Even with the massive changes that might have ensued, every system needs ideas. Everything flows from culture. Dissent needs to be harnessed, not kiboshed. Systems that kibosh dissent will eventually run out of ideas in the bank. In due course of time, they will become irrelevant. There is no escaping this phenomenon, for any system on earth.
As for me, all I know is that I know nothing. I cannot even tell my readership when all of this occurred.
But I learned a ton of things about myself. Most importantly, that I prefer fight over flight and I literally can’t compute fear. These are good things and can also be bad. So I continually seek people with a certain cognitive framework, someone who can balance out these attributes. The entire ordeal also led me to learn more about how the human brain functions. Fascinating stuff.