I joined the coca cola company I work for straight out of Lums. I was a stressed-out, reactive person with a trait of being anxious and emotional. It took time to get over the past difficult years. The work environment was destructive. People gained influence by getting the latest gossip and sharing it around. As soon as somebody left the room, he became the topic of conversation. When person, one returned and two left, the conversation switched targets. I had only one choice: I could pick one side, and gossip indiscriminately.
I realize now how weak that sounds, but I was new to the company and I thought it was their way or the highway. I was persuing career counseling in Willing Ways already, and this was the time to apply all of my newly learned skills. I started thinking deeply about the principle of taking personal responsibility. I took some hard looks in the mirror. My behavior was pretty ugly. I realized I needed to choose to interact with others in a different way. But, how? How could I break the cycle I was a part of and that dominated our office culture? I knew I was not comfortable with gossiping, but what to do about it I just didn’t know. To help me figure out what to do, I asked myself the question: “What is my role in this situation?” I knew my role was to stop doing something that was not helping others. That wasn’t hard to figure out. To implement that role change was difficult. Others didn’t feel a need to change. I recognized that the office culture was temporarily outside my area of influence, however my own behavior wasn’t. That I could influence. I knew I couldn’t change overnight, so I told myself I had to be patient. I also told my wife to encourage me every day. I failed every day; most of the day in the beginning. I had to keep confronting myself, “Here is stimulus, here’s response, and here’s the chance to act in the middle. As of right now I’m not doing this.” Then I’d grit my teeth and bite my tongue, and think, “I have plenty of opinions about that person, but I’m not going to say them.” Gossip is so appealing it can suck you in before you even know it. I knew I had to just walk away. Even though it sounds so simple, I found it difficult to consistently exercise my integrity. Eventually, People began to trust me; they knew that gossip did not have currency with me. I was not completely over the pleasure of hearing about other people’s lives. I was getting better.
I changed my focus to problems within my company and wanted to fix them. It wasn’t hard to find things to complain about. Systems were obviously broken and I felt I had the answers. My boss had to listen to me every week during our update meeting as I suggested how to fix other people’s problems. Somehow I thought that if I constantly raised these issues, they would be solved. In some strange way, I think I actually thought I was being helpful. One day during one of my complaining sessions my boss turned to me and said, Hammad do you just not like working here?” Well, that wasn’t the problem! I did like working here. I just couldn’t stand to see the inefficiencies and errors happening when the solutions were so obvious to me. But the question did cause me to reflect on my behavior.
In the light of my boss’s comment, I finally realized that all I had done was complaining. In my desire to share my great ideas, I had focused hypercritically on others and what I thought was their inability to perform their jobs correctly. To make a change, I committed to look at the problems around me; I really had the power to change. “No matter what, I wouldn’t cross the boundaries of my influence”. I soon had an opportunity to test my resolve, when a division head position came open. Because the company didn’t know who to appoint, they grouped together four of us to figure out how to run this portion of the business. Suddenly, Ahmed Jamal, the design guy, really wanted the job. We could all sense it. But, as fate or luck would have it, they gave it to the new guy, me. He thought my job should have been his. He set out to get revenge. In every meeting we were in, he would say things to cut me down: “Oh, just ’cause you’re a Lums grad doesn’t mean you know squat about design.” He’d bad-mouth me behind my back, he’d be hateful to my face in front of twenty or so group members. I held my tongue. Sometimes I even bit it. He kept on hassling me. Other people sensed what was happening. Sometimes you could almost cut the air with a knife.
When I returned from a vacation, a few people said to me, “Do you have any idea what Ahmed has been saying about you while you’ve been gone? I’d just smile and say, “Well, some of us say things we don’t mean. You see, I had determined not to react to Ahmed. I was going to act the way that I wanted to. What I wanted to do was hold my tongue, be loyal, give him the benefit of the doubt, and just be nice. Sure, I wanted to beat his face. I wanted to jab back at him. But I wasn’t going to let him determine how I would act. Finally, months later, he came around. I remember one meeting in particular. He said something really rude, and then he stopped and chuckled. “Geez,” he said, “I’ve tried for months to offend you. You haven’t taken offense once.” Everyone laughed that laughter of release. He said those very words, “I’ve tried to offend you but you won’t get offended.” From that experience, I learned the fruits of not being offended, choosing not to take offense, and just being consistent and loyal. There were a few things though that helped me not to react to Ahmed: First, I had seen role models at Willing Ways not react when they were put down. I admired their integrity, their sense of self-worth. I wanted to be like them. I wanted people to know that I could be trusted, that I was loyal, and that I would not speak behind their backs. Second, I knew that Ahmed had influence with a lot of people. He had influence in the company. It wouldn’t have done me any good to take him on. (That’s just practical business strategy there.) Finally, I believe very strongly that all of us have good in us, that if we love people and are patient, the good in them will respond to the goodness we show them. It’s only a matter of time. And a chunk of swallowing pride.
When I came on board as director of human resources, I heard horror stories about what my new boss was like. I was actually in his office once when he lost his temper with an employee. If words had edges, the employee would have been standing in a pool of his own blood. I vowed then and there never to get on my boss’s bad side. Nothing was worth running into him on a bad day. I made good on that promise. I spoke nicely to him in the hallways. I had all my reports in on time. A short time later, I started seeing myself in all my weak glory. Because I was scared, I wasn’t giving the company my best effort. In fact, I felt comfortable in switching to another company. I even had an interview scheduled. Ashamed of myself, I canceled that interview and committed to focusing on my Circle of Influence for just ninety days. I wanted to create a sound relationship with my boss. We didn’t have to be best buddies, but we did have to interact like colleagues.
So with that goal in mind, I returned to the office thinking, “Just ninety days. I’ll give it my all for just ninety days.” One day my boss came into my office. After some discussion and after swallowing and practicing the words in my head a few times, I said: “By the way, what can I be doing to help you be more effective here. He was confused “What do you mean?” I forged bravely on. “What can I do to alleviate some of the pressure that you have in your job? It’s my job to make sure your job gets easier.” I gave him a big, sort of nervous, please-don’t-think-I’m-weird smile. I’ll never forget the look on his face. That was really the beginning point of our relationship.