“Nothing will change” is one of the complaints often heard in the Ombud’s Office. However, four years after taking on the role of the CERN Ombud and a few days before retiring, I would like to assert that things do change, albeit sometimes very slowly, and that, by addressing issues constructively, we can all influence each other to ultimately bring about the changes that we seek in our environment.
In conflict situations, there is a tendency to want to have the last word and be proven ‘right’ and yet, that may actually be the ‘wrong’ way to go about resolving an argument, whether it is face to face or through an exchange of e-mails. Instead, the wise approach would be to focus on listening to the other person in order to reach an understanding of the matter at hand before seeking a solution together.
One of the topics that never failed to arouse interest during the recent Diversity workshops organised at CERN was that of “unearned advantage”, or the relative ease with which doors open for certain people, simply because they belong to dominant (often majority) groups, as compared to others.
Conflicts in the workplace are inevitable, but are conflicts at CERN any different to those in other organisations? Interpersonal issues arise when people clash over different goals, perceptions or values, but does the fact that we work in a primarily technical environment mean that we handle these issues differently?
Whilst there is no clear “cause and effect” answer to this question, it can be said that there are certain patterns to the problems that arise that may be deeply rooted in some aspects of our organisational culture.
Empathy, or ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’ is a key ingredient of the emotional intelligence that characterises a good manager. It is all about seeing things from others’ point of view, taking into account their thoughts, views and feelings, and being able to put oneself in their shoes.
‘A team of scientists heated a pan of water to a high temperature. Then they tried to put a live frog into it. The frog jumped out immediately. A second frog was put in a pan of cold water that was gradually heated to boiling. That frog never tried to jump. It was boiled to death.’
Taking on new tasks or responsibilities may sometimes be challenging, as they require us go beyond the familiar or ‘comfort zone’ and expose ourselves to scrutiny in an area where we are not immediately at ease. Stepping out of our comfort zones may take courage and additional effort but the stakes are high as this is ultimately what will allow us to avoid stagnation and grow towards our full potential.
I’m just back from the annual conference of the International Ombudsman Association, and this time the keynote presentation was focused on the role of the ‘bystander’ or the person who witnesses an unacceptable or potentially harmful situation and does nothing. Yet they have an influence simply by being there.
Why does bystander presence matter?
Last month, CERN hosted a meeting of the European Ombuds and Mediator group, which brought together some 25 Ombuds from both the public and private sectors in Europe. It was an excellent opportunity for members of the network to connect with each other and share some of their processes and practice.
When I started working at CERN in 1976, women were a relatively rare sight. The few women who did work here generally held administrative roles, many having started with the incongruous job title of “scanning girls”, regardless of the age at which they had been recruited. Back then it was quite normal to walk into a workshop and find pictures of naked females on the walls, and everyday sexism was common. I recall once being told that women couldn’t possibly do night shifts in the control room.