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.
“People here are very bright – everyone has an opinion on how things should be done and nobody is prepared to let go…”
“We have no right to error – and as a result we can never acknowledge that we may have got it wrong … nor can we ask for help!”
The picture that emerges from these examples cited in the Ombud Office is one of a highly competitive environment where people stick to their positions and any kind of compromise is viewed as a sign of weakness or failure. Sometimes, however, even a scientific or technically viable solution may have to be abandoned in favour of a slightly lesser solution that takes into account additional factors such as time and budget. At other times, it may be necessary to cut our losses by reviewing a technical choice that is not producing expected results and accept the need to look for another strategy. Camping on one’s positions and refusing to envisage other approaches causes difficulties that become deeply entrenched over time, leading to divided loyalties, inefficiency and ultimately a sense of frustration and demotivation for all concerned. This rapidly declines into a situation where it is no longer only the technical issue that is at stake, but also an emotional one, and as such, needs to be addressed differently.
Rising to technical challenges is our bread and butter at CERN – we are used to simply focusing on the problem itself and, using either tried and tested means or new skills acquired on the way, we do whatever it takes to solve it.
When it comes to people problems, however, it is not only resolving the issue that counts; we need to take into account the wider context and emotions involved.
“It is not just what is said but how it is said that counts…”
Indeed, dealing with people issues is an adaptive process where we need to be able to listen to other perspectives and be flexible enough to adjust our own goals accordingly. It is all about understanding people’s positions and how they got there, being sensitive to their needs and aware of the impact that our own behaviour may have on them. Most of all, it is about acknowledging the legitimacy of others’ perspectives or experience, even when they differ from our own, and being able to respect them for it. In some cases, this also implies taking responsibility for our own errors, so that even if it is too difficult to apologise, we can at least express regret for the negative consequences entailed.
In the final analysis, it is through the respect that we show for others that we build the rapport that is necessary to all healthy work environments. Where there is respect, we may address issues whilst safeguarding relationships, thus enabling technical goals to be met with pride and a shared sense of achievement.
Sudeshna Datta Cockerill