Digging deeper to find the real reasons behind a conflict

Jane* is a discreet administrative assistant who has worked for the same group leader for more than ten years. She has an administrative secretarial background, knows all the ins and outs of CERN administration very well, and has built up a strong network within the Organization. As part of an expansion of the group’s activities, Carlos*, a new administrative assistant and recent business school graduate, has joined the team. He has many ideas about doing things differently, especially more efficiently.

When Jane comes to see me, she is quite worried: “This Carlos shows up with his gift of the gab, he wants to wow us and thinks he can turn everything upside down overnight. I don’t know what to do.” I suggest that I speak to Carlos to get his point of view, which she agrees to. Appointment made, Carlos expresses his disappointment to me: “Jane certainly has a lot of experience at CERN and the group leader trusts her completely, but her methods are old-fashioned. She doesn’t want to see that I can save her a lot of time and she withholds information.” In speaking to Jane and Carlos, I realised that their expectations were different, but not incompatible. Jane recognises that she can benefit from Carlos’ in-depth knowledge of interactive web tools, but she would like him to better explain what he is trying to achieve. Carlos understands that Jane has valuable experience she can share with him, but he has the impression that she is taking advantage of her position to slow down his efforts at modernisation. My next meetings with Jane and Carlos give me the opportunity to correct some false perceptions with the two colleagues.

A number of personal issues also lie just below the surface. Jane feels threatened by Carlos’ sudden arrival in the team. She fears a gradual loss of recognition, despite her good and loyal service. For his part, Carlos doesn’t necessarily intend to stay in the team; what he’s interested in is using his creativity and excellent technical knowledge to implement more efficient methods, even if it means frequently changing departments. 

Fortunately, after my meetings with Jane and Carlos, they spoke to each other and were able to smooth things over.

When you find yourself in conflict with someone, ask yourself what might explain the other person’s position and try to understand their deeper motivations. An obvious explanation might be concealing something more profound, and if you can identify it, you might just find the key to resolving the conflict. If you can’t do it alone, ask for help, for example by contacting the Ombud. 


Pierre Gildemyn


If you’d like to comment on any of my articles or suggest a topic that I could write about, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me at Ombuds@cern.ch.

*Names have been changed

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