Ombuds’ corner: Compromise or “win-win” solution?

A managerial position in a large project led by CERN became available. Karen* and Walt*, both members of this collaboration and part of the same CERN unit, started to compete for this unique position, as they both felt that they were the most qualified.


Karen benefited from seniority and had developed excellent experience in management, which lead to her strongly believing that the post should be hers. Walt, although much younger and on a limited-duration contract, also applied for the position. He considered that his technical expertise, recognized as essential inside the project, would fully compensate for his lack of managerial skills. In addition, he strongly believed that such a project should be led by a young scientifically pro-active, inventive and person. They entered into a conflict and asked the Ombuds to help them resolve their interpersonal working difficulties, which were becoming unbearable.

Through the mediation process, they realized that the Organization needed them both in order to succeed in this difficult enterprise, regardless of who became the manager. They then abandoned the “win-lose” idea. They discussed a compromise in which Karen would be responsible for the managerial aspects of the project and Walt would act in some way as scientific expert. Although they could agree to share the job, they were not fully satisfied. At this stage, each of them felt inclined to actively seek a solution that could fully satisfy both of them, with the help of the Ombuds.

The discussions took a lot of effort and good will, and in the end they agreed to make the following “win-win” proposal to the collaboration: Karen would take the single managerial position during the few years she had left with CERN. She would actively coach and support Walt so that he could acquire the necessary managerial skills so he could later lead the entire project. She also agreed to support Walt’s application for an indefinite contract given his potential. Karen was happy to have the opportunity to share her expertise with a younger person. Walt welcomed the additional skills he could learn from Karen, and received assurance that his career would be positively considered. In the meantime, he had more time to work on the scientific aspects of the project.

A “win-win” solution is different from a compromise. In a compromise the parties get essentially only half of what they want, as they agree to concede the other half to the other party. It is unlikely to represent a sustainable solution, as both parties miss out on a large part of what they want. “Win-win” solutions ask for creativity and “out of the box” thinking. It generally takes more time to reach such solutions, but they are really worth trying hard for.

* Names and story are purely imaginary.

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by Vincent Vuillemin