Ombuds’ corner: Relationship to authority

In this series, the Bulletin aims to explain the role of the Ombuds at CERN by presenting practical examples of misunderstandings that could have been resolved by the Ombuds if he had been contacted earlier. Please note that, in all the situations we present, the names are fictitious and used only to improve clarity.


Among the cases brought to the Ombuds, many of them have to do with difficulties between supervisees and supervisors. In fact, they form the majority of the cases. For both parties, the source of the conflict boils down to the relationship that people entertain with what can be called "the authority". The relationship with the authority is somewhat different within the various Sectors of CERN, as are the relationships between personnel and supervisors.

Generally one considers that natural authority can either come from a respected technical knowledge, or from charisma along with a good understanding of human relationships. Of course together these qualities generate the best leaders. Without these qualities, any authority based only on a hierarchical position is bound to generate interpersonal conflicts or even the polarization of an entire unit against its supervisor. This is because the ignorance of a supervisor, either technical or towards human relations, creates an improper balance between both sides. On the other hand, a rigid respect of the authority by personnel will result in them interpreting advice and personal opinions as strict orders, which will be of course be contested one way or another. Both situations can generate conflicts as seen in the following examples:

- Jack* has recently been nominated supervisor of a unit which had had several interpersonal difficulties. As he did not want to be involved in them, wishing to impose peace at last in his group, Jack started to be very directive, even authoritarian. He hoped everyone would unify under his leadership, and do what they were told to do instead of struggling against each other. So, he started to talk in terms such as “I am your boss and you do what I tell you to do”. Of course, this had a disastrous effect on people who knew their profession, were used to work somewhat independently, and were following the “Research Laboratory” spirit. Everyone in the group thought it was a nonsense, especially due to the fact that Jack, being the last to join the unit, did not appear to have complete technical competence. The small reserve of initial charisma he had melted like snow in the sun, and Jack faced a difficult situation where all his supervisees were against him for both right and wrong reasons. In the end, everyone queued in front of the door of the Ombuds - maybe a bit late in the game.

- Dona* is used to sharing her opinion with people concerning lots of managerial matters. In fact, she expects them to react and give her their input. Unfortunately, her collaborators are used to follow directives, without realizing that she expects a discussion, as she favors their initiative and accountability. Such a misunderstanding has then created a gap between her and her supervisees: she does not know how to get their feedback, and they secretly contest what they take as orders, while still following the strict position of authority imparted from her function. The group has become unmanageable.


Relationships between supervisees and supervisors are much improved by mutual respect. If a proper discussion takes place at the beginning, people will then understand that decisions have to be taken by the person in position to take them. The good criterion for taking correct and ethical decisions is that they can be later explained in a transparent way. While supervisors should understand all the qualities they are accountable for as leaders, collaborators should participate in a constructive way to the management of their group. Early discussions with the Ombuds may alleviate misunderstandings leading to difficulties or even disputes.

* Names and story are purely imaginary.

Contact the Ombuds Early!


by Vincent Vuillemin