Ombuds’ corner: Empowerment

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.


“True leadership, not to be confused with dictatorship, does not take away an individual's freedom, choice, accountability, or responsibility. Just as the leader is to be serving and taking into account the ideas and needs of those they lead, those following that lead are to be doing the same thing. In doing so, they, along with the leader, practice self-restraint, develop character, integrate discipline, and practice love and respect for other people. This creates a kind of self-leadership at all levels of the group. It promotes a self-leadership environment where all are empowered and working toward the good of the whole because it is in the best interest of all.”*

In any system, there is a common tendency adopted when something does fit someone's perception: make the hierarchical level just above him or her responsible for the problem. At CERN, where more than half of the cases brought to the Ombuds have to do with some kind of evaluative relationship, it would be too easy an escape to believe that the only causes of such situations are found in a lack of leadership of a direct or indirect supervisor. All of us should be the custodians of our CERN values; leadership is an issue that affects us all in our different roles.

For example, let’s take new Group Leader, Mark**, who does not know everything about his new functions; he is thus a bit insecure, and believes that he should assert his authority otherwise his subordinates will not respect him. He may then adopt a management style which could be very counterproductive: micromanagement, controlling people’s schedule instead of empowering their accountability, imposing unpopular decisions to point out who is in charge, and saddling everyone with his personal stress. The result: Mark will soon be cut off from his group. Of course, everyone in the group will complain and accuse him of terrible leadership. Well, it’s true, his leadership is not great. He would do better if he were empowering the members of his group, reflecting on the group’s strategy, adopting a larger view, and fostering an environment where everyone can work according to his and her potential.

On the other hand, the people within the group can also empower themselves and be pro-active in their actions and give Mark feedback. There are many possible different ways to do this. For example: trigger a discussion on the CERN Code of Conduct, propose a day dedicated to a team-building exercise, launch pro-active information and reporting, ask for clarification of everyone’s schedule, propose a Ombuds-facilitated team discussion, or discuss a global training strategy for the team. There are several informal ways of improving the situation that members can propose to improve a respectful communication within the group. It is not the best strategy to expect that only the manager put these ideas on the table, considering this as solely the manager’s job. It it is much better to help and participate in team leadership.


Self-empowerment means everyone is concerned about: their accountability; the way they communicate; being pro-active in their human relationships, promoting a respectful workplace environment; and not opting for a passive attitude, where they would expect these values would always come from the hierarchical level just above them. With good working conditions – fostered by all of us – we can learn from one another, and progression towards an ethical leadership will be favoured.

* “The Focus of Leadership: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest”, by Michael McKinney, from

** Names and story are purely imaginary.

Contact the Ombuds Early!


by Vincent Vuillemin