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Set Ground Rules First, Advises NIH Ombuds

By Robert Bock

On the Front Page...

Before two or more people start working together, it will help if each finds out what the other expects, said Dr. Howard Gadlin, director of the NIH Office of the Ombudsman.

Continued...

"Often, people form a collaboration on a shared interest — a scientific problem, perhaps," he said. "Before they begin, they need to find out what they expect — not only in terms of the work — but also the working relationship."

For example, a postdoc might need a lot of autonomy, whereas her mentor may think it best that the two work closely together. By reaching agreement in such situations before they start working together, the two may preserve fruitful collaboration and avoid bitter disappointment.

Dr. Howard Gadlin

As the ombuds (and head of the Center for Cooperative Resolution), Gadlin helps staffers work through many disagreements. His 5-person office handled 305 cases last year. Although some involved scientific projects, others pertained to ethnic and racial differences, conflicts with management or other staff members, and high levels of pressure in the workplace.

Agreements reached through the ombuds office are non-binding. All counseling sessions are kept confidential and information provided to the office will not affect an employee's rating or potential for promotion. Such non-binding arbitration can offer benefits over more formal processes, which may end up making a situation worse. Moreover, after a conflict is resolved through a formal process, the people involved may have to go back to the same working relationship they had before — without ever having resolved their differences.

Gadlin stressed that there is no general prescription for avoiding conflict. "So much depends on the situation and history of the people involved that it's hard to specify a set of guidelines," he said.

Still, there are some behaviors that tend to make a difficult situation worse. For example, supervisors need to find thoughtful ways of giving their employees criticism. Moreover, criticism should be given in a way that helps an employee's job performance — rather than venting a supervisor's frustration. Supervisors should also address small issues regularly, rather than surprising their employees with a buildup of past grievances at performance review time.

Racial or ethnic differences can also provide the basis of conflicts. Gadlin gave an example of two people from different cultures. The first person's culture may stress looking someone in the eye when talking to him or her; the second's culture may emphasize avoiding eye contact when speaking. If the two work together, the first person may think the second is shifty or deceitful. Gadlin advised that in these kinds of situations, people should learn to bring their differences out in the open:

"The first person might say, 'When we talk, it seems you never look me in the eye. Is there something wrong?'"

To help employees through their conflicts, Gadlin and his employees practice a variety of techniques. One is "coaching." With this technique, ombuds staff offer advice on how to write email messages tactfully or confront the offending person, to avoid escalating the conflict. Another technique is mediation, in which a member of the ombuds staff brings the two parties together and helps them work through their differences. Still another is facilitation, in which the ombuds office relays messages back and forth between parties who may be too angry to meet face to face.

Although he would prefer to see people avoid stressful, antagonistic relationships, Gadlin said that some conflict is necessary. If two people can't talk openly about their disagreements, resentments may smolder for a time, then catch fire at a critical moment — perhaps when an employee fails to be promoted.

"If you're always avoiding difficult issues, they're going to come back and get you when you least expect it," he said.

(The author is the press officer for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and a member of the NIH Management Cadre class of 2000. This article resulted from an assignment to study science and leadership at NIH. Information about the NIH Management Cadre Program is available at http://mcp.nih.gov/.)


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