Howard Gadlin

Ombudsman, Center for Cooperative Resolution, National Institutes of Health

Topics: mediation, conflicts and disputes, interpersonal conflict, violence

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003

Listen to Full Interview

Listen/Read Selected Interview Segments on the Following Topics

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Ok. Dr. Gadlin, can you please give me an overview of your work?

A: Ok, I am the ombudsman at MIH. There are two major parts of that work. One is working with particular disputes when they come up. They might be disputes between two individuals or disputes in a whole group -- a laboratory, a branch of an office, a division, an entire institute...

And in many of the disputes that I work with in my position are disputes among scientists, they could be about authorship, the sharing of biological materials, the direction of a scientific collaboration, the functioning of a laboratory or whatever. The office also deals with more ordinary work place disputes, not necessarily just scientists. There are five of us here that work with cases, but my caseload is very heavily scientific these days. People who come to us for a variety of different ways of working with some thing.

Sometimes someone will come in simply to have coaching on how to handle a situation in a less adversarial way than they might do it on their own. At other times they are asking for more direct intervention on our part, and we then tailor an intervention to their particular circumstance with their history of the issues and the people and whatever it might be. We may use a sort of traditional mediation, at some points we do... We might actually create some hybrid intervention that is partly mediation and partly facilitating a whole group meeting. We sometimes work with groups who bring us a problem that gets re-interpreted as...I am not saying this clearly.

Often times, people think that problems they are having in the workplace involve personal differences and conflicts between people. When we look carefully at the conflicts that they have and the conditions in which they occur it appears that there are systemic factors that are supporting the conflict. People are in conflict in part because of the way in which there work and communication is organized in sort of self-contradictory ways, so we sometimes work with a group to sort of re-engineer its whole work process and take attention away from the individual disputes and try to understand the structural dynamics that are sustaining it. Sometimes we have to work at both levels at the same time. That is the one part of our job.

The other part of our job is recognizing patterns and problems within the organizations, such as procedures, practices, that are leading to the generation of conflicts -- unhappiness, grievances, and complaints -- and making

recommendations for changes in practices, policies, or procedures that would keep such conflicts from occurring. We do a lot of preventative, or prophylactic kind of work as well, trying to engage people. For example, at the beginning of scientific collaborations having partnering agreements where they spell out in specific detail what they expect of one another and they build in a mechanism for dispute resolution, rather than waiting for conflicts of that sort to arise. We have modeled that process after what the only core of engineers developed for developing partnering agreements in the construction industry but ours is tailored towards scientific collaboration. That is a real quick overview.

Q: Ok. Sure. Can you think of an example for me from the second half of the first part of your description of your work? In other words, someone comes to you what seems to be at first a personal dispute but ultimately has some sort of structural implications.

A: I will have to be a little vague because of confidentiality considerations. There was a situation a couple of years ago where three nurses who worked together in a particular unit in a clinical center here, one that conducts medical research and treatment. All of the treatment is part of research here. It is not truly a research program; there is actual ongoing treatment of patients who are in experimental protocols testing particular procedures and the three nurses were referred to us because of what was described as a high level of interpersonal conflict among the three of them.

There was indeed a high level of interpersonal conflict among the three of them. As we talked with them about the sorts of issues that they were in conflict over, you know when the conflict occurred. We learned more and more about the way in which in this particular medical unit was performed and how the process of communication occurred and who reported to whom. We noticed that there were some contradictory reporting relationships, so that if you are reporting to two different people, and I am reporting to two different people, and those two people are not getting along well, and it is unclear over who is in charge on any one particular activity that we are involved in, the potential for conflict is just enormous.

If the people to whom we are reporting are in conflict and are not facing up to the fact that they are in conflict, then often times the conflict is carried out by the people who are underneath them. That gets exacerbated by a variety of personal factors: Who feels that they have better access to the people that are above them? Who feels that they are liked more? Rivalry between the parties.

You have a structural arrangement that supports rivalry between nurses who have to work together collaboratively.

Ok? Some uncertainty about where nurse A's responsibilities end, and where nurse B's responsibilities begin, and where nurse C's... Ok? It was that kind of a situation. We had to go back to the leadership of this unit and suggest to them, while they we were willing to work with those kinds of disputes, we really thought there was something about the way in which there work was being organized that was perhaps part of the problem. And asked for their cooperation to interview all of the twenty-some odd people in this working to get some sense of how the whole unit was going.

The stories we were hearing from the nurses were indicating a wider set of problems then personal disputes between three people. On the basis of those confidential interviews with everyone. Separately. Privately. Doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, technicians, clerical people, and so on and so forth. We then made about identifying particular people, a report back to the leadership structure of this organization that identified areas in which there were problems. And on which they needed to do some rethinking about how they did things to keep these kinds of conflicts... Otherwise they had an organizational structure that was going to keep churning out conflict. And would have appeared, if you think about intractable conflicts, it would have appeared that this was intractable because they were just generating.

On the basis of that we then set up to facilitate an all day retreat of the entire unit in which they re-engineered their work and we were the facilitators. We don't have the medical expertise to do that kind of work, we could just point out how the way in which they were organizing what they were doing. We did that and we had a follow up retreat one month later, in part to do a kind of assessment and fine tuning of what went on. At that retreat it was actually...We got to the point after the first few hours they realized that they could facilitate the retreat on their own at that point. Things were turned around enough, we could let the actual leaders of the unit take over the role.

Q: That is a great story.

A: Yea, it is a really satisfying

kind of intervention.

Q: How ??? . Is it difficult to figure out what level of analysis to look at when you are dealing with something that appears to be interpersonal and ends up being structural? What are the clues that tip you off to look deeper or at the larger picture?

A: The first clue is when you have people who are engaged in what appears to be a really deep personal conflict in the work place is to remember to ask them questions about the work places as well. How they do they work? What it entails? Who reports to whom? Who communicates with whom? Are you dependent on her work? Is she dependent on your work? Are deadlines met? How are deadlines set? If you are dependent on her work to get your work done, what latitude to you have to set expectations to her? Are they set only by a supervisor? Do you set them up collaboratively? There are all sorts of things. You have to ask those kinds of things.

You have to know what questions to ask. To know what questions to ask you have to ask them about the work they are doing. You cannot just be limited by the stories that they tell you. You are looking for certain clues.

Q: That must be a challenge to break out of the mold of the stories that they are telling you. I suppose. You have done it for years.

A: Yea. But you are working with the stories. You are asking them to flesh out the stories. If you are complaining about nurse B being particular nasty in her interaction with you and hostile to you, and you think it is because you are a man and they don't like having male nurses. I am going to have to listen to all of that. But then I am going to have to ask you other questions, like when do you get into conflict with nurse A or B, or which ever you want? Ok, well tell me about what exactly

do you do and what exactly does she do.

Q: Right.

A: And then you go from there. You are still working with their stories but in organizations people understand their disputes in primarily personally terms, very often, and not necessarily easily inclined towards understanding the way in which structural factors may be contributing to disputes. So our role is to help people think about it in a somewhat different way. I think any dispute intervener has to help people re-understand their dispute in somewhat different terms, as long as people stay stuck in their understandings in what they think their dispute is about exclusively then you are going to make limited progress.

Q: Now in the second half of your initial answer to the first question, the prevention aspect - which sounds very interesting. You recognize patterns of conflicts and so then you go back and try to reformulate it. It sounds sort of like a larger version of the story you just told me.

A: It is. It is like, for example, we do each year dozens of disputes among scientists over authorship. Scientific research these days is always collaborative. There ain't no such thing as a single scientist working alone in a laboratory turning out results. The average number of authors in a biomedical research paper in the last twenty-five years has gone from something like 2 to 6.8.

Q: Is that right?

A: There are real changes taking place. So when you have mediated enough disputes between scientists over authorship you recognize certain regularities and commonalities. Certain themes that come up over and over again. Certain issues that arise over and over again.

And the same way that happened in the construction industry, we realized that well if it is the beginning of a collaboration, people had nearly sort of addressed the kinds of questions that had been confront once they had been collaborating and had been clear about their expectations and specific about if we are talking about if we are exchanging data on a regular basis, you cant just say that. What do we mean by exchanging data? What form will the data be in? What would happen, if we agreed that we would do our data exchange at the end of every week, what would happen if on Friday I haven't got the data from you? How do we handle that? You know? If we three months down the line or a year down the line, we run into some differences on the basis of our results we think that the research should go into different directions, how would we decide between the direction that you think it ought to go in and the direction that I think it ought to go in?

We have developed a template of questions for collaborating scientists and we know do promotional work urging people, ideally, to develop written collaborative agreements at the prenuptials for scientists, at the beginning of their work. But if they aren't willing to do it in a written form then we ask them to at least look at these questions and answer them for each other. If people want help in writing such agreements or in tailoring one to their particular project then we can do that. So we do that.

Q: It sounds to a certain extent like a visioning project, of what could go wrong, sort of a contingency approach.

A: Sure. It shares some of that sensibility even though it was inspired by something different.

Q: Ok. I wanted to ask you, sort of change the pace a little bit. And talk to you about some earlier work that you have done with RNH and the question I have for you is, how are people of different ethnicities or races likely to differ in their perceptions in the origins of a conflict?

A: Well, that is a tricky kind of question because you certainly don't want to. There has been a lot of this sort of ??? . All of this cultural

differences crap that categorizes people according to culture so... Asians will do this. Native American Indians will do this. Blacks will do this. Whites will do this. I am not real sympathetic to that kind of work. I do think that people should be tuned in to differences of that sort but that can quickly fall off into just a sophisticated version of stereotyping. You always have to find out from the particular people that you are working with exactly what is going on with them. If you have someone who doesn't look you in the eye it could mean all sorts of things, you can't just sort of say Native Americans don't do that. So...

Q: Right. Maybe though coached in terms of dominant versus minority or something like that, in other words I am thinking of an article that you wrote where you said that in a dispute that you had mediated in Santa Barbara, I believe it was between a Caucasian person and an African American person there. Whereas the Caucasian person saw it as a onetime incident and the African American saw it as completely different.

A: There were definitely those kinds of differences that you notice but again they are tendencies. Because ??? . But I think for lots of minorities in the United States there is over time an accumulation of experiences in which they feel they are being treated in certain ways on the basis of their identity. I think that kind of experience for whites is less common, except for in their interactions with minorities. So that in a workplace situation, especially if you have a situation where the white person is in the higher position in the organization and the minority person is in the lower position. If a minority person raises a suggestion that this is perhaps discrimination or discriminatory or just prejudice even if doesn't realize the level of discrimination, it is going to evoke a different kind of response in the person who is accused of discrimination than that does in the person who is feeling discriminated against.


So as a mediator, how do you manage those two different views, or what I expect would be two different views in talking about what the white person's view is going to be in that case, I imagine it is going to be different. They are probably not going to say, "Its true, it was a prejudice move." Really, they are probably going to say, I would imagine, something more along the lines of that it is a merit based thing. It is a skill-based thing. How do you manage those two different views?

A: For one, you have to be alert to mentions of defensiveness that a particular conflict is going to evoke in someone. It is not easy to be accused of discrimination and it is not easy to feel that one is being discriminated against. You have to be sensitive to what that evokes in both of the parties and find a way of acknowledging that. You are not there to contradict their experience but to ask them to reflect on it in a different way.

A lot of it is what is sort of what the intervener has to be sensitive to, and there to having some experience with some of the regularities in this kind of situation are really important. Sexual harassment cases, almost always the first reaction one the part of the person who is being accused of sexual harassment is to deny it, to be angry, and to respond in some kind of threatening manner. You know, like they talk about the stages of grief and they start with denial, maybe you would have to expect that there is a kind of natural history of response to these things. You have to be prepared to work through these different stages before you can get to do the actual grief work. It is the same thing with the intervention and disputes of that sort.


In your work as an ombudsman, is it difficult to not be seen as an agent of the institute for which you work?

A: Yea, you know... Lots of people ask that, and it is a really good question. In my experience, now there might be some degree of self-deception because it is to my advantage to think that is not a difficulty. In my experience, it is less than a difficulty than I thought it would be when I was first in this kind of position. I think its because when you have... Once you have been around for a while, you can establish some degree of personal credibility that matches the credibility of the role.

In previous jobs I had I was the ???. The position of the ombudsman had already been established. I was fortunate in that the people who had preceded me had fairly good reputations of not being tools of management. That helped. Here, there was no prior history of an office. I had to establish it. We had the theory of it but we had to flesh it out. It takes some time to do that. I think there is a natural skepticism at first, and it is healthy. You tell people that you are going to keep things confidential. You have to really prove that. You have to be really careful that you don't ever violate that because you could screw up the offices reputation and you won't get it back. I think there are some people who will distrust any office of any sort, no matter how well defined it is. No matter what kind of protections for independence it has, it is a part of that agency.

I think you can try to work with them but if they are really unable to trust the office then you try to find some other resource that can help them address their issue in a way that enlists their confidence. There is no reason to try to coerce people into using a resource they don't trust. You can try to ask them to give you an opportunity to work with you and they will see what happens. There is always going to be some number of people who are like that. Their distrust and/or sense of injury from the organization is so profound, or so thorough, or so much a part of the way they look at the world - any number of those kinds of things. That there is no meaningful way of addressing that.


Generally what sort of personal qualities do you think would behoove someone in a position of an ombudsman?

A: You know, it is a funny field because there is no specific disciplinary background people need. So the whole range, I mean there are people who come out of a psychological counseling background, people come out of administrative HR background; people come out of law backgrounds. And others, I know nurses; I know historians, theologians, a variety of different backgrounds. And there are a lot of very different interpretations of the role. Because when you are doing this kind of work it is a very intimate kind of work so you are the tool of your work it is not just some transferable set of techniques that any, I mean there are some techniques that are in common but it is not just the application of a technique.

I think one does need to be a fairly independent person.

You have to be prepared to be in an organization and to have very strong constraints of the degree to which you can get close to people in the organization in a personal sense because you too easily could wind up compromising when it comes to having to do your work. So you have to expect, you know one of my jokes when I talk to groups about being ombudsman is you have to be able eat lunch alone.

So there is that. And you have to not be cowed by authority and I have seen people floundered who were unable to sort of stand up as an equal to people in power and who wound up in their attempt at being ombudsmen really replicating the power dynamics of the organization. Ombudsmen can't be that kind of person. They have to be someone who can see through power and stand up to it in some sense, not be intimidated, not need to be liked for everything that they do. But at the same time caring enough about how they're received to want to be seen in a positive light because your intent is to address the interests of all of the parties involved.

So you have to be seen as responsive to people's interests and caring about them but not capitulating to them on the basis of their status.

Having a sense of humor helps at least for yourself, you know. An ability to be fairly self-reflective and critical. Knowing how to listen. A very broad range of tolerance for a variety of different people and a willingness to respond positively even to people who represent values or positions or ideologies or styles that you find objectionable in the rest of your life.

Q: Takes discipline I guess?

A: Yeah.

Q: You did mention techniques, are there techniques that you find useful for your work?

A: Well, all of the techniques of mediation are useful. For example, group facilitation techniques are useful. My background happens to be in psychology so some of the techniques that come out of both individual and family therapy I have found adaptable to this kind of work.

Q: Anything in particular that you find yourself using more often?

A: No, not really. I am not committed to any particular orientation towards mediation, I mean I am fairly ???

that way and similarly in psychology and things like that. It is a matter of getting inspiration for a variety of ways of doing this kind of work. Being able to think critically, you know not being be pulled into people's stories completely while listening attentively. That is important.

Q: What are the major obstacles to your work here?

A: We have had a lot of cooperation from MIH, the office has gone really well. The obstacles are the obstacles of sort of difficult situations or difficult people or whatever. But I don't feel that we are in a situation where we are facing systemic opposition from you know like, in some organizations HR is a major obstacle to the ombudsman office, that is not generally the case here. There are some individual HR people, EO people, you know who see us as sort of stepping on their turf or competitive towards us or don't want to be cooperative or whatever. But organizationally that has not been a problem. We have good working relations with the head of the EO (Equal Opportunity) and with the HR people in general.

Q: In terms of your on the ground interventions, common obstacles that come up?

A: No, the obstacles are all internal to the disputes. I mean it has to do with the dynamic of the dispute but it there is nothing structural there, I don't feel.

Q: Ok.

A: We get a lot of people coming to us. A lot of referrals. People tend to be very cooperative with this office, at least a sensibly cooperative. Nobody ever just hangs up the phone and says I don't want to talk with you or work with you.

Q: Twenty thousand people on this campus, how many people in this office?

A: There are five us plus a clerical person who works with cases. We are probably one of the larger ombudsman offices in the country.

Q: Still that sounds like a small staff.

A: It is.

Q: Is there a tremendous volume of work?

A: We get somewhat over four hundred cases a year. To count as a case it has to be more than someone calling up for just a couple of questions to be answered or something like that. The cases vary in complexity. I mean, there are some cases that take literally dozens and dozens of hours of staff time.

What has happened in the four and a half years that we have been here is that we are getting increasingly complex cases that take more and more time, unless we are becoming less effective of what we do, but I really don't think that is what it is. A lot more large group cases coming into the office and they tend to take more time.


Is that just a function of people growing more familiar with the functions of the office?

A: Yea. In the first year we had very few scientific cases coming in. In the second year there was a slight increase. As of the third year there was a real exponential increase of the number scientific cases coming into the office.

Q: Last question for you, what advice would you give to someone coming into this field?

A: Someone coming into this field? For me, this is really the most interesting work that I have ever done. I gave up a tenured academic position to do this work and I just turned down one elsewhere. I think for me, and I don't mean this to denigrate mediation, to me it is much more interesting than just mediation, for two reasons. One is you have the latitude of being more inventive in the kind of interventions you do, although there are some mediators who I think are enormously creative in how the handle situations.

The other is because you have the responsibility and therefore the opportunity to address systemic issues in organizations, mediators don't. I mean, mediators within organizations they come in and they have problems that are addressed to them and they have to address those conflicts one after the other. Here it is a much broader responsibility, it is a real interesting kind of work but I don't know how to translate that into advice. People are coming around and asking about the work all of the time, but it is usually how can I get into the field, because it is not always that easy to break in. Many organizations will only select people from within the organization already.

It is only in the last several years that there has been more of a tendency to recruit people from the outside, but that is happening. Even there, the corporate world tends to be pretty insulated to select primarily people from the corporate world, the academic world. Well, it is getting a little bit better that way.

Q: Can I ask you a follow up question?

A: Sure.


I know I told you that that was the last one. I have a follow up to that. It is related to the earlier part of your answer to the question, it has to do with assessment. You mentioned right at the beginning of the interview about how you do tailor your interventions to specific circumstances. What I am wondering is what process of assessment do you go through to determine how you will tailor an intervention?

A: Well, it is a two-part process. First of all, people come to us so the nature of the intervention is to some degree set by them. That is if you had come to me with a situation, a problem with your boss, we would talk about the situation to understand something about it and then we would look at a range of options for possible ways of dealing with that could include everything from doing absolutely nothing, to some kind of coaching, to some kind of more active intervention, to formal grievances with lawsuits of whatever.

I feel an obligation to give you a sense of the range of options that might be available to you but it has to be your decision. With very few exceptions, the only exception would be if there was a threat of violence to yourself or others. I am not going to do anything, to talk to anyone without your knowledge and permission. It really is confidential. I would explain to you at the outset that violence would be the only exception, so it is not a bait and switch kind of thing. I might have a sense that it would be very valuable on the basis of your account to have you and your supervisor to meet together and talk it out. You might say you are so worried about the possibility of reprisal. Your supervisor has been so clear. "You talk to anyone else about it then you are dead."

Then I am going to take your lead, I am not going to force you into what I think would be the best intervention. I might talk to you about ways in which we could make the possibility of a joint meeting a palatable suggestion for the supervisor and how it might be made. If you were unpersuaded, then that is it. We can drop the whole thing. You could just come in regularly to get some advice about how to handle situations or whatever it may be.

However, once someone has asked for some kind of intervention and opened up the possibility of us speaking to other people in the office then in the course of talking with him we sort of try to make clear that we don't begin with a pre-conceived notion about what the best way of intervening is. It might be to bring people together, but it might not be to bring people together. And then the assessment is built on what you hear, the stories that are told from the different people, from the questions that you are asking.

So you are trying to identify what the structural factors supporting the dispute, what are the qualities of the dispute itself. We have a whole reflective practitioner model that we use in this office and we have a whole template of questions that we ask about disputes and about our interventions which we do our assessments.

Q: Is that designed internally here?

A: Yeah. We are writing about that now.

Q: Okay. So you take that into probably not every dispute but...

A: The substantial ones and then we look, especially the science dispute we are looking at that way.

Q: Can you give me some examples of what kind of questions are on there?

A: Well we look for what we call "negative and positive aspects of the dispute." Things that are going to make the dispute difficult to resolve, things that are possible resources toward resolution, for example, that kind of thing.

Q: And positive resources would be the?

A: Well it may be something about the leader of a branch. You might have a really skilled leader of a particular branch. On the other hand, the head of a laboratory might be very resistant to the intervention from the office. There are those kinds of things. It may be in a science case the urgency of the scientific project, I mean people may be really at odds with each other but strongly committed to the project. And they know that if they can't work out their disputes the project is not going to succeed.

Lets say they were developing a vaccine, that is a pretty strong factor to have in there because these people really are committed to the science so you and I could be hating each other and hating working with each other but if we are working on this vaccine development and we know those damn people in that lab Britain are working on that, and we want to get it out first, that provides some incentive to get beyond the personal or to find a way of working it out because we have been doing this for three years, are we going to throw that totally down the drain? If we get this vaccine going there is a lot of fame associated with that. Not a whole lot of fortune, but fame. You are looking for those kinds of factors.

Q: Other elements that you look for during your assessment?

A: Oh yeah, I mean there are more than I can possibly list. You are looking for characteristics of the disputants, characteristics of the dispute, a range of different kinds of issues to work with, single issues are not a whole lot of fun to work with, external resources outside the unit that might be brought to bear.

Q: Great, well thank-you so much for taking your time I appreciate it.

A: Sure I was glad to talk about this.