Surviving and Thriving

By Prof. Mary Rowe, MIT

Covid-19, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo are illuminating our world like a lightning storm. These recent events inspire renewed commitment to understanding how organizational ombuds (OOs) can survive and thrive - for our organizations, for all our constituents and for ourselves. The humble questions below evolved to contribute to a recent sector meeting. Subsequent conversations highlighted the importance of these questions for all ombuds, and also the importance of our sharing the wisdom of each of us. If any of this is useful would you consider contributing ideas? (See the last paragraph.)  

SurvivingWhat IS surviving? 

  • Maintaining relevance as organizational services evolve around us: with an increase in offices related to support services and compliance, it would seem that ombuds offices ought not be passive. Relevance: are we in fact deeply engaged with issues of bridge-building and of peace, and if so how? … e.g. everything having to do with race and ethnicity and every variety of human identity……and addressing generational expectations around services. Every year our workplaces welcome new young adults, and their diversity and preferences and expectations seem more and more distinct, and wonderful and remarkable.

  • Relationships matter: how, and how frequently, do we tend to key relationships—with leadership, with constituents' representatives, with referral partners, and, especially, with all the affinity groups in the organization……..

  • Effective outreach strategies: the promise and perils of constituent engagement efforts - providing trainings or facilitation services, serving as an observer/resource on committees (especially regular work groups or task forces), publishing an annual report, and…. what are we doing with respect to social media?

  • Professional vitality: And personal vitality? Compassion fatigue? Regular check-ins with people we love and colleagues? Regular checkups with health care professionals and the chaplains of our choice if any?  Regular forays into old and new hobbies? Do we wear fitness rings and spend more time meditating (or hiking, sketching, gardening or dancing)? 


Thriving: What IS thriving? 

  • Is the very definition of OO Effectiveness changing?   How are the stressors on all of our constituents and their families showing up—in different kinds of casework—and, are we helping in effective ways? How are economics and changes in the law impacting cases and referrals to and from our offices? How do we balance the pro-active work (system reviews, identification of “new” issues, training, participation in committees, support to affinity groups, etc.) with responsive work (individual, dyad, and group conflict cases)? 

    Are we OOs meant to be effective only as individual contributors? Are we effective supports to our conflict management system? Do we think of ourselves as back-up, checks and balances, fail-safe, follow-up, a source of inspiration for others in our conflict management system? 

  • How are we evaluating ourselvesWould we in IOA like templates for self-evaluations? (Several OOs have come up with prototypes.) When we turn off the computer and think “I actually did well today, "what is it that we have done? Do we evaluate ourselves case by case? In addition, to what extent are we learning to take the Long View?  That is, are we tracking changes in policies and procedures and structures that we inspired or fostered? 

    Are we tracking ourselves—are we thriving? 

  • How would we like to be evaluated by others? Would we in IOA like a collection of templates for evaluation of OO offices? (Several OOs have come up with prototypes). ROI is quantitative and heart-warming, but responsive to one stakeholder—the employer. (Although, ‘tis true, our employer is a very important stakeholder for us and for our profession.)  Would we also like surveys of all stakeholders—and if so, what ideally should be asked about the value of the OO? Do all of us need outside reviewers? Should reviews reflect the interests of all our constituencies?

  • Do we need an IOA review of OO data base management?  Many OOs track the (non-identifiable) demographics and geographics of initial visitors. Ought we also track the (non-identifiable) demographics and geographics of those perceived to be a problem (if any) to be able to create “heat maps,” and also assess our outreach? And to be able to track “intra-cohort” cases compared with cases across cohorts?

    Are the cases where there is no alleged offender different from the cases where there is a specific complaint against someone? Are group cases different? Anonymous cases? Cases that come to us from peers and bystanders vs those referred by compliance vs those who come from an injured or offended person vs those who come to us from a line supervisor? 

  • Should we develop new ways to understand and communicate our achievements?  As just one example: Should we take careful notes on cases that we perceive (for whatever reason) to be especially “serious?” We then could ask: why do we think these cases are serious? From whom do we first hear about the most serious cases? Who are the stakeholders for the most serious cases? What has helped us in dealing with these cases? And of course: What can we tell our organizations and our senior officers about our work with the most serious cases?   


Please consider offering any one-pagers you have on these topics?

Many different clusters of OOs have been talking about these topics especially because of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and Covid. Many OOs and especially new ombuds are asking for two kinds of short articles:

1)    Any advisory you have on your website to help your constituents (E.g. Effective apologies; How to find a mentor; Keeping a diary and drafting a complaint)

2)    Any short article for OO practice: (E.g. How to use your office data for systems change and to demonstrate your value; OO Ethics: How can an OO be an active anti-racist? Concerns for OO practice in the era of Covid)


If you have an article, resource, or strategy you would like to share, please send them to IOA via: 

Christina Sabee at [email protected]

~ mary rowe

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