Independence & the Two-Edged Sword

By Bruce MacAllister
IOA Board Member

As a part of my service on the IOA Board of Directors, I am co-chair for the Standards of Practice Task Force. Like all members of this task force, I appreciate that the Standards form the core basis for our practice and that there are deep implications to identifying any potential issues with them. Yet my time on this task force has led me to ponder each of the major elements of the Standards.

Through this process, I have compared my own experiences across a long and varied career with those of other colleagues in light of our standard of “Independence.” One common assertion has been that, to comply with the Standards, adequate independence required that ombuds refrain from participating in the social fabric of their workplace. So, activities like meeting a colleague for lunch were out of the question. I have discovered through my own experience as well as observing the practical experience of others, however, that the implications of independence and neutrality become more intricate when practiced in the context of real-life human dynamics.

The expectation that an ombuds is to be viewed as a trusted, competent, respected, and independent member of the risk management community becomes far more complex when evaluated in light of how trust and respect actually form. One might assume that it is imperative to maintain a healthy state of “remoteness” and distance from those with whom the ombuds may need to engage to avoid any perception of non-neutrality. However, when one factors into the equation the key elements necessary to foster trust, effective communication, and an appropriate degree of influence (not over the outcome, but relevant to the need for action) that remoteness can work at cross purposes to building trust and rapport.

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In Appreciation of My Networks

by Bryan Hanson, Ombudsperson, The Graduate School at Virginia Tech

Working as an ombudsman creates a sense of isolation at times, especially when you are a sole practitioner within an organization. This is a dynamic that became my reality when I took on the role of ombudsman for a university in a rural community. Throughout my career as a conflict engagement professional, I’ve relied on strong networks to help me through phases of my professional development. Fortunately, I’ve been located in communities that had many experienced professionals with whom I could engage and work on a regular basis. Now that I am in a rural community, I must rely on networks that I maintain from a distance.

As a newcomer to the ombudsman profession, I am finding that access to a strong network of support is critical as I navigate the situations I encounter on a daily basis. However, as I become more focused in my work as a conflict practitioner, I have realized that not only is my geographic location a challenge, the wider community of professionals sharing this role is much smaller. Fortunately, I am finding that my colleagues serving as ombudsmen in other institutions are very open to communication and engaging on a level that provides the needed support to ensure that I remain on the right path.

It is with great appreciation that I felt the need to acknowledge the level of support these networks provide and also to encourage others to foster the networks available to them. To do this I wanted to share my story of network development as an ombudsman in a rural community and hope that it inspires the sharing of other ombudsmen’s experiences with the networks that support them. By illustrating the many opportunities to get engaged with those that can be supportive of our success in our role, this interchange will hopefully benefit others new to the field and those who simply feel they could gain value by expanding their networks.

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Popcorn Share – Check out these resources!

Were you able to attend Popcorn Share: Discover New Resources to Enhance Your Ombuds Practice in Richmond? It was a highly-interactive session that resulted in the “crowdsharing” of this 9-page Popcorn Share Resource Guide. Within the guide you’ll find a variety of nuggets on coaching, training, navigating sticky situations, addressing systemic issues, and all kinds of professional development tips and tools.

We challenge all ombuds to review the list, discover something new, and comment below with something missed! Resources can be books, movies, assessments, tools, videos. TED talks, articles, ancient wisdom, psychology, brain science, metaphors, images, mantras….

Have some fun with it!

My Experience as an Ombuds Tourist

By Diana Mosonyi

A friend of mine came up with the term “ombuds tourist” when I was telling her about my attempt to visit as many ombuds offices in the US as I could. Between November 2017 and February 2018, I took up the quest to find an answer to a seemingly simple question: Why is working in an office where people bring their anger, frustration, despair, bitterness, and tears so attractive? I’d like to share my journey with readers of The Independent Voice, as I believe they might find it interesting and useful as they consider their work as ombuds or paths to the profession. 

Diana Mosonyi

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Power: Questions and Stories

By Jim Huegerich, Senior Ombuds, Town of Chapel Hill

We all possess power in two key areas: questions and stories.

Questions are often asked to confirm an assumption, to challenge, or to convince. Imagine if we asked questions to truly learn about one another, particularly about those with whom we disagree or those very different from us? Questions, and the ways in which they are asked, have the potential to transform our interactions and inform how we approach, view, and engage people — particularly those with whom we deeply disagree. Through genuine curiosity we can learn to harness the power of questions to invite understanding and make connections between the asked and the asker. We can learn to:

  • discover questions that bridge the gap between differences and help us better understand the situation from differing perspectives
  • craft questions in a way that genuinely invites others to respond and elicits fresh, productive responses, particularly in stuck or divided conversations
  • avoid questions that close down a conversation during disagreement
  • foster awareness of the effects of questions on our perceptions, emotions, and relationships
  • create space for people to be real and to own their feelings in fresh ways that help them relate to themselves and others, surfacing possibilities unimagined by people stuck in disagreement

Stories are important for relationships. We all have a story to tell. The power of story connects us as real people, valued for who we are and where we are in life. Unfortunately, we often feel like we know others — what their stories are, and why they do what they do.  Or even worse, we do not care to know their stories. The challenge is to be willing to create the safety and the opportunity to elicit, then listen to, the story of another person. Allowing others to tell their stories is a gift we give to them.

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Skin in the Game

By Mary Conger, Doctoral Candidate, University of Pennsylvania; Founder, The American Dialogue Project
Chair, IOA Communications Committee

Last week, I went to see my doctor. In the course of discussing my minor malady she briefly mentioned an experience she’d had as a patient herself. It was a casual, entirely appropriate remark. She didn’t “overshare” or project her experience onto me. Her anecdote took all of 10 seconds to relay, but it has stayed with me for days.

I like my doctor. She is knowledgeable, experienced, well-regarded. Her academic pedigree is top-notch and her online reviews uniformly superb. Her wry but warm bedside manner is exactly my speed. If you had asked me two weeks ago, “How’s your doctor?” I would have answered, “She’s perfect!”

But this week, I find her even perfect-er. In conveying that she knew what it felt like to be vulnerable and under another’s care, she created a deeper trust between us. That is the incredible power of evinced empathy—it closes gaps that you didn’t even know were there.

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One-Sided Conflict Resolution

By Roy Baroff, CO-OP®, MA, JD
Faculty & Staff Ombuds, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC

It was the title that caught my eye. How can you resolve a conflict with someone else without actually engaging that person? That’s what I was thinking when I signed up for this pre-conference workshop at the International Ombudsman Association Annual Conference in Minneapolis. I was also intrigued by the presenter, Nicole Gravagna, Ph.D., who has a background in neuroscience and the venture capital world. (She wrote Venture Capital for Dummies.)

So, what’s this all about and how can it help me in my work as the NC State faculty & staff ombuds?  I will not provide all the details of the session, yet it is worth mentioning that we started out by shaping Playdoh© into parts of the brain with a focus on the ACC  – Anterior Cingulate Cortex.

Can you identify these parts of the brain?

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Organizational Ombudsing: Back to the Future

By Dave Carver, PhD, Student Ombudsperson, University of Nebraska Medical CenterDave Carver
IOA Board Member
[email protected]

In higher education the start of the fall semester is a time to welcome new and returning students while also taking a fresh look at traditional perspectives. It is in that spirit that I offer a few thoughts on the future of organizational ombudsing.

First, I think we can all agree that our IOA version of the ombuds role is unique, valuable, and worth preserving. There’s nothing quite like it.  I would also point out that at least in academia, the ombuds role was practiced effectively long before the IOA and the Standards of Practice (SOP) ever existed. I first came in contact with a university ombudsman as an undergraduate student at Northern Illinois University in the early 1970s. Although the SOP were still unwritten at the time, our campus ombudsman was indeed confidential, impartial, independent, and informal–pretty much as we use those terms today. Was that just a coincidence? I don’t think so because the role was being replicated on campuses across the country.

Those early academic ombuds pioneers fulfilled previously unmet campus needs for informal dispute resolution and fair process advocacy in a somewhat magical, behind the scenes manner. Although I’m not as familiar with the evolution of ombudsing in the corporate world and other organizational sectors, I think the role emerged in a similar way. The original organizational ombuds all came from a multitude of professional disciplines and work backgrounds. There were no sequential degree programs or step-wise career paths required. This was still the case when I became an ombuds in 1996 and remains true today. It is a large part of what makes the ombuds role special to the organizations that we serve.

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A Review of Communities of Practice in the Ombuds Community

By Shannon Lynn Burton, Ph.D.
Associate University Ombudsperson, Michigan State University

Through the International Ombudsman Association (IOA), ombuds around the world learn their roles and connect with others in the field through the annual conference, training, and webinars, as well as through the various publications sponsored by IOA. These interactions allow us to network with individuals both in and outside our professional sector. However, for some, the large conferences might seem overwhelming and might not address the particular needs of a sector or issue. To meet these needs, sector-specific or region-specific meetings have emerged. These meetings allow for greater connection within sectors or regions and create a space for deeper conversation about specific issues. These groups, some of which are informally part of the larger IOA umbrella, can be defined as “communities of practice.”  In 1991, theorists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger coined the term “communities of practice” in their work examining legitimate peripheral participation. Legitimate peripheral participation describes the ways in which newcomers to a group become experienced members through low-risk activities whereby they become familiar with the organization, values and language of the group or community. Individuals form “communities of practice” when they engage in collective learning or in a shared human endeavor.

This past June, two such communities of practice met at Michigan State University. The first was the Summer Meeting of Academic Ombuds, a group that has met for the last 15 years to discuss ideas and support networking among those in the academic sector. A smaller group, the Michigan Caucus of Educational Ombuds, met for the third time to examine issues particular to their expanding group, as well as needs particular to those in the State of Michigan. MSU extended their hospitality as the kick-off to the celebration of the 50th year of their ombuds office, but more importantly, to contribute to these particular communities of practice.

Academic Conference

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