Procedural Justice Beyond Borders: Mediation in Ghana

By Jacqueline Nolan-Haley and James Kwasi Annor-Ohene


Ghana enacted comprehensive alternative dispute resolution legislation in 2010 with the specific goals of providing access to justice and promoting domestic and foreign direct investment (The Act).  A significant aspect of the Act was the inclusion of customary arbitration and mediation.  The focus of this Article is on mediation as this is the first time that mediation has been included in a statute in Ghana.  The Act’s definition of mediation reflects an understanding of the mediation process based upon the western values of individual autonomy and party self-determination.  These principles represent a significant departure from the more communal values of customary mediation that has traditionally been practiced in Ghana.  Whether the Act has been successful in achieving its “access to justice” goal is too soon to determine.  However, one yardstick for measuring success is the degree to which parties experience procedural justice or fairness when they participate in the mediation process.  Studies show that procedural justice can foster perceptions of legitimacy and where parties report positive experiences of procedural justice, they are generally satisfied with the process and tend to comply with outcomes.

In this Article, we report on a preliminary procedural justice study that we conducted in Ghana during the summer of 2013. Our findings, based on a limited number of participants, suggest that the mediation provisions in the Act are perceived as legitimate and that the common characteristics of procedural justice in Ghana are consistent with the findings on procedural justice in western countries.  The opportunities to express oneself, to be treated respectfully, and to experience fairness in the process, are as highly valued aspects of mediation in the communitarian, collectivist culture of Ghana as they are reported to be in individualistic western cultures.


Systems for Dealing with Conflict and Learning from Conflict—Options for Complaint-Handling: an Illustrative Case

chessBy Brian Bloch, David Miller, and Mary Rowe

The phone rings in the Ombuds Office[1]. A Ms. Lee is telephoning the ombudsman from far away. Lee is a department head in our organization who is temporarily assigned overseas. She says that a colleague, Ms. Dula, insisted that Ms. Lee call the Ombudsman immediately. Ms. Lee says that Ms. Dula noticed her crying in the bathroom, listened for a while, and then Ms. Dula insisted that Ms. Lee must consult with someone. The Ombudsman seemed to be the least threatening option.

In the Ombuds Office we do not know what we will hear. A case introduced in such a way might be about any very delicate issue. The central concern could be cruel, closed-door humiliation by a supervisor or mentor. It could be racial or religious hatred or sexual abuse or someone with an obsession. It might be suspicion or knowledge that a powerful person has misused resources, embezzled money or committed fraud. It could be fear of violence or gross safety violations. Most delicate cases include several different issues; perceived humiliation, intimidation and conflicts of interest are often part of a complaint, and so are allegations of multiple infractions of policies and rules.

It is also possible that we will hear perceptions of fact that turn out not to accord with reality. As one of our colleagues, Howard Gadlin, says, “If an organization has an Ombuds Office that is really trusted, and whose confidentiality is actually believed in, then you get people coming forward who have ‘no case’ at all.” So we try hard to maintain professional discipline and due caution.

The caller is often afraid, very upset and feeling trapped in her or his situation. For example, the alleged offender may be powerful and charismatic, with many connections. The alleged offender might be a senior leader, a major donor or customer, or someone who controls the future of the complainant. A complainant may be afraid to let her family know about her problem if it seems to reflect on her own behavior, for example her chastity. A complainant might be a temporary worker or contractor who risks his visa and his family’s future if he loses his job.

A caller may believe that she cannot realistically make a formal complaint, because she lacks conclusive proof of the offense. Or a caller may feel humiliated even to talk about what happened, if he thinks he should have been able to deal with a problem on his own. Many callers blame themselves. Many callers can see no way out, and can feel things getting worse and worse. “I have let this go on far too long,” says one or another caller, and sometimes the ombudsman silently agrees.

Ombudsmen know that people are often puzzled that they or others have not taken action in apparently egregious circumstances. Our experience is that only a relatively small proportion of the population is comfortable with formal actions (although, importantly, some in this group are satisfied only by formal investigations and formal action.) But most people, most of the time, are quite reluctant to act on the spot, or report unacceptable behavior, if they believe this will result in formal action. This is one of the reasons why options are needed in a complaint system.

What might the ombudsman do? One would be as empathic as possible and set aside whatever time was necessary to listen and talk with Ms. Lee. At whatever moment the ombudsman begins to speak—sometimes one simply listens for a period of time—an ombudsman would often begin by explaining confidentiality, neutrality, the informal nature of the Ombuds Office—we almost never make management decisions—and the independence of the office.

Typically we make a major point about confidentiality with a caller, and we think a lot about it, ourselves. The International Ombudsman Association’s Code of Ethics[2] states: “The ombudsman, as a designated neutral, has the responsibility of maintaining strict confidentiality concerning matters that are brought to his/ her attention unless given permission to do otherwise. The only exception, at the sole discretion of the ombudsman, is where there appears to be imminent risk of serious harm.” We will always be thinking whether there may be imminent risk of serious harm to the caller, or to someone else. And we will always be thinking about the options that exist within our conflict management systems.

Whatever Ms. Lee’s concern may be, we would try to help her to consider that she does in fact have options and some hope. However insufficient to her account of fear and perhaps injury, there may be some options to help her at least a little, in dealing with her situation. Together with her, we would look for ideas, perhaps including:

1. Possibly Ms. Lee does not have to take any immediate action. She may be able to find informal support from Ms. Dula or others—perhaps from a member of her family back home; from social workers, health care, legal and religious advisers; a mentor in the organization. We would ask if she has consulted anyone else, and will try to develop ideas about other trustworthy people who could help her if she wants time to think about her options.

2. Ms. Lee and the ombudsman might discuss possibilities for her to get a little time off, if that would be helpful, or to come back home if she is away from home. If she says her situation is untenable, and also is unwilling to choose another option below, Ms. Lee and the ombudsman could discuss possibilities for a transfer, in case that is possible, perhaps to another department or another country. In some situations Ms. Lee might consider a formal complaint after she has safely left the situation. (If the complainant feels strongly about having to leave, the ombudsman may be mentally adding this issue to the list of concerns to consider in the case. That is, is it possible that the complainant is being driven out? Or that she is fleeing a situation where she herself has behaved badly? Or both?)

3. In some situations, the ombudsman may be able to help by explaining relevant policies or procedures that were unknown to Ms. Lee, or hard to understand. In our experience very few managers and employees actually know the rules and policies of their organization. In addition, many do not understand the local cultures and cross-cultural “common laws” that obtain in most organizations. Thus a discussion of norms and expectations and rules may be helpful—in affirming her feelings, or helping her understand why some kinds of supervisory behavior are in fact considered acceptable—or both. (Please see also the accompanying article by David Miller on the importance of codes of conduct.)

4. In some situations, the ombudsman—with permission—may be able to help by making a quick phone call to a relevant compliance office. (See, as examples, Audit, Ethics, HR, EEO, General Counsel, Waste Hazards and other compliance offices on the Chart attached.) It may be possible to alert the relevant compliance office to the facts of the concern, without any mention of Ms. Lee.

5. Ms. Lee might be able to write the facts of a situation or call a Hot Line, without betraying who she is. Anonymous complaints can sometimes bring attention to safety problems, financial misbehavior, and other issues, and the ombudsman or Hot Line will know which person in the organization might do some fact-finding and take action, and where Ms. Lee might direct a factual letter. Some organizations say that they do not act on anonymous complaints. However, in our experience most organizations do take note of truly serious, anonymous communications, at least with respect to issues where investigation is compulsory.

6. We might help Ms. Lee to think about drafting a formal letter to the person she sees as the offender. She might set forth relevant facts as she sees them, and the effects of relevant events. She might state whatever she thinks should happen next, or ask for a remedy, if there is anything for which she would wish to ask. (An example might be to ask for setting things right in the situation she describes.) Just drafting such a letter may help her to deal with grief, and to think through her possible options, and to prepare for any formal option that she may choose.

7. We might also help Ms. Lee to think about writing a letter to her supervisor, if this is not the same person as the offender, setting forth the facts as she sees them, and the help she needs, and also, any concerns about her work. Drafting such a letter might help her to prepare, if eventually she wishes to talk with her supervisor. Discussing such a draft with Ms. Lee may provide the Ombudsman with a chance gently to explore how others might view the situation. And of course, if Lee is willing to communicate with her supervisor, this may help that person and the organization; supervisors can act much more effectively if they have the information they need.

8. Ms. Lee might also consider drafting a formal complaint to appropriate senior managers or compliance officers. This process often takes a little while. As noted above, this may be useful both for collecting the facts, and for being able to cope emotionally with what has been happening. From the ombudsman’s point of view this is also a process that may help Ms. Lee see other sides of the story in cases where that would be appropriate.

9. Ms. Lee and the ombudsman might also discuss what she would wish to say to the (alleged) offender, her own supervisor or to relevant senior managers—if she were to meet with any of them. We could help Ms. Lee to consider what she might want to accomplish at any such meeting and the possible things that the other person might say or do. We might role-play the meeting, with the ombudsman playing the role of the other person. Ms. Lee might consider, at such a meeting, handing in the letter described above. If the organization permits an accompanying person, we might talk about whether she wishes to ask a workplace associate to accompany her.

10. In some cultures and with respect to certain problems, it is possible that Ms. Lee would wish to think about some form of mediation. If Ms. Lee wants to make a request, mediation may be helpful. She might choose the ombudsman as a neutral, or some other person, like a mentor, or a revered older person, or a designated mediator from a Mediation Office.

11. In some situations it might be helpful for the Ombuds Office to ask an appropriate office for an immediate training program, in the region or department where Ms. Lee is working. There might be training about relevant codes of conduct. The training might be about harassment or safety policies; about relevant laws of the country; about resources available for people who perceive unacceptable behavior; or about options for bystanders. Generic actions like these may stop inappropriate behavior. Generic actions sometimes make it easier for people to act on the spot, or come forward, and may thereby help to prevent harm in the future.

12. In some situations the ombudsman might offer to talk with the alleged offender, or with Ms. Lee’s supervisor, or with a relevant senior manager.

13. In some situations, Ms. Lee could register a formal, written complaint with the most senior organizational leader or manager in the country where she is working.

14. We could seek relevant resources that might be available in the country that Ms. Lee is in, for example, resources for women, to see if she wishes to consult with them.

15. Ms. Lee could go to relevant organizational security or outside police officers. Ms. Lee might register a formal complaint with the relevant judicial system.

16. While considering the options above, Ms. Lee might decide, to “wait and see if anything else happens.” In such a case we might suggest that she consider keeping a careful log, with dates and times, noting witnesses, if any, and any additional evidence of events that cause concern. As with option five above, a log of this kind may help someone assess what is happening, may contribute to evidence, and may help the person regain some sense of control over his or her life.

17. Occasionally a person will ask about “how to make a formal record” without using any of the formal options above. The Ombuds Office keeps no case records for the organization, but a person can mail a securely sealed letter to him or herself, or even send such a letter by registered mail, to him or herself. This might later serve as a record.

18. If Ms. Lee mentions other parties in her discussion of concerns, the ombudsman might explore with Ms. Lee what the options might appear to be for these other stakeholders—and to try to think ahead what they might choose to do under various circumstances. In relevant cases, the ombudsman might also ask whether Ms. Lee would want her own call to be disclosed, if another stakeholder were also to call—or whether Ms. Lee would prefer not to give such permission.

Usually it will appear that there are shortcomings for every possible action. It may take Ms. Lee a little time to reach a decision on how to proceed. Ms. Lee might choose more than one option, or plan to try several options sequentially if needed. Maybe none of these options will do, and we are likely to continue to search for another. Especially if Ms. Lee chooses “wait and see,” the ombudsman may follow up and follow up, many times.

Complex cases are often challenging for an ombudsman. We would constantly be trying to maintain objectivity since we often cannot be sure about any of the facts of a situation. We would try to think if we were affirming Ms. Lee’s feelings enough for her not to feel alone, or in despair, without actually being drawn so far into the situation that we have lost objectivity about the facts. Such objectivity is needed both to help her, and to consider the rights and interests of others, and to consider the interests of the organization itself. There are many questions to consider, especially if different nationalities, religious groups and cultures are involved.

The ombudsman must think about whether, if Ms. Lee’s story is true, there may be risk to any other person, and if so is there imminent risk of serious harm. We must also think, whether the story is true or not, about the rights and interests of the alleged offender. And what needs to happen, in the very rare case that the alleged offender does not exist—or has been in another country entirely, and the alleged offense cannot have taken place? It will be clear that we must listen with great care.

The ombudsman will likely consider the role of Ms. Dula—is her knowledge important in a formal sense, for example to back up Ms. Lee? Does she know more than we know she knows? Does her having heard Ms. Lee’s story constitute “notice” to the organization? Will she make trouble or be helpful, if Ms. Lee gets back to her, and ought the idea of getting back to Ms. Dula be discussed with Ms. Lee? Are there others like Ms. Dula with whom Ms. Lee has spoken? Does Ms. Lee know of others who have faced the same kinds of issues? We will try to be thinking about everyone whose interests in our organization (and perhaps outside it) might be affected, and any possible options for meeting those interests.

It is likely to be important to Ms. Lee that our organization provides options for dealing with conflict within our conflict management system. As mentioned above, there are likely to be compliance offices. And, like most organizations, our system has an internal grievance channel that is available to deal with formal complaints, so Ms. Lee has rights-based options available. Although Lee may have little trust in formal grievances against persons of high rank, the high rank of an (alleged) offender will not necessarily influence an investigatory procedure—people in high positions have been brought to justice in the past. However, if Lee believes that she lacks “enough” evidence, this may deter her from lodging a formal grievance. And even if more evidence is forthcoming, she may feel she will be faced with fallout afterwards.

Although she may have little trust, a rights-based option may in fact protect Ms. Lee, especially if it turns out that other people share Ms. Lee’s concerns. And a rights-based option may help to protect the interests of others, which may matter to Lee. And of course, on the other side of the picture, if the alleged offender is innocent, his or her name might get cleared, a fact that is important to a neutral observer.

Ms. Lee’s interest-based options may seem limited if she fears loss of privacy, loss of relationships—and retaliation. However, writing a factual letter to deliver privately to the alleged offender, may appeal to her, especially if she wishes to ask for a remedy. Being able to prove that she delivered such a letter, (for example by registered mail) of which she has kept and mailed herself a copy, may also add a little to “evidence.” Having more evidence might prove helpful to management, if Ms. Lee were later to need to bring a formal complaint.

Ms. Lee’s power-based options may seem risky to her. What if the apparent offender’s boss sides with the offender? What if the superior asks Ms. Lee for evidence and Ms. Lee tells him/her there isn’t any, beyond her own word, and the fact that she spoke with Ms. Dula? But there is also the possibility that Lee’s own supervisor, and the people that know her, may be a source of power for her. She may not have to face her situation alone—others may be able to support her.

Whatever options Ms. Lee chooses, we must also think about the systems implications of her complaint. Presumably we will follow up. Sooner or later there will be an opportunity to address the issues raised above, either through the immediate option chosen by Ms. Lee; or through a training program; via 360 performance evaluations, organizational surveys, and focus groups; or quite likely with permission from Ms. Lee after she is safely out of the situation.

It will be apparent that multi-issue, multi-cohort, cross-gender, cross-culture, multi-jurisdictional cases require great care. Imagine a few facts changing either way, or imagine the case in a different context, and a conflict may change or the options may change.

Organizations need to have a way to let the facts emerge, if only privately, while different actions are considered. This task is, realistically, daunting in modern organizations; many managers are very insulated. However, the complexity of the modern workplace has fortunately led to complaint systems that provide options—for care and fairness and justice—for complainants, for respondents, and also for managers.

Just “having a choice of options” seems to help people to come forward. Brian Bloch’s accompanying article illustrates an example of developing various options, how they may be used, and how they may help individuals and groups.

The existence of an Ombuds Office that is independent and neutral, and off the record, and which knows all the components of the conflict management system, may be able help people in distress take a responsible first step. The accompanying article by Mary Rowe develops these ideas in greater detail.

Click here to download the full article (pdf)

[1] provides the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice for an organizational ombudsman. In these articles we use the term ombudsman for the practitioner and “Ombuds Office” for the office. Like our professional association, the IOA, we respect the use of various forms of these terms.

[2] Ibid.

Originally published in 14 Harv. Negot. L. Rev. 239 (Winter 2009).

Organizational Systems for Dealing with Conflict & Learning from Conflict


Click here to download the full article (pdf)

Ideas about conflict are compelling topics for those of us who in work in organizations. We think about workplace justice, alternative vs. appropriate dispute resolution, and how to help leaders and teams deal effectively with the concerns and conflicts that preoccupy them. We think about organizational systems for dealing with conflict and learning from conflict. The present authors prefer this concept to the conventional term “conflict management systems” (CMS) although, for simplicity, we also use the conventional term.

It is not clear to us that all conflict can or should be “managed” — managed by whom? One of the major questions in this series of articles is: who should decide how to deal with a conflict? In particular, the Bloch, Miller and Rowe articles explore appropriate dispute resolution within an organization: who determines what is “appropriate” in this complex world, and on what basis?

The need for shared norms in complex cases. Multi-issue, multi-cohort, multi-context, cross-boundary, cross-gender, multi-ideological, multi-cultural, multi-generational, multi-law-regulation-policy conflicts are now common in organizations. Many organizations are also structurally complex. The workforce may work within virtual structures and under widely differing contractual arrangements; employees are of very unequal power, and often do not share norms and values. Organizations now must work hard and consistently if they wish to be effective in teaching values, standards, policies and rules. This work begins with setting standards.

David Miller writes that multi-cultural organizations need standards of conduct that apply to all persons in the organization; the standards should be linked to the mission of the organization; standards are essential when adhering to them is required to accomplish the mission. Miller writes that standards are required for a workforce to understand what is “appropriate” behavior and appropriate conflict management.

The need for options. Implementing standards, policies and rules is not easy in conflict management. In real life it is often ineffective to think about a complaint or conflict just in terms of its “issues,” without regard to what the stakeholders want. Different stakeholders seek different ways of dealing with a conflict: some do nothing, some leave the situation, some make matters worse, some seek formal complaint channels, and others seek informal resolution for their complaints and conflicts.

It is a common belief that different issues suggest or require certain specific methods or venues for dealing with those issues. (Think, respectively, about how to deal with criminal behavior, other illegal behavior, offenses against the organization’s policies, offenses against personal values, and the complaints people have with administrative services.) However, despite the common belief that the issue will determine the method of conflict management, in the face of an actual conflict or complaint, many employees and managers simply act in accord with their own beliefs, rather than following the apparent norms about how a given issue should be addressed.

In reality, there is no single, effective way to decide which problems should go to which conflict management options, because people so often vote with their feet. Both managers and disputants often 1) ignore a complaint or conflict, or 2) think they alone own it, and 3) may want to deal with it in ways that are different from ways that would be chosen by the other stakeholders.

New laws and standards, combined with very diverse values held by people in conflict have, therefore, led to the need for options in conflict resolution and complaint handling. Providing a variety of options in turn suggests the need for a systems approach.

A relatively simple way to think about conflict management options within a system is to define them in terms of dealing with conflict on the basis of interests, and rights, and power, (please see the Chart attached). In reality, of course, interests, rights, and power overlap to some extent, within almost all options. And, in reality, all conflict management offices use some interest-based, rights-based and power-based ideas to deal with problems. However for simplicity we will use these rubrics, in discussing elements of conflict management systems.

So, different issues and differing values lead to the need for options, and having options suggests building a system. As it happens, it is not a simple thing to develop a coherent system. There is a fundamental issue about “who owns” a conflict or a complaint. Who has the right to choose which option or options to use?

As a first example, a multi-issue, multi-cohort case may present a problem within a systems approach. A given case may seem relevant to many different offices and functions on the Chart attached. Each office might think it should “own” the case, because it appears to “own” one or another of the many issues in the case, and it provides one or more functions relevant to the case.

As a second example, supposing the individuals engaged in conflict do not take the problems to any manager or office on our Chart? Conflict managers and dispute system designers sometimes talk as if “all” disputes might surface into the system. In real life most concerns and conflicts most of the time are addressed by the individuals involved, (or these parties suffer in silence). Resolution by the parties involved may often be a good thing—think for example of a well-functioning team. However, does this mean that in real life individuals are part of a “conflict management system?” What are the implications for system design?

Design and implementation In his paper, Brian Bloch illustrates the process of designing and building a system “to deal with conflict and to learn from conflict.” He records how he added interest- and rights-based options to an organization that previously did not provide those options, in order to meet the needs of individuals and groups. (Bloch, Miller and Rowe in their articles all wryly attest to the fact that this process is often less than elegant and that there is much to learn. Conflict management systems “happen,” however much we try to design them.)

As it turns out, taking a “true” systems approach to dealing with conflict within an organization is difficult, for many theoretical and practical reasons. These articles outline some problems in conflict management system design:

• Conflict management systems are difficult for managers and employees to understand. Different managers often feel naturally attuned to one or another option in the system, but various disputants may be drawn to other options. Added to this confusion is the fact that most employees and managers do not understand all the relevant policies and procedures—let alone how each option in the system actually works. Sometimes it is not even obvious which offices would be considered part of a given CMS.

• A system must try to balance the rights and interests of the organization, of its different conflict management offices—and of all the individuals involved in a conflict. These needs are sometimes at odds with each other. (A classic dilemma of this kind is illustrated in the Case attached.)

Mary Rowe discusses the important contributions that an organizational ombudsman—a zero barrier office—offers in dealing with major dilemmas of systems that are meant to deal with conflict and learn from conflict. Indeed, the key role of the organizational ombudsman is discussed in all three of these articles on conflict management system design.

[1] provides the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice for an organizational ombudsman. In these articles we use the term ombudsman for the practitioner and “Ombuds Office” for the office. Like our professional association, the IOA, we respect the use of various forms of these terms.

Creating a Faith-Based Conflict Management System

Brian Bloch

Download the full article (pdf)

Every organization has to deal with conflicts. Many deal with them on an ad hoc basis without articulating a standard way to process conflicts.  Few have gone to the extent of designing a conflict management system (CMS).  Faith-based organizations (FBOs) are no exception.  While many FBOs have well-developed programs for conciliation, mediation, and scripture-based peacemaking, very few religious communities have taken advantage of the CMS approach to their internal conflicts.  I’ve had the privilege of attempting to create a CMS in conjunction with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
The first part of this paper describes the previous method of dispute handling in ISKCON, the shortcomings of which served as an impetus to create a CMS.  It also covers the various steps taken to create the CMS, the components of the CMS, the special role of the ombudsman, and the challenges encountered.  Part Two focuses on the nature of disputes and their causes.  A subsection of Part Two samples one particular case, that of the role of women in ISKCON.  While this paper concentrates on ISKCON, both because of my familiarity with the organization and my inability to find other FBOs taking a CMS approach, I try whenever possible to apply the principles highlighted here to FBOs in general.

Part One—Creating a Conflict Management System in a Faith-Based Organization
ISKCON’s Pre-CMS History of Conflict-Handling
During the life of its founder, Swami Prabhupada, ISKCON’s conflicts were handled mainly through power-based decisions, often with reference to Vaishnava  theology.  In spite of Prabhupada’s many requests to his disciples to cooperate and avoid conflict, disputes invariably arose.  Major conflicts were handled by Prabhupada himself, while lesser conflicts were settled by members of the Governing Body Commission (GBC—the highest management body) or by ISKCON’s middle management (temple presidents).  After Prabhupada’s death in 1977, ISKCON struggled to solve its conflicts, primarily because the organization had no developed mechanism for conflict management.  Some of the leaders intuitively made interest-based attempts to stave off or contain conflict (without the language to name what they were doing), but power-based decisions by GBC members and temple presidents remained the rule.  Rights-based approaches were rare.  Alternative dispute resolution was unknown in ISKCON at that time.  Jennifer Lynch, Q.C. writes about such a situation: “Often those in positions of power provide no options whatsoever for dealing with conflict—the ‘like it or lump it’ approach that leaves conflict festering or induces managers and employees to quit.”  With apostasy rates rising among older members, ISKCON struggled to find a balance between individuals’ needs and the needs of the otherwise growing organization, and between mercy and justice.
The authority structure Prabhupada set in place remained strong after his death, and power-based decisions leaned firmly toward a top-down, justice-over-mercy approach.  Leaders emphasized the organization’s needs over the needs of individual members, and rules were enforced firmly.  It was also common for some or all of the rank and file members to be excluded from the decision-making process.
But as the years passed, the leaders began to mature.  They were no longer twenty-somethings but had fully entered the adult world, and with their increased maturity they began to perceive the shortcomings in how they had been dealing with disputes.  They also began to perceive how debilitating it is to deal with conflict without a structure or plan.  In 2001 I asked the thirty-eight GBC members, “How many of you spend 25% of your time dealing with conflict?” Nearly all of them raised their hands.  I continued to ask the same question, raising the percentage each time.  There were still hands showing at 50%.
The time was ripe to introduce a conflict management system.

Impetuses to Create a CMS
“Organizations do not set in motion a process of wholesale shift to new systems unless there is substantial dissatisfaction with the old.”  SPIDR’s Guidelines for the Design of Integrated Conflict Management Systems within Organizations states that the “…four causal factors that act as catalysts for the design of an integrated conflict management system are culture, cost, crisis, and compliance.”  It is unlikely that the authors of the SPIDR document were thinking of organizations like ISKCON—a volunteer religious community—when writing these guidelines, yet this excerpt from their report covers the primary reasons I proposed to look into dispute resolution in ISKCON.

My initial impetus for considering alternative dispute resolution in ISKCON was cost.  The SPIDR report describes the cost factor: “The organization is incurring heavy costs from its current disputes and from its current dispute resolution processes (or lack of them).  Direct costs include costs of litigating cases externally and processing them internally.  Indirect costs include loss of personnel through sick leave or early retirement, loss of personnel to competitors, the costs of new employee recruitment, loss of productivity and opportunity, bad publicity, petty sabotage, waste, theft of intellectual property, increased insurance claims and fees, and customer dissatisfaction or customer loss.”
ISKCON was spending enormous amounts of time on conflict, and this loss was compounded by poor outcomes. ISKCON was also paying the price of seeing a number of its members form splinter groups, partially in response to how it was dealing with conflict, especially with those who went on to become the leaders of these splinter groups.

I was also driven to create a CMS because of the crisis ISKCON was facing at the time.  This crisis was not simply a particular event but the culmination of a number of small shocks such as the genesis of splinter groups, moral lapses amongst leaders, and financial shortfalls.  It occurred to me that there must be better ways to discipline and manage ISKCON’s members, especially when they had conflicts with leaders.  It was common for those who had been disciplined to feel scapegoated; most felt they had been treated roughly and without concern for their personal needs. Many of these individuals left ISKCON.
I also noticed that few interpersonal disputes were ever fully resolved.  Splinter groups were often populated by those who felt mistreated, and the members of these groups clashed repeatedly with ISKCON’s core members.  Lawsuits ensued, and splinter groups worldwide canvassed ISKCON members to join their ranks.

When I read the following passage in The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen, I thought it offered insight into ISKCON’s conflict culture: “… conflicts can sometimes be resolved without confrontational tactics, but current conventional wisdom often devalues less confrontational tactics even if they work well, favoring more aggressive strategies even if they get less favorable results. It’s as if we value a fight for its own sake, not for its effectiveness in resolving disputes.”
If ISKCON could find a healthy way to deal with conflict it could influence the group’s overall culture.  The SPIDR report describes this factor: “Efforts to effect a cultural transformation have stalled or failed; the organization’s internal culture is out of alignment with its mission and core values; the organization’s culture is out of alignment with its external services.”   ISKCON’s teachings of compassion, equanimity, peacefulness, and equality often didn’t match the manner in which conflicts were dealt with or justice administered.  I hoped to align ISKCON’s approach to conflict resolution more closely with its espoused values.

Finding the Champion
The SPIDR report states:
At least one senior person must be a visionary who champions the cause of creating a conflict-competent culture through developing and maintaining an integrated conflict management system.  The champion’s passion inspires others to act. It is this ability to connect others to a vision that often drives the success of a program.  Champions are trailblazers who build an integrated conflict management system piece by piece—never losing sight of the difficulty of creating change.  They are able to “grow” programs that work, abandon programs that are struggling, and, perhaps most important, identify areas of new opportunity.  Champions must be great innovators and good marketers of their ideas, for without effective communication, the “flame” dies.

For a few months I pondered how to introduce effective conflict resolution into ISKCON while addressing the hesitations some leaders had voiced.  I hadn’t read the above quote at that time, but I knew I needed a champion.  I wondered if I could do this work alone.
In June 2002 I was introduced to Arnold Zack, a renowned mediator and arbitrator.  After first checking with theology and sociology professors to assure himself that ISKCON was an authentic religious tradition rather than a new cult, he wholeheartedly embraced the idea of introducing ISKCON to conflict resolution.  He and I exchanged over a thousand e-mails between June 2002 and June 2003 planning this introduction.  He was passionate about the work.  He told me it was one of the most significant efforts of his career.  After much planning and discussion, he flew to India to make a presentation at the annual meeting of the GBC body on the implementation of what would later become ISKCON’s CMS, ISKCONResolve.  In this presentation, he addressed the benefits the GBC members would derive from establishing a conflict management program, and he was convincing and humorous—the GBC members enjoyed his presentation.  It was also the first formal presentation made to the GBC by someone who was not a member of ISKCON.
Here is the GBC’s resolution, passed unanimously, after his presentation:
Resolution 302/2002. Mediation and Ombuds Services in ISKCON
Whereas, The GBC Body seeks to demonstrate its interest in the concerns of ISKCON devotees, and seeks to encourage the timely voluntary resolution of disputes within ISKCON;
Whereas, international organizations almost universally provide a system for prompt resolution of internal disputes;
Whereas, ombudsmen provide an effective and confidential means of addressing individual concerns with an organization;
Whereas, voluntary mediation undertaken by two disputant parties with the help of a trained mediator is proven to resolve interpersonal disputes to the mutual satisfaction of the disputants;
[GUIDELINE] Resolved, That the GBC Body announces their strong support for establishment of a voluntary dispute resolution system to facilitate the resolution of ISKCON members’ concerns.
To this end the GBC Body urges regions and local temples to establish regional based ombuds and mediation systems.
Members of the GBC Body pledge to support the development of these structures and to be responsive to the concerns of members brought to their attention through these processes.
[ACTION ORDER] It is further resolved, That a subcommittee of Brian Bloch and Arnold M Zack shall coordinate these efforts in ISKCON on behalf of the GBC Body.

With champions in place—both inside and outside of ISKCON—the components of ISKCONResolve started to develop.

Building ISKCONResolve—Adding the Components
Nearly all organizations that venture into establishing a CMS already have elements of a conflict resolution procedure in place.  Back in America shortly after this resolution was passed, Zack introduced me to Mary Rowe.  Rowe has been the ombudsperson at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1973.  She believes that no one person can change an organization—instead one needs a systems approach.  In the attached chart “Analyzing Your Conflict Management System” she lists the many functions that may be needed to assist a person who is experiencing difficulty, and at least thirty-eight offices that might exist in a corporation, agency, or university to handle complaints.   Outside of the GBC members and the temple presidents, ISKCON had none of these offices and few of these functions in place. I saw this as an advantage; it left me free to create a CMS from scratch.
Lipsky et al state: “Implementing workplace systems requires a well-planned multistep process that takes place over several [six] phases.”  ISKCONResolve’s implementation followed the general direction of these phases, but in a simplified and far less costly way.  Below is a description of the components gradually added to ISKCON’s CMS:

Beginning with Mediation and the Ombuds Office
Our first priority was to introduce interest-based options into ISKCON’s way of dealing with conflicts.  ISKCON’s first mediator training took place in the summer of 2002.  Three of those attendees took further training and subsequently went on to train over 500 ISKCON members on six continents in basic mediation.
Lipsky et al discuss the choices CMS designers have in terms of using internal and/or external processes and resources.  ISKCONResolve started and continues to use primarily internal processes.  Though recent co-mediations that included one non-ISKCON mediator have proven successful, the mediators are generally ISKCON members and are mediating pro bono.
In early 2003 I became a member of the International Ombudsman Association (IOA; then, TOA—The Ombudsman Association).  Two ISKCON colleagues and I attended IOA’s Ombuds 101 course in Boston.  Shortly afterwards, we established ISKCON’s first ombuds office and, after a slow start, began to receive visitors.
ISKCON has centers in 103 countries with a membership of well over one million.  Yet the core membership is relatively small (perhaps 40,000), and there are probably only a hundred or so well-known leaders among this core group.  It was this small group of leaders who first took advantage of the ombuds office and mediation process, having heard about the project through the GBC meetings.  They referred disputants to us and often expressed how liberated they felt being able to refer the conflicts to trained, third-party persons.  These referrals told others of their experience either in mediation or with the ombuds office (or both), and gradually our existence became known via word-of-mouth.
Each year, the number of mediations and ombuds visitors has increased.  I have not been able to track every mediation since many have taken place without ISKCONResolve’s notice, but the number of ombuds visitors has gone from fifty in our first year of operation to approximately 400 for 2007.  This statistic doesn’t reveal that about twenty-five percent of these cases were high-profile, cross-cultural, multi-issue, cross-generational, involving multiple jurisdictions, or cases with multiple stakeholders.  Such cases can take hundreds of hours of an ombud’s time.  It also doesn’t reveal that these figures grew without a systematic attempt to advertise the office to ISKCON’s general members.

Facilitation, Dialogue, Negotiation, and Conflict Assessment/Analysis
In developing the CMS, it struck me how group facilitation could address, in a mutually respectful atmosphere, a number of the larger conflicts ISKCON faces, such as the role of women in leadership, the cultural divide between ISKCON in the West and in the East (particularly in India), and the role of gurus after Prabhupada’s death.   The service has evolved into providing strategic planning facilitation on local, regional, and (most recently) international bases.  This development has benefited ISKCONResolve as ISKCON members are now turning to us for positive, proactive relationship- and project-building.
The next step was to add dialogue to the services ISKCONResolve offered.  I noticed that ISKCON members supported the concept of mediation but hesitated to participate in the process.  They reacted to the suggestion “Why don’t you have a mediation?” the way people react to a suggestion that they see a mental health professional.  I have also discovered that in some cases people aren’t ready for a formal mediation, especially with the possibility of ending up with a signed agreement as a necessary part of the process.  They may agree to talk, but they may not want further commitment.
Finally, I decided that offering the service of assessing larger conflicts was another important service ISKCONResolve could offer.  Since starting this service, models by Dugan, Lederach, Curle, Leas, Susskind and Thomas-Larmer, and Docherty have been applied to ISKCON conflicts.  I’ve found Dugan’s “Nested Theory of Conflict” model especially helpful.  In using that model, the facilitator helps disputants look at four levels of influence on a conflict: the issues, the relationships, the sub-systems, and the systems.  The model encourages the disputants to “go to the balcony” and look at the dispute more objectively, taking into consideration a number of factors they may not have previously considered.

The Need for a Rights-Based Option: Adding Arbitration
While the above-mentioned interest-based options were operating well, it was becoming clear that not all conflicts could be dealt with using such an approach.  Rowe estimates that 5–25% of a given population will favor formal, retributive justice as their preferred method of solving disputes.  My experience in ombudsing and arranging mediations supported Rowe’s statement.  Some disputants were simply not comfortable with interest-based attempts.  They classified them as “touchy-feely” or “new-age” concoctions.  A few of ISKCON’s leaders were especially uncomfortable with the thought of opening a dialogue with subordinates.  It was evident that a rights-based option was needed.
But could a rights-based system be introduced without rights being formally spelled out?  ISKCON was (and still is) in the midst of writing a constitution, but it hasn’t been made law.  The ISKCON law book spells out some rights and responsibilities, but few of the leaders and almost none of the general members refer to it on a regular basis.  I asked Rowe: “Can an organization have a rights-based, adjudicatory process if it has not finalized a code of rules/ laws?”  Rowe replied, “Wonderful question … Yes I think so if there is a credible group making the decisions. Remember we have: criminal offenses, illegal but not criminal, offenses against the organization’s policies, offenses against values.  Any group seen as credible can make decisions along any of these lines.  And so can a monarch if he or she is seen as credible, e.g., your Founder. The key will be ‘seen as credible.’”
Since introducing the arbitration option only a few arbitrations have taken place. Significantly, however, many opportunities to take advantage of the option have been offered.  The very nature of arbitration, which Lipsky et al list as a concern , has had a positive effect on ISKCONResolve.  The offer of arbitration proved to be a WATNA  for disputants.  When presented with the options available to them, disputants generally remarked that they preferred to maintain control of the process and therefore chose an interest-based approach.
Having a rights-based mechanism in place has nonetheless been invaluable.  In addition to its WATNA effect, arbitration assures disputants that if interests-based attempts fail, there is another process available; they are not forced to surrender to a power-based decision.  It also addresses the mindset of those who are more comfortable with a formal process.  And, finally, the availability of arbitration provides leaders with an alternative to having to make power-based decisions.

By adding arbitration, ISKCONResolve now had elements of interests, rights, and power in place.  By making this addition I also started to sense how the three complement each other.  They are not separate units without overlap; rather, they represent a flow of options for both general members and for the leadership.  Having the options of power and rights has made interests more attractive.  The availability of interests also lines up with the culture ISKCON wants to create. “Rights” satisfies 5–25% of the general members, and the lowered emphasis on power decisions makes the rare power decisions that do occur more emphatic.
ISKCONResolve could now offer choices as to how members wanted their concerns addressed.  Preference was given to interests-based approaches , but people could “loop forward” to rights and/or power-based approaches  , or, after having chosen rights or power, they could “loop back” to interests.
Lynch writes: “When organizations go beyond ad hoc, case-by-case dispute resolution and turn their focus to systematically integrating all of these approaches into their day-to-day business, plus add processes that shift their conflict culture toward prevention, the new phenomenon is called an ‘Integrated Conflict Management System.’”
Establishing this CMS has required educating members in new ways of dealing with conflicts.  I have found myself talking constantly about “interests, rights, and power” in public presentations, one-on-one meetings with ombuds visitors, and in e-mails.  Leaders have wanted to know, “Can I still just make a decision on a matter without considering this whole CMS process?” My reply: “Certainly.  ISKCONResolve is not designed to take away the legitimate authority  of your position.  That was established by Prabhupada.  Rather, we are here to lessen your burden and help you serve the members in your area of responsibility when some problem arises.  You can refer members to our Ombuds office, suggest to them that they consider mediation and our other services, and you can take advantage of our services yourself should you find the need.  We help leaders lead by helping them deal with conflicts in a healthy way and by unburdening them so that they can get on with their mission.  We also serve them by establishing a fair process when complaints against them are lodged.”

The Special Role of the Ombudsman
In the companion article, Rowe presents key roles an ombudsman can play in a CMS.  Certainly, the key figure in ISKCON’s CMS is the ombuds.  The ombuds acts as an informal process facilitator , mediation encourager and arranger; generally they are the first point of contact, a mediator, an option provider, an information giver, a referrer, a listening ear, an arbitration arranger, a communicator between rank and file and leadership, a systems analyzer, a trainer of conflict competence, a listener, a provider of hope, an occasional source of humor, and an informal investigator.  These duties may go beyond the standard ones prescribed to an organizational ombuds, but due to funding restraints it is a practical job description, and doesn’t transgress the standards of practice as outlined by the International Ombudsman Association.
The ombuds in ISKCONResolve is the glue that keeps the program together.  I originally compared the organizational ombuds to a basketball point guard who calls the plays for the team.  I mentioned this to Mary Rowe and Craig Mousin from DePaul University.  They both commented how I should be careful not to consider the ombuds more than he or she is.  Rowe wrote: “Is this a ‘normal’ OO like me or is it a superhero?  The issue of Helping People to Help Themselves (HPHT) is a big one: give a fish?  Or teach how to fish?  We should probably not so much be giving a fish but always if possible supporting others to learn how to fish.”  I have since adjusted my metaphor.  The ISKCONResolve ombuds is more like a pathfinder.  He or she offers visitors a map by which they can decide what direction they wish to go.  And, at the visitor’s request, the ombuds may also suggest options.

Need Religion?
I had wondered if ISKCON should set up a conflict management system that basically leaves religion and theology at the door.  ISKCON’s members’ lives are steeped in spiritual practice and philosophical thought, so what need is there to include such considerations in a conflict management system?  I’m wary of conflict transformation becoming the latest fad that might distract from ISKCON’s core practices, and thus out of respect for the theology, I have often thought to leave it out of ISKCONResolve.
On the other hand, I have also wondered, “What’s the use of the theology if it doesn’t guide or make an impact on our daily lives?”  While considering this subject I read Halverstadt’s Managing Church Conflict.  He suggests that conflicts should be dealt with ultimately in a Christian manner, which is encapsulated in the concept of shalom: “Shalom is a particular state of social existence.  It is a state of existence where the claims and needs of all that is are satisfied; where there is a relationship of communion between God and humans and nature, where there is fulfillment for all creation.”  He says that this shalom is what ultimately makes a Christian fight “Christian.”
Halverstadt goes on to say that he uses “Managing” in his book’s title instead of “Resolving” because peacemakers can’t “force unwilling parties to make peace. If an Almighty God stands at the doors of human hearts knocking (Rev. 3:20), how should Christians presume to do otherwise?”  This relationship between the disputant, the peacemaker, and God is also at the heart of a spiritual approach to conflict resolution in ISKCON.  Perhaps the most well-known verse in the Bhagavad-gita says, “Do your duty, but do not be attached to the results of your activities.”
Faced with the choice of whether or not to bring spirituality into ISKCONResolve’s work I recalled a conversation I had had with Mary Rowe about mediation styles.  I had suggested to her that Bush and Fogler’s Transformational Mediation was best suited for ISKCON mediations.  She countered: “What if the disputants want an evaluative mediation?  What if they don’t want their relationship transformed?  Could this happen?  And if it does: who should decide, you or them?”   I ended up applying Rowe’s same logic to this question of including theology in ISKCONResolve.  I chose in the end to flavor ISKCONResolve trainings with a “Krishna” perspective.  Presentations are sprinkled with scripture and a devotional worldview, but not at the expense of standard training and discussing best practices.  Trainees are instructed to be sensitive not to transgress ISKCON’s spiritual principles in their ISKCONResolve work, but they are also trained not to force a spiritual angle on disputants who prefer not to go in that direction.

Geographic Spread
ISKCON’s demographics have created one of the greatest challenges to establishing ISKCONResolve.  Core members are dispersed in 103 countries and conflicts are often inter-continental.  Bringing parties together is time-consuming and costly.

Resources are also problematic.  Religious organizations that are congregationally-based often find it difficult to raise funds for national, not to mention of international, value-added projects such as a CMS.

Succession Planning
This also points to the challenge of succession planning.  CMS’s don’t only need champions—they need a succession of champions.

Unemployed Mediators
Well over 500 members took the basic mediation training course.  Fewer than 100 of them have formally mediated.

Cultural Diversity
ISKCON is a global organization.  In many places in the West it caters to a large Indian diaspora that pray and serve side by side with members from the host culture.  While there has been considerable success in mediating across cultural differences, it remains a challenge especially suited for the experienced mediators and ombudsmen.

Inability To Reach All ISKCON Members
Presently ISKCONResolve advertises its services mainly through word-of-mouth.  I have made a number of presentations at major international festivals, but I find most visitors to the ombuds office find out about us through others.

Insufficient Data
One of my own personal weaknesses has been not putting enough time into documenting the work ISKCONResolve has done to date.  I have information on the vast majority of ombuds cases, but this information is just starting to be systematically compiled.  (The data are, of course, devoid of names and specifics that would point to any particular individuals.)

The Future
In considering ISKCONResolve’s future, some of Bingham’s six points, under “Lessons Learned” in her REDRESS report, come to mind.   She says, “Design the dispute resolution system to maximize participation,” and then “train, train, train.”   These two go well together.  I want to train ombuds on every continent and in a number of major communities.  Also, I want to send neophyte mediators to co-mediate with the more experienced so that we can gradually expand the number of qualified mediators.  With more mediators and ombuds in place, I plan to advertise ISKCONResolve’s services widely.  This is another of Bingham’s points: “Get the word out.”

Part Two—Looking at Conflicts and their Causes in FBOs
A Sampling of Cases
ISKCONResolve’s ombuds have heard a full spectrum of disputes since the office’s inception in 2002.  An extensive study of the data from these visitors is in progress.  Below is a sampling of the kinds of concerns the ombuds office deals with:

•    A leader pokes fun at an outreach program considered sacrosanct by other elders.
•    Two teachers in a school argue over the amount and nature of the religious coursework offered in a school.
•    Egalitarians and complementarians  enter into an Internet battle, complete with on-line petitions, regarding the role of women in leadership.
•    Department heads differ over the allocations of funds—and use theology to explain why their particular project deserves funding over the other project.
•    A congregation member questions whether a leader is teaching the theology properly.
•    A young woman questions whether one of the renunciants (sannyasis) is observing his vows properly.
•    Numerous members of a particular country get involved in a conflict over the scriptural translation of one word into their native language.
•    A member wishes to see ISKCON build bridges with one of the prominent splinter groups.
•    A group questions the architectural design of a temple and wishes to see if an adjustment can be considered.
•    Some members want to emphasize mercy and God’s forgiveness, while others say the organization needs to emphasize transparency and accountability by firmly sanctioning those who perform misdeeds.

Causes of Conflicts
In his book, The Mediation Process, Christopher Moore outlines the main causes of conflict :
(1)    Value conflicts: caused by parties having different criteria to evaluate ideas, or by different lifestyles, ideologies, or religions.
(2)    Relationship conflicts: caused by strong emotions, misperceptions, miscommunications, and regular, negative interactions.
(3)    Data conflicts: caused by a lack of information, different interpretations of data, and different views on what is relevant.
(4)    Interest conflicts: caused by competition over substantive interests, procedural interests, or psychological interests.
(5)    Structural conflicts: caused by destructive patterns of behaviour, unequal control and ownership of resources, unequal power and authority, time constraints, and geographical/environmental factors that hinder cooperation.

Naturally, most of ISKCONResolve’s cases fall into the above categories.  In Managing Church Conflict, Hugh F. Halverstadt adds color and depth to Moore’s list by citing causes of conflict particular to church settings.   Halverstadt’s first point: church conflicts are intense because we have attached our commitment and faith to them.  He writes: “For one thing, parties’ core identities are at risk in church conflicts.  Spiritual commitments and faith understandings are highly inflammable because they are central to one’s psychological identity.  When Christians differ over beliefs or commitments, they may question or even condemn one another’s spirituality or character.  Their self-esteem is on the line.”
I’ve had similar experiences working with ISKCON members.  Perhaps more than the average churchgoer, ISKCON members make sacrifices and major lifestyle changes  when taking to Krishna consciousness.  All members, but especially Western converts, change how they eat, sleep, dress, and speak; they develop new friendships and frequently relinquish the old; and they develop a new set of life aspirations.  To become devotees they often adopt a drastically different outlook on life from the one with which they were raised.  They invest a lot of themselves in becoming Krishna’s devotee, and thus if aspects of their core identity are brought into question by someone with a different point of view—especially someone in their own ranks—conflict often results.
There are a number of factors that influence a devotee’s ‘take’ on Krishna consciousness.  The first is cultural diversity.  While there are ISKCON centers around the world that afford a basic uniformity of theology and practices, the host cultures each bring in much variety.  Other significant differences in “takes” are caused by initial training in Krishna consciousness, an individual’s level of adherence, his or her socio-economic status, choice of friends, habits, and more.  Thus although all are members of ISKCON, there is variety in how members perceive, experience, teach, and practice Krishna consciousness.
Understanding how that variety manifests in any FBO is an essential tool in analyzing conflicts and coping with the confusion those conflicts create.  There is a popular Sanskrit saying, atmavan manyate jagat, “I think like this, so the whole world must also think in the same way.”  Ross and Ward of Stanford University give a detailed outline of a similar concept.   They describe the concept of “naïve realism” as follows:
(1)    “That I see entities and events as they are in objective reality, and that my social attitudes, beliefs, preferences, priorities, and the like follow from a relatively dispassionate, unbiased and essentially ‘unmediated’ apprehension of the information or evidence at hand;”
(2)    “That other rational social perceivers generally will share my reactions, behaviour and opinions—provided they have had access to the same information that gave rise to my views, and provided that they too have processed that information in a reasonably thoughtful, and open-minded fashion;”
(3)    “That the failure of a given individual or group to share my views arises from one of three possible sources:
(a)    The individual or group in question may have been exposed to a different sample of information than I was (in which case, provided that the other party is reasonable and open-minded, the sharing or pooling of information should lead us to reach an agreement);
(b)    The individual or group in question may be lazy, irrational, or otherwise unable or unwilling to proceed in a normative fashion from objective evidence to reasonable conclusions; or
(c)    The individual or group in question may be biased (either in interpreting the evidence or in proceeding from evidence to conclusions) by ideology, self-interest, or some other distorting personal influence.”
If we look at Moore’s five causes of conflict it’s reasonable to say that naive realism can play a part in nearly all of them.  We see the world differently from others, and we are often willing to enter into a dispute because of that. Members of faith-based organizations are no exception.
Halverstadt offers unclear job descriptions as a second factor that stimulates conflict in a church setting: “…church conflicts occur in voluntary institutions whose structures and processes permit and even entice unaccountable uses of power.”  Not only is there power that is not accountable to anyone, but power-based decisions have a weaker status in FBOs that are comprised primarily of volunteers.  Especially in FBOs that don’t hold membership in the particular organization as a requirement for salvation, volunteers can easily join another church or denomination if they feel mistreated, ignored, or they disagree with a power-based decision.  This reality makes interest-based approaches all the more attractive to the FBO’s leadership who are able to recognize this dynamic.

An Example: The Issue Surrounding the Role of Women
What is the role of women in ISKCON?  Can women take leadership positions?  Can they be gurus?  Or should they play a complementary role to men as pious wives and mothers protected by their fathers in youth, their husbands in marriage, and their grown sons in old age as was practiced for centuries in traditional Indian culture?  Much of the contention in this conflict centers on hermeneutics: how ISKCON should interpret both the scriptures and Prabhupada’s comments on them.  What constitutes an unchangeable spiritual principle?  What constitutes a detail, a time-and-place attempt to apply a principle that can be changed when time and place differ?  Are the cultural varnashrama  considerations a principle or a detail?  What is to be done when two parties emphasize different and apparently opposing principles?
Egalitarians emphasize the oneness of all souls and believe that bodily differences are of secondary importance.  Bhakti, loving devotion to God, or Krishna, is a function of the soul; it has nothing to do with the external body one happens to inhabit.  Men aren’t men eternally, nor are women eternally women.  Egalitarians believe we should be evolved enough to “get off the bodily concept of life” and respect each other as souls, as eternal servants of Krishna.  We should be careful not to allow mundane concepts to enter a spiritual society.  Egalitarians quote passages from Prabhupada’s letters and writings like these:

Regarding lecturing by women devotees: I have informed you that in the service of the Lord there is no distinction of caste, or creed, color or sex…

Sometimes jealous persons [from India] criticize the Krishna Consciousness movement because it engages equally both men and women in distribution of love of Godhead. Not knowing that men and women in countries like Europe and America mix very freely, these fools and rascals criticize the boys and girls in Krishna Consciousness for intermingling. But these rascals should consider that one cannot suddenly change a community’s social customs. However, since both men and women are being trained to become preachers those women are not ordinary women but are as good as their brothers who are preaching Krishna Consciousness. Therefore it is a principle that a preacher must strictly follow the rules and regulations laid down in the sastras yet at the same time devise a means by which the preaching work to reclaim the fallen may go with full force.

The complementarians protest the growing acceptance of a “feminist” agenda in ISKCON.  They fear the creeping in of a materialistic, left-wing mindset that runs contrary to ISKCON’s stated goals.  ISKCON, which is based on an ancient culture, is, they say, being influenced by modern, materialistic considerations that run contrary to the varnashrama ideal that ISKCON is meant to establish.  While they certainly accept the philosophical point that “we are not these bodies,” they maintain that the varnashrama social norms are an important vehicle for attaining the spiritual platform.  They also feel that without the support of this social model, we will by default embrace the culture of Western hedonism, a culture that will not support our spiritual aspirations.  They cite scripture and Prabhupada to support their points:
A chaste woman should not be greedy, but satisfied in all circumstances. She must be very expert in handling household affairs and should be fully conversant with religious principles. She should speak pleasingly and truthfully and should be very careful and always clean and pure. Thus a chaste woman should engage with affection in the service of a husband who is not fallen.

Women need to be protected by men. A woman should be cared for by her father in her childhood, by her husband in her youth and by her grown sons in her old age.

The Woman’s Issue and the CMS
The topic “The Role of Women in ISKCON” has been growing in importance over the last twenty-five years.  This controversy has been fueled in part by key developments in ISKCON, including greater numbers of women in leadership positions on one hand and the exponential growth of Indian influence in the world of ISKCON on the other.  ISKCON has grown greatly in India and the Indian diaspora have been becoming more involved in ISKCON temples around the globe.  There are strong emotions on both sides of the issue.  In 2000, ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission (GBC) passed a resolution apologizing for devaluing women in the past, and stating that women must be granted equal opportunity in all ISKCON centers.  At the time, members of ISKCON Indian Continental Committee (ICC) wrote a complaint to the GBC expressing that the resolution took into account neither India’s traditional culture and the need to respect it, nor scriptural statements.
The GBC executive committee preferred an interest-based approach to deal with this conflict.  They foresaw the conflict continuing should a power-based decision (achieved either by accepting or rejecting the ICC’s proposed legislation) be taken.  ISKCONResolve was called on to facilitate a dialogue between six members of the ICC and six members chosen by the Women’s Ministry. Topics included:
•    Balancing tradition with changing times
•    What scripture has to say on this subject
•    How Prabhupada dealt with women’s roles when he was present, including whether things changed while he was present or developed into a status quo, and what principles he based his actions on
•    How ISKCON’s attitudes toward women have developed since 1977 (the year Prabhupada passed away)
•    East vs. West and how India is becoming more like the West every day
•    Social considerations vs. spiritual truths and the relative importance of the two in ISKCON members’ lives
•    Areas of agreement and disagreement
•     “Where do we go from here?”

After three days of dialogue, participants agreed on these points:

1.    Two members of the Women’s Ministry were invited to make a presentation and hold a discussion at the next ICC meeting.
2.    Ongoing written exchanges could start between the Women’s Ministry and the ICC to discuss specific win/win scenarios.
3.    A selected member from each group would write a paper about the deeper issue of reconciling the different moods and statements Prabhupada made about tradition and its modern application.
4.    A list of what both parties agree on would be made public.
5.    To do all of this, a safe environment would be necessary.

In some FBOs, the “role of women” issue was dealt with and decided on years ago.  In Christian denominations like the Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church, as well as with some Muslim, Jewish and other FBOs, it is still a pivotal topic today.  The above dialogue did not bring closure to this issue in ISKCON.  In fact, follow-up has been weak, and only now, several years later, is there talk about resuscitating the discussions.  Yet despite their imperfections I feel such collaborative efforts have a cumulative effect.  Participants experience the positive effects of both being able to air their views as well as to hear other viewpoints with clarity and respect.  They in turn tell others, and when the need arises, more turn to the various components of the CMS (especially the interest-based ones) to deal with their conflicts.

ISKCONResolve is a work in progress.  It requires much improvement and will certainly undergo further change as it adapts to the needs of its constituents.  Still, I hope that its preliminary success will encourage other FBOs to consider applying the principles of Conflict Management Systems to their communities.  Many FBOs already have the components of a CMS, and I feel organizing and systemizing those components by creating a CMS will multiply an FBO’s ability to address conflict manifold.  Equally, if not more importantly, a well-crafted CMS can impact the ethos of an organization.  How an FBO treats its members, and particularly how it helps them in times of conflict, indicates to members the degree to which the organization is concerned about them.  When people feel cared for in their FBO, they often consider that God cares for them—an accomplishment many FBOs seek.
Finally, a CMS also helps members become “conflict competent”  (Lynch, 2003, p. 104); that is, members learn the art of dealing with conflict both in their organization and in their personal lives.  If FBOs apply effective systems when solving internal disputes, we can only imagine how that might spill over into the realm of interreligious disputes and beyond.

An Organizational Ombuds Office In a System for Dealing with Conflict and Learning from Conflict, or “Conflict Management System”

Mary Rowe, PhD, Ombudsperson, MIT
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An Organizational Ombuds Office[1] can address conflicts and concerns, informally and confidentially, and in many ways. In addition an Ombuds Office may effectively complement the roles of all the other components in a conflict management system (CMS). In particular an Ombuds Office may help to address major dilemmas faced by a CMS:

Major Dilemmas

A. How to help everyone in an organization to feel they can act effectively if they wish to—or come forward on a timely basis—when they have serious concerns;

B. How to help coordinate the system (CMS), and provide back up;

C. How to help keep the system and its people accountable, and foster effectiveness;

D. How to help the CMS to improve, by learning from the ways in which conflict and concerns have been addressed, and how to encourage management to respond to CMS recommendations;

These goals and their challenges are discussed in some detail below.

A. Taking Action on Concerns or Coming forward. The major raison d’être of any CMS is to enable people to act directly, when they think something is wrong, or to report their concerns so the concerns may be addressed appropriately. However, many people do not act directly, or report problems and conflicts they believe to be serious. They may often think about doing so, but decide not to act.

There are several dozen reasons why people 1) do not act directly, in an effective way, when they see unacceptable behavior, and 2) do not use their conflict management system in a timely or appropriate manner. Foremost among these reasons are: fear of loss of relationships and fear of other bad consequences including retaliation; the belief that they will not appear credible to management; inaccessibility or lack of credibility of those who might be able to make a difference. People often feel they lack “enough evidence.”—or not know of any options in the CMS that they would consider safe, accessible and credible.  All these concerns are suggested in the companion Case presented in this issue. They usually do not know the relevant policies and resources. They may distrust management and believe that no one will listen. They may feel ashamed. They may reject all formal options, or conversely reject all informal options

There appear to be fewer reasons why people do act responsibly. Some reasons seem laudable, like belief in community standards, reasonable self-confidence, or trust in an individual manager. In some cases, there may be a contractual responsibility to report wrongdoing and failure to do so will result in punishment. Acting responsibly may be encouraged by standards of conduct as described by David Miller in his companion article.

Another reason people do act is that the organization provides an option to deal with a concern that is acceptable to a complainant—as illustrated in the companion article by Brian Bloch. (There are additional reasons people give for coming forward that may seem controversial, like the desire for revenge.)

B. Coordination. Some coordination among the various elements of a system is important if the organization is to deal with and learn from conflict and concerns, as distinguished from simply resolving specific disputes within individual conflict-resolution channels. However, it is not always obvious what the elements of a system in fact are, what the purpose of the system is, and how any linkage should be accomplished.

A simple model of an organizational CMS might include a mediation office, a grievance procedure, and outside arbitration. In our experience, a modern organizational conflict management system looks more like the Chart attached, with many offices that de facto are part of a CMS. Some of these offices are likely to have many functions, including providing services, solving problems, dealing with compliance issues, preventing unnecessary conflict—and dealing with conflict. They can and do deal with individuals and also with groups. The modern CMS is complex.

Many people find complex systems hard to understand. People and offices within a CMS may not even realize that “dealing with conflict” is part of their job responsibility, let alone realizing that they are part of a “conflict management system.” There is a spectrum of issues relevant to a CMS, including questions, commendations, suggestions, problems, concerns, complaints, conflicts, grievances and whistle blowing. These issues arise from individuals and also from groups. Some managers focus on the front end of this spectrum, without much recognition of the more challenging end of the spectrum. This may be one reason that some managers fail to deal with conflicts. Other managers appear to ignore unwanted conduct that is not obviously criminal.

How far do we go in thinking about who belongs in a “conflict management system?” Do individuals who report unlawful behavior consider themselves part of the system? Do line managers? In the Chart attached we include line managers as part of a CMS; they usually are the most important part. Other individuals who are not ex officio in a relevant office are not listed as part of the CMS.

But— should we think of individuals as part of a system, for example, what about responsible bystanders? This is an important question when we think about providing training— for example, training about complaint handling and conflict resolution, and about compliance with standards of conduct and the law.

Second, what is the purpose of a CMS? This is an uneasy question; should and can conflict actually be “managed”? Who actually “owns” a given conflict? Who can or should control a given conflict? We follow convention here in using the term “CMS” in these articles, but we prefer the idea of a conflict system as helping all its members to deal with and learn from conflict.

Third, how can a CMS be coordinated or even effectively linked? It is very common that the various channels and managers do not understand very well what others do in the conflict or complaint system. The various parts of a system often see themselves as independent and/or pre-eminent. Managers may not agree that any one organizational office should supervise the other offices and conflict managers. This is especially true if the organization lacks, as most do, a shared philosophy of how to deal with conflict and how to learn from it.

The difficulties in coordination may seem more understandable if we analyze how each office sees itself. We can think about various channels and managers within a CMS—see the Chart—as dealing with concerns in terms of interests and rights and power. They may deal informally or formally.

Offices such as Employee Assistance, Mediation, the Ombuds Office, Mental Health, and Religious Counselors—that deal with conflicts informally and mostly on the basis of interests—normally do not manage a CMS. This is especially true if they do not keep records for the CMS, and especially if they do not “represent” the CMS. These offices also will not wish to be managed very closely by those who are compliance offices and do keep records for the CMS. Informal conflict managers tend to believe that complainants and disputants should, in many cases, have some choice of options for dealing with their concerns; this point of view may not be shared by the compliance offices.

Managers who deal with conflict formally, on the basis of rights and power, may not feel comfortable ceding autonomy to offices that deal with concerns off the record. This is true even if they themselves often help to settle concerns informally and off the record. Moreover, some managers also are not comfortable offering options to complainants and disputants—they may feel that managers should decide how a concern should be handled. These managers might agree that options should exist in a conflict management system but they might wish to restrict the choice of options solely to managers.

One or another rights-based office may also try to assert control over a given conflict that is being managed by another office. There may be conflicts of interest between hierarchical control over problems and their solution, and sharing control with other offices.

Sometimes the coordination works well, often because of the individuals involved. Some organizations have one or another experienced professional, for example in HR or Ethics or a Model Workplace or Center for Cooperative Resolution, who provides remarkable leadership and coordination for a CMS. Some modern organizations have an effective steering committee or working group which links and balances major CMS elements. However, it is not easy to coordinate a CMS.

C. Accountability, Effectiveness and System Change. There are theoretical problems in maintaining accountability and assessing effectiveness in a CMS where there are multiple stakeholders, multiple missions, intangible interests, and long-term and societal interests—as well as short-term, financial, enterprise interests. In addition, where there are multiple offices in a CMS, it may not be possible to attribute costs and benefits—either to one office of the system, or to the whole system. It may also be difficult to know why a part of the system works or does not work. For example, it is common that parts of a system work very effectively—or fail to work—for ad hominem reasons, but this fact may be difficult to bring to light, let alone assess.

There are also practical problems in maintaining accountability and assessing effectiveness. It is very common that managers and employees do not know the organization’s standards of conduct—let alone the policies and rules—mentioned by David Miller in his companion article. It is even more common that these standards and policies are not seen to apply equally to everyone at every level. In every organization, and especially in complex organizations, there are many managers and employees who presume that their own rules of behavior are the important ones. And in every organization there are local cultural norms.

Unless there are checks and balances, and also appeals, in a CMS, information about how the system actually works may not come to light—elements of the system often function out of sight, unless there are mechanisms for reviewing decisions that are made. In addition, parts of the system may be inaccessible, in a far-flung CMS. Gathering data may be too expensive or not timely. Those who gather the data, or hear anecdotes, may not understand the information or have different views of accountability.

In short, accountability, effectiveness and systems improvements depend on communications within the system and interactions among the various elements of the system. These communications may be very uneven.

Learning and Recommendations.  Other important aspects of the need to coordinate the various components of a CMS include: where and how upward feedback takes place, what suggestions and recommendations are made, to whom they are made, and what happens to recommendations.

The hierarchical nature of some offices may foster a desire to be seen as the true solver of problems. At the same time hierarchical senior managers may deny that problems exist. (“If these problems do exist, they are minor and only need an experienced hand to remedy them.”)  Thus, the issue of making recommendations can become a thorny one.  Why would recommendations be needed, if there are no problems? And can someone lower down the ladder make valid recommendations to someone higher up, who then might suffer a loss of face because such recommendations would have to be recognized and—yet more disquieting—be implemented?

There is one other monumental problem preventing organizational learning that is a problem for even the very best of managers. Many senior officers and ordinary line and staff managers are profoundly overworked and exhausted.

Could an Ombuds Office be useful in a CMS?

An Organizational Ombuds (OO) office may be able to address elements of the dilemmas above. The Ombuds Office may on occasion be the only office that can do so. Of course many of the functions discussed below—please again see the accompanying Chart—can be matched to offices other than the Ombuds Office. And occasionally an organization will have a different office that fulfills some of the functions of an Ombuds Office. But often an Ombuds Office may help.

“Just listening,” delivering respect, and a “fuller response.” Listening, and delivering respect may be the most cost-effective elements of a conflict management system[2]. These elements are essential if people with problems are to consider coming forward. People who voice concerns sometimes report that they were met with disinterest, distrust, disrespect, loss of privacy, incredulity, humiliation, intimidation, or incompetence. Many people who escalate complaints, and many who go outside as whistleblowers, have claimed that “no one listened.”

In addition, people who have asked a question, or reported problematic information, or made a complaint, often do not completely understand the response. They may need a “fuller response.” This “fuller response” is sometimes a further explanation about policy. And it sometimes is just listening one more time to the anger and grief felt by a visitor. It might include a plan to follow up, with those who have raised serious concerns, to see if appropriate action has been taken, and that there appears to be no retaliation.

An OO is unusual in that delivering respect, humane regard, and a “fuller response” to visitors is the first function of the office. The OO carries out its function on a powerful platform of confidentiality, impartiality and independence.  OOs typically “deliver respect” and follow up with beleaguered and exhausted managers as well as with employees. There are a few other offices that do this, like chaplains, EAP, work-family specialists and health-care practitioners, but the practice is not common.

Zero barriers. An OO is meant to provide a credible, safe and accessible place for all cohorts, from top to bottom within the system. Anyone should be able to raise problems that are seen to be delicate, shameful or frightening, or hard to understand, without fear of retaliation or repercussions. The OO is sometimes the only office that can do this. Because the OO does not accept “notice” for its organization, and almost always will help visitors to the office choose their own option for action, some people will find it a safer place to start. The Case attached provides an illustration that occurs in virtually every organization, all over the world. It presents a situation where a complainant apparently fears to come forward, lest she lose control over what will happen.

It is common that managers and workers feel reluctant to discuss their work place issues. It is also common for individuals to believe that they are the only person with their problem, and that they must therefore keep silent or leave. Providing a zero-barrier office may contribute to people feeling safer—or less unsafe—about seeking options for their concerns.

Central overview. An OO may be unusual in receiving at least some relatively unfiltered information from the entire organization. The OO also has unusual access to system data across organizational, national and system boundaries, about problems, innovations and good management. It may be one of only a very few offices that deals with the entire organization. The OO has a good understanding about how the conflict system actually works.

Systems approach. An OO regularly deals with multi-issue, multi-cohort, multi-cultural, multi-ideological, multi-generational, cross-gender, multi-context, cross-boundary, multi-law-regulation-and-policy problems like those suggested in the Case attached. An OO is used to respecting various regulations and customs of different entities within an organization. An OO is also used to problems that are nested more in the values of the organization and its people than in written rules. The Ombuds Office may be one of only a few offices that deals with very complex conflicts on a regular basis.

An OO is mandated to consider the systems implications of each individual concern—and to recommend and support systemic change. The OO can and should regularly invite itself to talk with committees that are reviewing and drafting organizational policies. The OO can patiently raise and re-raise issues, to exhausted and worn-out managers.

An OO often helps to connect line management and staff office initiatives or actions for conflict management. An OO can often offer positive and affirming options, in response to a concern or complaint, and also defuse groundless rumors. These aspects of the OO, along with central overview, can contribute to some degree of coordination within the CMS, recognition of excellent managers, and also may foster unobtrusive systems change and continuous improvement.

Appropriate dispute resolution. An OO supports “alternative” or informal dispute resolution, and also regularly supports people to use formal channels, in this way seeking to offer “appropriate” options to complainants. Having a choice of options may help people to come forward—by including people with different values. Those who avoid formal channels—and those who will only be satisfied by formal action are both welcome in an Ombuds Office. This broad scope of the OO also can contribute to some coordination within the CMS.

An OO Office is mandated to help people to use all conflict management and compliance channels, including generic approaches to conflict, like training. There are a few other offices that refer people to all relevant conflict options. These include chaplains, employee assistance, work-family specialists and health-care practitioners; however, the practice is not common across an organization.

OOs regularly offer the option of direct action. OOs support people to resolve most problems themselves if they choose to do so. (Many people are reluctant to “come forward” into a CMS fearing that their personal interests, for example for privacy, may get lost in a system. They may therefore prefer to try to address a concern directly. The OO office will typically be available for “follow-up,” after a direct approach, if first-person action does not work. If a complainant wishes, and the OO agrees, the OO may sequentially offer other options or help to get an issue to management.)

The “direct action” option may help to get problems settled at the lowest possible level, without overt third-party assistance. This option may also help people to “learn how to fish, rather than just giving them a fish.” This is the function that may help bystanders to deal with unacceptable behavior (see the Case attached for an example.) This function of the OO effectively adds bystanders into a conflict management systems approach, although bystanders do not appear on the Chart attached. Fostering effective direct action by disputants and bystanders may be the second most cost-effective element of a CMS.

Independence. Working under appropriate terms of reference, an OO is mandated to tell the truth to those in power—and it may sometimes be the only office that can do so if others are afraid. An OO is also able, on its own motion, to look into a matter that appears problematic and inconvenient (or exemplary) without a complaint, referral or commendation.

As an independent entity, an OO can often help a little, with “fail-safe,” “check and balance,” a “principled approach,” and “back up.” (This may help when an element of a conflict management structure fails to act when urgently needed, in a case where a supervisor greatly exceeds his or her authority, or is pursuing ad hominem solutions, or when an office is temporarily in difficulty.) An OO can help surface good ideas and illuminate excellent management practice. This aspect of the OO may help somewhat in fostering accountability, within the CMS, both to the members of the organization and also to the mission of the organization.

Efficiency. By bypassing red tape, an OO may be able to deal with questions, and find appropriate remedies or restitution, quickly, efficiently and at low cost. OOs can often find an acceptable solution or a next step, within a day or less. If the OO office then follows up with appropriate systems recommendations, the efficiency of the OO office may help somewhat in fostering accountability within the CMS.


An Ombuds Office is an important “zero barrier” office to encourage people to be willing to discuss questions, suggestions, problems, concerns, complaints, conflicts, grievances and whistle-blowing. The Ombuds Office may assist the organization to communicate and exemplify its standards of conduct, as David Miller has described in his companion article. In addition an Ombuds Office may be able to help a wide collection of conflict management offices (see Chart) to become a functioning system for dealing with conflict and learning from conflict. As we see from the companion article by Brian Bloch, an Ombuds Office may help in system design, systems thinking, problem prevention, and relevant training. An ombudsman may suggest the need for new policies and procedures, help to coordinate a system, and help reflect the system back to itself.

Click here to download the full article (pdf)

[1] [1] provides the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice for an organizational ombudsman. In these articles we use the term ombudsman for the practitioner and “Ombuds Office” for the office. Like our professional association, the IOA, we respect the use of various forms of these terms.

[2] This subject is well illustrated in studies of those who do or do not sue doctors and their employers.