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A culture of negativity is not something very obvious and apparent. Nurse bullying can actually be quite subtle. A comment here, an eye roll there, gossip in the dictation room, or a passive aggressive sigh.  It can be really hard to navigate this at any point in your career, but it is especially difficult for people who are new to the profession.

I think one of the most important ways to survive working in a negative unit culture and dealing with nurse bullying, and maybe even potentially shift the culture, is this:

Be outside of the negativity, not within it.

I’ve outlined some practical tips for those of you who find yourselves in the thick this situation:

Nurse Bullying: How to Deal With Mean Coworkers

When people around you start being negative, don’t participate

Simply be silent. It’s a little awkward at first, but people will soon learn that they can’t go to you to talk about people or complain. It’s kind of like getting used to the awkward silence that’s necessary when supporting your patients. I’ve done this. It takes time, but it works.

When people start talking negatively, provide a positive point for every negative one

So if they’re talking about how stupid an employee is, bring up times when they were smart or did something great. Counteract the negativity… soon, it won’t be fun bringing up the things they think are funny because you’re forcing them to think about the positive things.

Learn about some things the informal leaders enjoy that is NOT negative, and spark up conversations about it

Be engaged and interested when they start talking about that, and completely disengage when they start to be negative.

Be unapologetic about being positive

If you’re doing something the informal leaders think is lame, like pulling a policy they think you should know, or giving you heck for being involved in shared governance, just be you and do what you want. Talk about it with others positively in front of them; show that you’re not scared to go against the negative grain.

Be all business when it’s black and white clinical stuff

If they’re simply not doing their job, in an all-business way, call them out.

  • “Hey Mary, your alarms keep going off for no reason. Can you go adjust them so we don’t keep thinking it’s our patient?”
  • “Hey Joanna I love you but, I’ve answered about 19 of the last 20 of your call lights while you kick it here in the nurse’s station.”
  • “Hey Joe, I’m going to need you to quit calling out last minute! You really left is in a bind!”
  • **Everyone is sitting at the nurse’s station and Sarah’s patient is alarming again and she’s not getting up to address it, hoping someone else will** “Sarah, looks like your patient is going off again!”

But don’t stop there – the most important aspect of this is not shunning them after you say something like this. Call them out respectfully, but don’t treat them differently. “Hey Sarah, your patient’s alarm is going off again.  What did you bring for  lunch?”

Only bring a manager in when absolutely necessary

Part of professional accountability is holding each other accountable, not having to bring in a 3rd party who wasn’t there. It merely turns into “he said she said” and minimal progress is made.  We are professional nurses; we should be able to speak to each other when someone isn’t pulling their weight. The manager should be brought in for serious things that can’t be mediated between one another.  A lot of people just want the manager to step in and fix something, but the manager isn’t there to see the subtle behavior; you and your colleagues are.  Some people also don’t want to “get involved” but they want to complain. If you’re frustrated enough to complain about it, be professional and speak to them about it.

Don’t always assume it’s laziness or malicious

Maybe someone seriously doesn’t know what they’re supposed to do and whenever they’ve asked for someone to explain it, they get brushed off. If someone keeps forgetting to chart something, or doesn’t adjust their alarms, take a second to show them how and answer any questions before assuming they’re being lazy.

Be quick to admit when you’re wrong

Set an example of it being okay to be wrong and to not be perfect. Many times, mean and negative coworkers set this unrealistic example of what they expect people to be like. Showing fault or flaw in themselves is unthinkable because they must maintain their tough exterior. Fear is one of the biggest motivators! Take ALL the power from that and make it okay to be wrong and to ask for help.  Model that mentality. Be the change you want to see in others.

I hope these practical steps and talking points will help you the next time you find yourself in a negative situation.  Remember, just because other people are negative does not mean you need to be. You can still be a positive, joyful person.  Bullies and negative people do not get to dictate who you are.  Be empowered to be you!

We can never change someone else’s behavior, but we can change how we perceive it.  We can take away the power they think they have.  So what if they think I’m lame because I go to committee meetings? I enjoy them. I enjoy my job. I enjoy my life.  That’s what matters, not what some negative person thinks about me.

If someone is being negative or demeaning to you, do not give it any power or make you think less of yourself.  Release the power that has on you.  You are way too awesome to let a complacent and negative person take that away from you!

Need more nurse-motivation or tips on communicating with nurse bullying or people who aren’t happy?

And check out my book, What’s Next? The Smart Nurse’s Guide to Your Dream Career. I devote an entire chapter to dealing with a negative unit culture.

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