Aggressive Nurse Bullying: Signs and Symptoms

Is My Co-Worker Really Bullying Me?

This post is the seventh in a series of posts on nurse bullying and conflict in the workplace written by Dr. Renee Thompson, DNP, RN, CMSRN. Dr. Thompson is one of the top professional development and anti-bullying thought leaders in nursing.

Barbara attended an inservice on nurse bullying. Over the next few weeks, anytime someone said or did something Barbara didn’t like, she would say, “that’s bullying.” The charge nurse told Barbara she was assigning her the more critical patient instead of assigning the patient to a newer nurse, to which Barbara replied, “You’re bullying me. Why do I always get the hardest patients?” Even when the charge nurse reminded Barbara that she was more experienced and therefore more competent, Barbara insisted she was being bullied. When her co-worker asked her to lower her voice at the nurses’ station because she could hear her loudly in the patient’s room, Barbara replied, “Don’t bully me.” Barbara’s manager gave her a verbal warning for coming to work late three times within two weeks. Barbara immediately accused her manager of bullying her. 

So are Barbara’s boss and co-workers really bullies?

We have a tendency to call all bad behavior bullying. However, when we label everything as bullying, we water down the true bullying behavior. Doing so reduces our opportunities to clearly identify behaviors that lead to toxic work environments, undermine cultures of safety, and negatively impacts our patients and our profession. 

Sometimes decisions are made based on what’s best for patients or for the team. Sometimes it’s just the boss holding his/her employees accountable (coming into work late impacts the team!). And sometimes your co-workers might lash out because they’re having a bad day

How do you tell if it’s bullying or a co-worker having a bad day?

Here is the most widely accepted definition of bullying:

Bullying is the repeated patterns of destruction behavior with the conscious or unconscious attempt to do harm.

Follow these guidelines to determine if your co-worker’s behavior is truly bullying:

The behavior repeats

Bullying exists when disruptive behaviors are repeated over and over again – not when your co-workers get “testy” with you or give you an assignment you don’t like. Ask yourself this question, “Have I seen this disruptive behavior before either directed towards me or others?”

Involves perceived power

Bullying involves a perceived power gradient over another person. For example, a physician may perceive he/she has more power over a nurse; a nurse may perceive he/she has more power over a nursing assistant; an experienced nurse may perceive may perceive he/she has more power over a new nurse; and a boss may perceive he/she has more power over an employee. The key here is that they use their “power” to squash others. 

Intent to do harm

For the behavior to be considered bullying, there must be a conscious or unconscious intent to do harm. Harm can manifest as humiliation, sabotage, intimidation, etc. And the intent can be conscious or unconscious. Some nurses mistake constructive criticism as bullying when it’s not or when someone is direct (like the nurse who asked Barbara to lower her voice). 

Sometimes people who we work with are just rude, unprofessional, or inconsiderate. It’s not that we should accept these behaviors either, but if we are ever going to eliminate bullying, we have to understand the differences between bulling and everything else. 

The next time you are in a situation, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. “Is this the first time I’ve experienced this behavior, or is this a pattern of behavior?”
  2. “Does this person believe they have more power over me?”
  3. “Is there intent to do harm?”

Remember, not everything is bullying and if we are going to eliminate true bullying, we need to stop watering down the term by using it for everything and keep it real. 

Take care and stay connected!


Dr. Renee Thompson is a keynote speaker, author, award-winning nurse blogger, and professional development/anti-bullying thought leader. Renee spends the majority of her time helping healthcare and academic organizations address and eliminate workplace bullying. To find out more about Renee, please visit her website. American Sentinel University friends and family can get 25% off Renee’s great anti-bullying products – simply enter in the code: AMSENT16.

Empower yourself with knowledge through an online RN to BSN or RN to MSN degree. American Sentinel University is an innovative, accredited provider of online nursing degrees, including programs that prepare nurses for a specialty in case managementinfection control, and executive leadership.

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