Dr. Renee Thompson: The Witness, The Target, and the Bully – Which One Are You?

This post is part of 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.

Many years ago I was a unit manager during the time when we had one of the worst nursing shortages. Every day, my primary goal was to make sure I fixed my staffing holes for the evening and nights so that I didn’t have to work them! I prayed every day that I would get an email from human resources telling me that a nurse applied for one of my numerous positions.

Several years later, I found myself in a corporate position where I was responsible for professional development of about 10,000 nurses. I worked collaboratively with our nurse recruiters who used to brag about how they hired 800+ nurses every year. Then one day I said, although it’s awesome that our marketing efforts were working and we were hiring a boatload of new nurses, why, oh why did we need to hire 800+ nurses every year?

It’s because hiring them is one thing – keeping them is another. According to Gallup, the number one reason someone stays or leaves their job is the relationship they have with their boss. The second reason is whether or not they feel a sense of belonging. Think about it. These are social reasons. They have nothing to do with the location, money benefits, sign bonus, etc. and everything to do with the people aspects of the work. If you have bullying and incivility, your nurses won’t feel a sense of belonging and they will leave.

If we want to stop the hemorrhaging of nurses so that we never again have a nursing shortage (who is going to take care of us when we get older?), we need to finally put an end to nurses eating their young, their old, and everything in between!

One way we can help decrease the hemorrhaging of nurses is for each of us to understand the role we play. We are either a target of bullying, a witness to bullying, or we are the bully. The question you have to ask yourself is this – which one are you?

Knowing which category you are in is a great first step. The second step is to take one action – just one. Whether you are the target, witness, or bully, there are simple things you can do.

What can you do if you are the target?

Tell someone: Please do not suffer in silence when you don’t have to. Forty percent of all targets don’t tell anyone. Targets who stay silent suffer the trifecta of physical, emotional, and mental stress. Targets who stay silent end up quitting. Targets who speak up and tell someone are more likely to get the help they need to document, confront, and stop the bullying behavior. Tell someone – anyone!

What can you do if you are the witness?

Speak up and support the target: Did you know that the most powerful intervention  to stop the cycle of bullying is for the witness to speak up – not the target? Tell the bully that what she is doing is wrong and that you will speak up whenever you witness any bullying behavior that undermines teamwork or a culture of respect and patient safety. After you’ve spoken up to the bully, then go and support the target. Let him/her talk about the experience and offer your continued support.

What can you do if you are the bully?

Apologize and ask for help: Every time I give a keynote presentation or conduct a seminar to teach nurses how to address workplace bullying, at least one person confides in me that they think they might be the bully. Bravo!!! Self-awareness is the first step. Apologize to anyone you think you’ve harmed and then ask your boss and coworkers for help.

Nursing is a wonderful profession. We get the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of other people every single day we walk into work. The public loves and trusts us. Isn’t it time that we love and trust each other too?

Take care and stay connected!

-Renee