Career Sphere

How to survive a bully

Have you run into a bully at work? Unfortunately, chances are good that you have. Bullying has become all too common in nursing. In my first nursing position, I was the target of a nurse with years of nursing experience. Her almost daily attacks were extremely distressing and made me question my own ability to perform competently, just as I was trying to begin my nursing career. The good news, as I learned, is that there are practical strategies we all can use to stop bullies—and to stop the corrosive effects of bullying on ourselves and our profession.

Don’t blame yourself
First and foremost, remember it’s not your fault. Bullies tend to victimize those they find threatening. A bully may target someone she perceives as prettier, smarter, or stronger—or as a threat to her job. Most of the bullying I experienced as a new nurse took place during my verbal end-of-shift report. My bully would ask me questions she knew an inexperienced nurse couldn’t answer. Then, she’d humiliate me in front of others for not knowing the answer. I left work every day for a month in tears thinking, “How am I ever going to be a good nurse if I can’t perform my job competently? Did I make the wrong career decision?”

I was letting my inner critic get the best of me instead of recognizing my inexperience. I later realized that the source of the problem was not anything I was doing wrong, but the insecurity of this veteran nurse. Once I realized I wasn’t to blame, I sought out nurses who would be good role models and teach me to grow in my profession.

Don’t be a target
As a conscientious nurse, you can learn to bully-proof yourself. First, you need to recognize that a bully’s abuse consists of lies to try to break you down. Thus, surviving the bully’s terrorism depends on maintaining your self-confidence. Everyday, remind yourself that you are a good person. Make a habit of focusing on your accomplishments, instead of what went wrong. Doing so helps keep your self-confidence intact. This doesn’t mean you should avoid constructive criticism. Just don’t make it your main focus.

After becoming fed up with the almost daily interrogations at verbal report, I bought various tapes on how to handle difficult people. I also remembered the advice a friend had given me: It’s easier to change yourself or your perspective than to try to change another person.
To bully-proof myself, I created a form that listed all the information hospital policy required me to report to the oncoming shift. If I was asked for further information at report, I confidently stated that I didn’t know and that hospital policy didn’t require me to know. After making that statement a few times, the interrogations stopped.

Confront the bully


Another strategy is to tell the bully that you find her behavior offensive and unacceptable. Oddly enough, some bullies don’t know that their behavior is abusive. And sometimes, simply confronting a bully is all it takes to defuse the situation and stop the unacceptable behavior.
Of course, it’s not always that simple. Your statement may enrage the bully. You may need to make it clear that you’ll notify a higher authority if the unacceptable behavior continues. Before you decide on this strategy, you should know that experts say it should be used with caution and only in bullying situations that are new. I’ve found it also helps to have allies when confronting a bully. Remember, bullies are cowards and are more apt to back off when outnumbered.

Avoid the bully

Sometimes, it’s possible to avoid contact with the bully or to head off her behavior and thus avoid exposure to her harm. This strategy can be as simple as not being alone with the bully or not speaking to her. Or, it may be as difficult as changing shifts, changing positions, or resigning. If avoidance isn’t an option, try changing your association with the bully. One nurse told me that her charge nurse would approach nurses in a demeaning way and demand to be updated on all their patients. After realizing how this abusive behavior was draining her work energy, the nurse decided to turn the tables. She approached the bully, greeted her politely, and then let her know what was going on with her patients before the charge nurse had a chance to begin her daily tirade. This defused the bullying situation and allowed the nurse to maintain her dignity and energy.

Get support

Talk to a friend or family member. He or she may have great advice for you or may help you put the situation into perspective. Receiving affirmation that you are a good, highly competent person may help change your perspective of the bully during the next encounter. Remember, bullies only prey on those they perceive as weak. If you appear untouched by the abuse, the bully’s power over you will be broken and, eventually, the bully may leave you alone. Seek support in the form of information, too. The Internet is an endless source of information on how to handle bullies. Online organizations that focus on bullying include www.bullyinginstitute.org and www.bullyonline.org.

Keep a diary
Document the specific behavior. For each entry, include the situation, any witnesses, and the bully’s impact on you and your productivity. Writing about these incidents allows you to gain perspective. Reading your entries may also allow you to realize and diffuse your anger. Letting go of your anger allows you to let go of the frustration or hurt the bully has caused. Again, this takes the power from the bully, and if a bully can’t make you miserable, the behavior will stop. A word of caution: Recognize that letting go of your anger is different than suppressing it. Clearly communicate the specific information you’ve documented to the appropriate person and, if necessary, use it in accordance with your facility’s grievance policy. Be aware that Human Resources departments may tend to back management, not individual employees, so you may not get the Human Resources assistance you want or expect. This doesn’t mean you should avoid reporting the incident.

Use your power
You have the power to bully-proof yourself and your workplace. You have the power to reject bullying behavior as unacceptable. Nurses should unite and protect one another (especially new nurses) from the damaging effects a bully can have not only on our workplace but on our psyche and self-confidence. Bullying is not and should not be thought of as an inherent part of a nurse’s workplace.

Selected references
Briles J. Zapping Conflict in the Healthcare Workplace. Aurora, Colo: Mile High Press; 2003.

Field, T. Drama queens, saviours, rescuers, feigners and attention-seekers: attention-seeking personality disorders, victim syndrome, insecurity and centre of attention behaviour. Available at: http://www.bullyonline.org/workbully/atttent.htm. Accessed on June 21, 2006.

Namie G, Namie R. The Bully at Work. Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks; 2003.

Randle J. Bullying in the nursing profession. J Adv Nurs. 2003;43(4):395-401.

Working Women’s Centre of South Australia Inc. Workplace bullying: making a difference. Available at: http://www.workcover.com/NR/rdonlyres/CCB9F739-9904-4D89-97A9-191887EFCB17/0/aeWorkplaceBullying2003.pdf?ArchiveDocs=1. Accessed on June 10, 2006.

Christine Mladineo, RN, BSN, is a Staff Nurse at the Louis Stokes Cleveland Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

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