Talking about bullying is an important step in stopping it. BUT, what do we do when it isn’t safe to talk about? We know that worries about job security, retaliation fears, unequal power dynamics, and second guessing our own experiences all feed into a culture that allows disruptive behaviors to continue and blocks victims and observers from speaking up. Signs that tell staff about zero tolerance fall miserably short when aggressive and passive-aggressive behaviors occur on a daily basis.
Not long ago, as a per diem RN, I was in an inservice where the instructor was abusive to a staff member who had arrived late. A somewhat timid person, let’s call her Kim, a nurse’s assistant from another country was the third person to arrive late, (about 10 minutes). Two others had arrived late also, minutes before this one, but the instructor said nothing. One, a high status professional and the other a very assertive assistant.
The instructor turned to Kim, “Your late. You’ve missed too much. Can you come another time?” Her tone was rude and with her hands on her hips, her body language forceful. Although her words formed a question, we all knew that it was a directive to leave. I sat there. I looked at my peers and exchanged a glance of disapproval. Kim apologized and left. I said nothing. Nor did anyone else. I have seen this manager be abusive before and have had experiences where I felt disrespected by her.
Kim is a hard worker, gentle with patients, and reliable. I was always grateful when she was working on the unit with me. Later I found and told her she did not deserve to be treated like that. She said the room had been changed and that is why she was late. I would have been late had I not run into a colleague who told me about the change. It makes me mad that Kim was treated in this way and frustrated at myself for not doing more. I also accept my decision and see it as a powerful comment about what we are up against in terms of stopping horizontal and vertical abuse. I speak and write about bullying as a consultant and am pretty assertive at this point in my career and life. But in that moment, in that culture, and in my judgment, it wasn’t worth the risk to speak up.
So what can we do? Maybe workshops and discussions on
respectful behaviors and professionalism are a better focus. Maybe a “No Innocent Bystander” policy where all staff are accountable for behavior would help. And the experiential teaching process, Medical Improv” is promising because of the focus building positive relationships and communication skills in a fun and non-stressful way.
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