Leading by Example in a Negative Work Culture


Published: 25 April 2018

There’s a saying that you can lead others by being the change you want to see in the world, and this could not be more accurate for nurses and the nursing profession.

In nursing, stress and hard work are two of the common denominators of many nurses’ lives.

Long hours, difficult patients and too little time for self-care are all reasons why nurses may become disheartened, burned out or resentful of both their patients and their colleagues. When burnout and unhappiness rear their ugly heads, there soon follow complaining, bickering, gossip, bullying and other 'deadly sins' of the nursing work environment.

For those nurses who want to rise above such negativity and try to change the behaviour of their grumpier colleagues in order to alter the unhealthy culture in which they find themselves, leading by example is one of the most powerful ways to do so.

Female nurse with hand on face in shame

Fight Negativity With Positivity

In situations where negative behaviour like bullying is perpetrated, a nurse who witnesses such actions and remains silent is guilty by complicity.

If bullying occurs, a nurse can lead by example, coming to the defence of the victim or attempting to influence the situation either through direct confrontation of the bully or tactics of distraction or de-escalation.

Vicious gossip can be demoralising and destructive. Tthere are two things nurses can do in such situations:

  1. Refuse to take part in such gossip by not adding fuel to the fire, and
  2. Say something positive about the nurse who is being ridiculed and tell offending colleagues that such disrespect is hurtful and uncalled for.

While this can take courage, such actions can disarm gossipers, or at least silence them temporarily, putting them on notice that their behaviour is not condoned.

Changing Unhealthy Workplace Environments

In a healthcare environment where nurses disregard their own wellness, a collective sense of nurse martyrdom can take hold.

Nurses love to put their noses to the grindstone and brag about how many hours they’ve been on their feet without food, or how many shifts in a row they’ve worked. This unhealthy boasting should be recognised as such.

In such cases, the nurses on a particular unit make a spoken or unspoken group decision that taking breaks is frowned upon, meals are for nurses who lack stamina, and those who need to use the toilet or take a break are somehow weaker than those who deny themselves such moments of relative leisure.

When these are the cultural norms of a nursing work environment, something is amiss, and the activist nurse interested in changing such a punishing calculus can make an impact based on concerted action and the force of their will or personality.

While one person cannot independently change an entire culture of suboptimal wellness, that nurse can mount an effective campaign in support of nurse self-care and healthy personal boundaries at work.

If others come to see the sense of such an argument, only a critical mass of employees is necessary to sway the situation in the right direction.

Being a Nurse Change Agent

Nurses cannot wait for their leaders or administrators to fight back against bullying and incivility or implement healthy behavioural change in the workplace.

While forward-thinking nurse managers may champion such a task, the drive for change often comes from rank and file nurses who will no longer accept the status quo.

Thoughtful nurses who want to be the change they wish to see in the world must often step outside their comfort zones, embrace the role of nurse workplace activist, and choose to fight the good fight.

Change must come from those willing to bring it into being, and nurses can choose to be the ones who orchestrate, manifest and create their own optimal workplace environments.


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Keith Carlson View profile
Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, speaker, author, and popular career columnist. With two decades of nursing experience, Keith deeply understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses. Keith’s two podcasts, RNFM Radio and The Nurse Keith Show, offer inspiration and practical support to nurses seeking to create meaningful, satisfying lives and careers. Keith’s message of savvy career management and professional satisfaction reaches tens of thousands of nurses worldwide. Keith can be found on many social media platforms---including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Instagram - as well as at www.nursekeith.com and Digital Doorway.