Original Article Featured in OR Today Magazine, November 2016 Edition
Do you believe that workplace bullying and incivility are the same?
No. Workplace incivility can best be defined as low-intensity unpleasant behavior that is rude, impolite, or inconsiderate. While the target can feel insulted or angry; an actual desire or intent to harm the other person is ambiguous. Anyone has the potential to behave inappropriately towards a coworker given the right circumstances coupled with a lack of self-management.
Workplace bullying however, is ongoing, offensive, abusive, intimidating or insulting behavior or actions directed at a person(s), causing the target to feel threatened, abused, humiliated or vulnerable. The person experiencing prolonged bullying can feel a range of psychological and physiological symptoms. The research supports that, those who bully, are very aware of their behavior and its effect on the others; even though they may deny that there is intent. Fortunately, there is only a very small percentage of the workforce that is capable of such sustained disregard for another individual.
So these behaviors are very different. Should the management be different as well?
Yes, they should and I want to be clear as to why. The two keys here are insight and sustainability. The person who behaves in an uncivil manner has the ability to self-reflect on that indiscretion, feel remorse or regret and make the active choice to work on their self-management skills and achieve personal growth. A bully does not have this ability.
It is vital that we understand and accept that a nurse bully is a narcissist with a license. A narcissist lacks the capacity for empathy. The ability to reflect empathically on the consequence that one’s poor behavior has on another is vital for driving the desire to change. Bullies (narcissists) are incapable of this.
An uncivil staff member can gain insight though coaching and training. Positive, sustained changes in behavior can be noted within six to twelve weeks of working a clear emotional intelligence improvement action plan. A narcissist typically reacts in one of two ways to someone attempting to hold them accountable. They may escalate their behavior and retaliate or they will tell you what you want to hear and vow to reform. However, they cannot sustain any improvement because they lack a connection with the need to improve.
So why is managing bullying behavior in nursing so challenging?
This is a complex issue but one reason is that nurses are professional caregivers. Nursing leaders have a good deal of difficulty coming to terms with the fact that a bully/narcissist cannot be fixed. It is not a part of our caregiver DNA to “give-up” on someone. We talk ourselves into believing that if we just try a little harder that this individual will have an epiphany and the problem will be resolved.
The bully/narcissist is hoping that you will react exactly in this manner. They are experts at taking your wonderful qualities of empathy, patience and the need to heal and use them against you to achieve their goal of never being held accountable to sustained improvement. Essentially, we need to get out of our own way in order to take charge of this situation. Nurse leaders must try to accept that once someone shows you their true colors, you need to resist repainting them.
The only performance improvement plan for a bully/narcissist is a collaborative effort put forth by administration, human resources and the nurse leader that is time sensitive and rich with mandatory training. The documentation should discuss the need for improvement to be demonstrated within three to six months then sustained for six months as well.
Most bully/narcissists will not be able to withstand this type of scrutiny and may decide to move on. The others may stay but will find it very challenging to sustain the improvement. Should termination be the only option left, you can have the peace of mind that a sincere effort was made on your part; and twelve months’ worth of documentation to support your action.