Healthy Workforce

The Case of the Bitter Backbiters

Reduce professional jealousy by creating a culture where accomplishments are celebrated

Rosa is a BSN-prepared nurse who has worked for several years on a med/surg unit. She has always had a dream of becoming a nurse practitioner and recently decided to make that dream a reality by pursuing an online master’s degree program. She continues to juggle her shifts at the hospital with her courses, clinicals and tests.

When Rosa told her colleagues about her exciting plans, she was surprised to get a negative reaction, even from her manager. “You think having a master’s degree will make you better than us?” the manager sneered.

The other nurses are giving Rosa the cold shoulder. Suddenly, they’re unable to switch shifts to help accommodate her classes and study time. Rosa feels they are not only being unkind and unsupportive, but are intentionally sabotaging her efforts.

What’s going on here, and what can Rosa do about it?

As nurses, we pride ourselves on being lifelong learners, continuously seeking opportunities to expand our knowledge, improve our skills and explore new career directions. That’s such an important shared value within our profession that you’d naturally expect nurses to want to support each other’s endeavors.

Unfortunately, as Rosa discovered, some nurses are anything but supportive when it comes to their colleagues’ professional development and achievements.

Triggers: Awards, Degrees and Certification

A nurse who goes back to school to get a BSN or MSN may find that the other nurses exclude her from social events, gossip about and mock her, and spend a distressing amount of energy finding ways to pull her down. If the nurse’s intended degree is more advanced than the majority of their colleagues’, the others may say things like, “Oh, she’s too good for us now.”

Hiring Now

This kind of negative backtalk isn’t limited to education. Nurses who earn professional certifications, get involved with hospital committees or volunteer for special projects are too often greeted with frosty resentment from coworkers.

Winning an award can elicit especially bitter reactions. A nurse who reached out to me several years ago told me that after she received the DAISY Award, she started noticing that she was getting the worst assignments. She didn’t understand why until she overheard the charge nurse say, “Let’s give this difficult patient to Cindy. After all, she’s a big shot now — she can handle it!”

Whatever the trigger — a new degree, awards and certification or other professional milestone — the negative reactions tend to have similar themes. Instead of celebrating their colleague’s accomplishment, other nurses downplay or dismiss it, often while trying to find fault in the nurse’s work. If they catch him or her making a mistake, they’re quick to say, “See, Mr. [or Ms.] High-and-Mighty is not so perfect after all!”

Protect Yourself

If you’re dealing with crabby, resentful colleagues, there are a few ways you can protect yourself.

Remember Your Whys

You know why you’re pursuing a degree, getting certified or advancing your career. Focusing on those reasons is an important tactic for getting through setbacks and complications — including bitter colleagues. Don’t give them the satisfaction of second-guessing yourself.

Remain Positive

If your professional development is met with crabby behavior, resist the urge to bite back or respond passive-aggressively, which will compound the reaction. Instead, focus on positivity and humility. Consider these sample scripts:

Backtalk: “I suppose you think winning this award means you’re above the rest of us mere mortals.”
Response: “I’m just really grateful that someone was happy with the care I provided and took the time to nominate me.”

Backtalk: “Certification doesn’t prove anything — any nurse on this unit can do the same work you do.”
Response: “I’m really excited about [specialty area], and I love learning more about it.”

Backtalk: “Just because you’re in a master’s program, you think you’re too good for bedside nursing.”
Response: “I’ve been dreaming for a long time of becoming a nurse practitioner, and my program will help me get there.”

Make Celebration the Norm

Perhaps the best thing you can do to reduce bitterness and backtalk is to help create a culture where celebrating the accomplishments of others is the norm. Go out of your way to recognize any important moment, whether it’s professional or personal (such as birthdays, births or marriage). Don’t just wait for major milestones. Nursing is full of small victories that almost no one notices. A kind word or a moment of praise in those situations can be worth as much as a whole shelf full of awards.

If we all get used to complimenting, celebrating and recognizing each other, it becomes a part of our language. Celebrating becomes the new normal and resentful behavior becomes the anomaly. If we make it our mission to recognize, promote, and honor each other, we can overcome the bitterness and transform our workplace culture into one that constantly strives to lift everyone up!


Renee Thompson, RN, DNP, CMSRN, CSP, is a speaker, author, consultant and founder of The Healthy Workforce Institute – www.healthyworkforceinstitute.com. Her new book is Enough! Eradicate Bullying and Incivility in Healthcare: Strategies for Front Line Leaders.

Illustration by Jasmin Mora – www.jasminmora.com


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