Healthy Workforce

The Case of the Territorial Tyrant

When a nurse lays claim to a particular chair or piece of equipment

Every nurse who’d been on the mother/baby unit for more than a few weeks knew that their colleague Gretchen was extremely territorial: She had HER chair, HER computer and HER med cart. Not even the physicians dared sit in Gretchen’s chair or use her computer if she was working.  One night, one of the newer nurses, Kali, used Gretchen’s computer to do some documentation, since the other computer wasn’t working. Another nurse walked by and warned Kali, “You had better not let Gretchen see you sitting in her chair.” Kali ignored the warning.  Ten minutes later, Gretchen returned and demanded that Kali get out of her chair. Kali protested that she just needed a moment to finish her admission assessment. Gretchen refused to relent, raising her voice and finally throwing a cup of water at Kali.

Whenever I conduct workshops on the topic of bullying and incivility in the workplace, few examples produce as many nodding heads or lively sidebar conversations as the story about Gretchen. (It’s a true story, although I’ve changed the names.) Whenever I conduct workshops on the topic of bullying and incivility in the workplace, few examples produce as many nodding heads or lively sidebar conversations as the story about Gretchen. (It’s a true story, although I’ve changed the names.)

A Hex on the Chair

I think we can all recall someone at work who’s exhibited such territorial tendencies (although hopefully not as extreme as in this example!). Sometimes, it’s not another nurse, but a unit secretary who fiercely guards HER phone, HER stapler and HER pens. However, when we step back and think about it, it’s usually quite ridiculous.

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As one workshop participant reminded his coworkers, the organization owns the equipment, not any individual employee.  Another participant remarked that any time her coworkers became possessive of a particular piece of equipment, she would ask them to show her the receipt.  “What voodoo ritual did you perform that magically made this yours?” a third nurse told a territorial colleague.

While responses like that are tempting, they don’t address why some people are so territorial or how to deal with it. Many of us try to work around it, but that won’t solve the problem. I want to propose a more proactive solution: Why not ask them about it?

Asking Nicely

The key to defusing some tense situations is to approach them with curiosity. Many people will tell you their concerns if you ask in a calm, open-minded way. It invites conversation rather than confrontation and paves the way for a more congenial resolution. If you have a coworker who is unusually jealous of a particular piece of equipment or other workplace “territory,” try asking them something like this:

“What’s so important about this particular computer? Aren’t they all basically the same?”

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“Help me to understand why you put a sticker with your name on this chair. Is there something special about it?”

“I’m curious why you’re hiding an IV pump just in case you need it.”

Be careful not to throw in a dose of sarcasm, even if it’s hard to resist. Showing genuine curiosity will get better results. You might be surprised by the answers you get. Sometimes, there’s a personal reason someone is territorial about the things they use at work. For example, if the unit secretary has been chewed out for going through too many office supplies (or accused of stealing them), it’s not hard to see why she might be touchy about people taking her pens or “borrowing” her stapler.

If It Ain’t Broke …

Territoriality can also be a sign of some larger problem. Often, some pieces of office equipment or furniture just work better than others. If there’s only one computer on the unit whose keyboard doesn’t stick, or if a particular chair is the only one with a working height adjustment, it’s no surprise that some nurses will fight over it.

In those cases, the best solution is usually to convince management, facilities or IT to fix or replace the sub-par equipment. If they don’t, future employees may end up fighting over the exact same items.

Everyone Knows

Of course, sometimes the answer is just, “People are like that.” When I first heard the Gretchen and Kali story, I asked the nurses who shared that anecdote whether Gretchen was fired for throwing the cup of water on the nurse who wouldn’t get out of “HER chair.”

The nurses looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. “Of course not,” they said. “Everyone knows not to sit in Gretchen’s chair!”


Renee Thompson, RN, DNP, CMSRN, CSP, is a speaker, author, consultant and founder of The Healthy Workforce Institute – www.healthyworkforceinstitute.com.

Illustration by Jasmin Mora – www.jasminmora.com


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