Healthy Workforce

What If the Bully Is You?

Looking in the mirror and taking responsibility

Nurse realizing that they have been a bully on some occasions, and owning up to their wrongdoing

A few years ago, I did a workshop for nurse leaders on the topic of bullying and incivility. About halfway through, a woman in the back of the room — let’s call her Martha — stood up and proclaimed, “I’m the bully.” Although her assistant managers, who were sitting on either side of her, quickly leapt to her defense,

Martha pointed to the list of bullying behaviors I was projecting and repeated, “I’m telling you. I’m the bully. That’s me up there.” Finally, her colleagues both admitted, “Yes, you are, but we’ve been too afraid to tell you!”


Studies estimate that between 73 and 93 percent of all nurses have either experienced or witnessed bullying in the workplace. That’s a lot of victims — and a lot of tormenters.

Who are those bullies? Sometimes, the answer is “We are.” Each of us only sees the world through our own eyes, which means we often fail to consider that we might be part of the problem.

Only by turning the mirror back on ourselves and objectively considering how we are perceived, can we recognize and transform our own toxic behaviors.

Taking Responsibility

The first step is to be honest enough to consider your own behavior, and whether it contributes to bullying and incivility in the workplace. Here are three ways you can do that.

Do a self-assessment.

Ask yourself the following five questions:

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1. Has anyone told me that I intimidate other people?

2. Do I sometimes ridicule a new or inexperienced coworker?

3. Do I go out of my way to help some of my coworkers and not others?

4. Do I secretly enjoy confrontations with people I know I can dominate?

5. Do I sometimes rationalize rude or mean-spirited behavior as helping to “toughen up” new nurses?

If your answer to any of these questions is “Yes,” it’s time to consider that you may be part of the problem.

Ask a trusted coworker.

If there is a coworker or two with whom you feel comfortable having personal conversations, you can also ask them to be honest with you about your behavior. Let them know you suspect that you might be perceived as abrasive, unapproachable or hostile, and ask for their brutally honest assessment. (Don’t get mad if you don’t like their response!)

Ask your boss.

Chances are, if your coworkers think you’re a bully, they’ve said something to management. However, don’t assume that just because your supervisor hasn’t reprimanded you that there haven’t been complaints. (Managers don’t always know how to address issues of incivility, and sometimes complaints are brushed under the rug.)

Changing Your Ways

1. Admit it.

Start addressing your own negative behavior by admitting it. Tell your coworkers that you’re concerned about how your words and actions affect others, and ask them to tell you if they perceive that you are behaving badly. The key here is that if someone DOES call you out, you need to be open to the feedback and not get defensive.

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2. Apologize.

If there are coworkers you know you’ve mistreated, this is a good time to apologize to them — and mean it.

3. Seek support.

If you’ve been treating others in a way that’s unprofessional and inappropriate, you owe it to your coworkers (and your patients) to do everything you can to change. Sometimes, that means seeking professional guidance. All healthcare organizations offer employee assistance programs. Why not get some help?

Don’t waste energy on guilt.

Being a bully is regrettable, but the greater shame is when you realize it and do nothing to change. Dwelling on past mistakes won’t fix them — improving your behavior will.


As for Martha, when she admitted she was the bully and her assistant managers finally had the courage to agree, we all became emotional. Then, the entire room of 75 people applauded for her — not because she was unkind, but because she was finally able to see herself through other people’s eyes.

She vowed, in front of everyone, that she would do everything she could to change her behavior. And she did. We all have to do our part to stop the cycle of nurse bullying — especially the bullies!

RENEE THOMPSON, RN, DNP, CMSRN, is the CEO and founder of the Healthy Workforce Institute. As a speaker, author and consultant, her goal is to eradicate nurse bullying and incivility.


JASMIN MORA is a Los Angeles-based illustrator. Reach her at

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