Not Everything is Bullying

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Nurse bullying, incivility, disrespect, inconsiderate, horizontal violence, vertical violence

Because bullying is receiving a lot of attention in the media, we have the tendency to call all bad behavior bullying. However, not everything is bullying. Sometimes, people are just direct, disrespectful, unprofessional or…just having a bad day.

Megan attended an inservice on nurse bullying. Over the next few weeks, anytime someone said or did something Megan didn’t like, she would say, “That’s bullying.” The charge nurse told Megan she was assigning her the more critical patient instead of assigning the patient to a newer nurse, to which Megan replied, “That’s bullying. Why do I always get the hardest patients?” Even when the charge nurse reminded Megan that she was more experienced and therefore more competent, Megan insisted she was being bullied.  When her co-worker asked her to lower her voice at the nurses’ station because she could hear her loudly in her patient’s room, Megan replied, “Don’t bully me.” Megan started referring to Maggie as a bully because when Maggie followed her, she always insisted that Megan finish all of her work before leaving for the day – never picking up the slack like all nurses should.
Are Megan’s co-workers really bullies?
When we label EVERYTHING as bullying, we water down true bullying. Doing so reduces our opportunities to clearly identify behaviors that lead to toxic work environments, undermine cultures of safety AND negatively impacts our profession.
How do you know the difference?
Follow these guidelines to determine if your co-worker’s behavior is truly bullying or something else.
Behavior repeats
Bullying exists when disruptive behaviors are repeated over and over again – not when you co-worker gets “testy” with you once. Ask yourself this question, “Have I seen this disruptive behavior before either directed towards me or others?”
Involves perceived power
Bullying involves a perceived power gradient over another person. For example, a physician may perceive he/she has more power over a nurse; a nurse may perceive he/she has more power over a nursing assistant; an experienced nurse may perceive he/she has more power over a new nurse. 
Intent to do harm
For the behavior to be considered bullying, there must be a conscious or unconscious intent to do harm. Harm can manifest as humiliation, sabotage, intimidation, etc. And, the intent can be conscious or unconscious. Some nurses mistake constructive criticism as bullying when it’s not or when someone is direct (like the nurse who asked Megan to lower her voice).
Sometimes people who we work with are just rude, unprofessional or inconsiderate. It’s not that we should accept these behaviors either, but if we are ever going to eliminate BULLYING, we have to understand the difference between bullying and everything else.
So, the next time you are in a situation you think might be bullying, ask yourself…
Is this the first time I’ve experienced this behavior or is this a pattern of behavior?
Does this person believe they have more power over me?
Is there intent to do me harm?
Remember, not everything is bullying and if are going to eliminate TRUE bullying, we need to stop watering down the term by using it for everything. Keep it real.
Thanks so much for reading. I’d love to read your thoughts on this topic!
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8 thoughts on “Not Everything is Bullying”

  1. Very useful explanation of difference between bullying and other behaviours. I have also been very concerned about the mislabeling of all behaviours as bullying.
    Thanks. I will share with my leadership students.

  2. Thanks Michelle. I see many nurses who are using the label to avoid accountability. It's hard sometimes to clearly see what is true bullying and what is something else. So, we have to pause before we label behavior as bullying…to be true bullying, the behavior has to repeat and the intent needs to be harm.

    Glad you're sharing with your leadership students!

    Kind regards

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