When Nursing Competitive Behavior Crosses the Line Into Bullying

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The opening games began in Rio last week, and with the flurry of competitions on TV and Olympic winners biting down on their medals, the high energy of athletes living their dream is infectious! How exciting to see the very moment that athletes reach the goal they’ve been training for their whole lives. We see our beautiful USA gymnastics team cheer each other on, and hug one another after a competition. The Italian women’s synchronized diving teams cried together after the success of one of their best dives. Athletes have a bond in their common goal of reaching the Olympics. It’s an achievement few will ever see.

Behind all the flash of gold, however, there is a darker side to the games. Controversial claims of China’s Sun Yang allegedly splashing water at Australian Mack Horton only days before their Olympic games stir around the internet. This raises the question for our competitors, judges, and also for others.

When does healthy competition cross the line and become bullying?

Whether it’s an intimidating splash in the pool, or a bully nurse hip checking the newest crew member on your unit, when motives extend past the margins of normal healthy athletic or workplace competition the end results are always the same.

Whether you’re a nurse or an Olympic athlete, when bullying occurs, someone always gets hurt.

Bullying behaviors, overt or covert, pose a direct threat and are acted out to unfairly squash someone else. So, how do you know when someone’s behavior has crossed the line?

Healthy Competition versus Bullying

  • In competition, the goal is to target our past achievements and top our own best selves, in bullying, the goal is to target and beat out someone else.
  • Competition involves repeating actions in a positive way, whereas bullying involves repeating actions in a negative way.
  • In competition, the goal is to empower ourselves, and the outcome involves a winner and a loser; in bullying the goal is to dominate, control, or overpower others, and no one wins.
  • In competition, everyone performs on the same playing field fairly; in bullying, one seeks out an unfair advantage and often attains an upper hand or advantage by unfair means.

When Competition Becomes Bullying

In nursing, we are all part of the same team. But is there a member of YOUR team who’s playing unfairly? What do we do to create or maintain a positive working environment where not just one nurse, but all nurses thrive?

Follow these steps to keep the bully nurse’s behavior in check:

  • Call the bully out on any unfair play.
  • Get your teammates to rally with you in efforts to take action if the bullying behaviors persist.
  • Seek the guidance of a supervisor and higher-ups if the matter becomes more serious than you can handle.
  • Document all behaviors and ask any witnesses for their support.
  • If managers are dragging their feet in providing solutions, file a complaint.

Nurses work so hard to save lives. We, like our Olympians, do all we can to be the best. In our care giving goals however, we ought not tear each other down or intimidate our teammates to be the one best nurse. Rather, we ought to uplift and cheer on our fellow nurses when THEY do well. Anyone not doing that needs to be called out and dealt with, just as they would be dealt with on any of our great athletic teams.

In your efforts to be the best, also expect the best, for yourself and others in your workplace.

Have you ever seen unhealthy completion among your nursing colleagues? If so, please post your comments below.

ReneeThompson_013_HRThanks so much for reading. Take care and stay connected!


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Dr. Renee Thompson works with healthcare organizations who want to overcome the leadership and clinical challenges their people face every day. If you’d like to find out more about her programs, please visit her website

Contact Renee today at to bring her to your organization to talk about ending the cycle of nurse bullying.

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