What If The Bully Is You?

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In all of our talks about bullying have you ever thought the bully may be you?

A few years ago I was doing a workshop for nurse leaders on the topic of bullying and incivility. About halfway through, a woman in the back of the room stood up and proclaimed, “I’m the bully.” Her assistant managers, who were sitting on both sides of her, quickly jumped to her defense. “No you’re not. You’re just a bit direct.” This leader again proclaimed, “I’m telling you. I’m the bully. That’s me up there (referring to the list of bullying behaviors on the screen).” But again, her colleagues defended her innocence until finally, they both said, “Okay. You are the bully but we’ve been too afraid to tell you!”

As I travel the country doing my part to eradicate bullying and incivility in healthcare, I’ve learned that the bullies can’t be everyone else. We all have to look in the mirror and determine if WE might be the bullies or at least, in some way, contribute to bullying.

Numerous studies show that anywhere from 73% to 93% of all nurses have either experienced or witnessed bullying in the workplace. Who are these “bullies”?

We are. But unfortunately, some of us don’t know it.

I read this example a few years ago about a guy who was curious about who the “mean guy” was in the neighborhood:

“People were always talking about how mean this guy was who lived on our block, but I decided to go see for myself. I went to his door, but he said he wasn’t the mean guy; the mean guy lived in the house over there. ‘No, you stupid idiot, ‘ I said, that’s my house.”

What I know about humans is that we are all myopic. We only see the world through our own eyes and often times fail to consider that we might also be part of the problem. When we can actually turn the mirror back on ourselves and objectively SEE how we are perceived by others, only then are we able to transform.


The first step is to be honest enough to consider your behaviors and ask if they might be considered unprofessional. Take an introspective look at your behaviors to see if they contribute to bullying and incivility in the workplace. It’s a difficult thing to open yourself up for scrutiny and awareness of your own behaviors, but such openness is a quality of both maturity and professionalism.

1. Take a self-assessment

There are plenty of them out there. Just ask Google. I have an assessment titled, “What if the Bully is You?” It’s free and you can find it on my website by clicking here.  If you’re a manager, print these assessments and ask your entire staff (nurses, nursing assistants, unit secretaries, etc.) to complete them. The key here is that you don’t ask them to turn in their completed assessments. The hope is that by going through the assessment, they will recognize their behavior and adapt it.

2. Ask a trusted friend

Usually there is a co-worker or two whom we feel comfortable having personal conversations with. Ask them to be honest with you about your behavior.  Let them know that you suspect you might be perceived as abrasive, unapproachable, etc. and want them to be brutally honest with you.

3. Admit it

Admit to your co-workers that you’re concerned about how your behavior is being perceived and that you want them to be honest and direct with you if they perceive you are behaving badly.  Tell your co-workers, “If I ever come across as _________ please let me know because that’s not my intent.” The key here is that when someone DOES call you out on your behavior, you need to be open to it and NOT get defensive! If you do, you’ll reinforce a culture of silence.

4. Ask your boss

Chances are, if your co-workers think you’re a bully, they’ve complained to your boss. The problem is, managers don’t always know how to address the issue so don’t assume that just because no one has ever said anything to you that there haven’t been complaints.

5. Get help

There’s no shame in finally realizing you’ve been treating others in a way that’s unprofessional and inappropriate IF you do everything you can to change. Sometimes the ability to change requires professional help. All healthcare organizations offer some type of employee assistance programs, which are typically no or low cost. Why not get some help?

If you have recognized bully behavior in yourself, avoid spending excess energy on guilt and self-deprecation. Nurses who bully don’t always make a conscious decision to treat their co-workers poorly. Sometimes they adopt bully behaviors to cope with the demands of the job, protect themselves from others (the best defense is a good offense), or because they have personal issues that infect their work environment. There is no shame in realizing you’ve been behaving as a bully. The shame lies when you realize it but do nothing to change.

When this leader admitted she was the bully and her assistant managers finally had the courage to agree, she cried, they cried, we all cried. The entire room of 75 people applauded for her not because she was the bully of course, but because she was able to finally 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.

You can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s broken.

We all have to do our part to stop the cycle of nurse bullying – even the bullies!

Take care. Be kind. Stay connected.


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