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Are you riding the bus or are you under it?


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Oh, office politics: Everybody loves you. You can make a day wonderful or make a workplace like those on TV shows about impossibly beautiful doctors. Dysfunction hits everywhere sometimes, but if you’re working in the Unit From Heck, how do you survive?

My advice is to combine the best parts of both Machiavelli and Pollyanna.

Rule Number One: Stop gossiping. If you have to, listen—but don’t repeat. It’s a good idea to keep your ear to the ground, but it’s a very bad idea to repeat things you’ve heard through the grapevine. Open ears and a closed mouth will help you stay mostly unscathed.

Rule Number Two: If you have a problem with a person, take it to them first. Nothing makes a person more unpopular than tattling to the boss (especially with the boss). If somebody’s been talking out of turn or has made you peevish, wait until you’re calm, then address it with them. If you can’t get resolution, or things escalate, then that’s the time to go into the big office and hash it out.

Rule Number Three: Be pleasant to everybody. When I say this, I mean everybody, from management to the housekeepers to the guys who come to collect the sharps containers. Say “Good morning,” make room for other folks at the coffeemaker, open doors for people. Keep it consistent, and you’ll be known as a pleasant person.

Rule Number Four: Don’t hold grudges. Whether or not Coworker A helped turn Coworker B’s patient but not yours doesn’t matter in the long run. If somebody is consistently acting nasty toward you, refer to Rule Number Two, but otherwise, don’t play favorites on the unit.

Rule Number Five: Be helpful. Set an example for others. (Yes, yes, I know this sounds very Boy-Scout-ish, but it works.) Remember not to let yourself get walked on, but do occasionally trade shifts with somebody or volunteer for a tricky transporting job. We have to cooperate to make things run smoothly, and that cooperation has to start somewhere.

Finally, if you’re working in a place that’s really and truly toxic and not just grumpy, hightail it out of there. There are still some places where other nurses spend the majority of their time snacking on one another rather than working together, so if you find yourself with chunks gone at the end of every shift, it’s time to move on. A grouchy workplace can be fixed, or at least improved, by the efforts of one person. A really toxic place can’t be. Don’t make yourself the sacrificial offering for the cause of goodness.

Agatha Lellis
Agatha Lellis is a nurse whose coffee is brought to her every morning by a chipmunk. Bluebirds help her to dress, and small woodland creatures sing her to sleep each night. She writes a monthly advice column, "Ask Aunt Agatha," here on Scrubs; you can send her questions to be answered at

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