Nurse's Station

Bullying Is Not Just For The Playground…. How To Handle Passive Aggressive Behavior On The Job


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Nurse bullying is a thing, and it affects all nurses, directly and indirectly. Passive aggressive interactions with your peers can leave you feeling emotionally drained and defeated. Yet, whether 10 or 30, a bully can always be put in their place. You just need to have the right tools to get them there.


What is Passive Aggressive Behavior?

Adults use the passive aggressive tactic often in their interactions as a natural defense mechanism. What is important to remember is that passive aggressive behavior is based on fear, where the individual is trying to avoid direct confrontation with their intended target. Some of the most common examples used by nurses include:

  • Professional sabotage. Where you are accused of an action that was not your fault. This can even be more subtle, like not leaving you with the proper information to perform a task successfully.
  • Sarcastic responses. This type of belittling behavior makes the recipient feel unworthy or insignificant.
  • A classic example of a passive-aggressive co-worker is one who just ignores your presence. They will seek out other nurses over you, even when it is widely known that you are experienced or have a direct connection with the conversation.
  • Withholding praise. A passive aggressive co-worker will never acknowledge your accomplishments or praise an achievement you have made.

What is important to remember about these types of bullies is that their behavior is fear based. The fear that they have is of confrontation, which is why they actively seek out individuals who they consider to be weak. They know that these individuals won’t call them out for their behavior.


Confronting the Passive Aggressive Nurse at Work

If you are trying to cope with a passive aggressive co-worker, you need to start by confronting the action, not the individual. If you jump to attack them, they will automatically go on the defense and the conversation will not end well. Use a more constructive approach that lets them know you understand what is going on, and are not the weak individual they perceived you to be.

  • Don’t Give In: One of the biggest mistakes we make when dealing with a passive aggressive person is to be lenient. This only enables them to roll over us more. Recognize that this is hostile, and creating a negative work environment. Once you understand what is happening and stop allowing it, you will feel a sense of your own empowerment.
  • Set Your Personal Boundaries: As adults, we all have to put up with a certain amount of unpleasant behavior from our peers, but there are always limits. Set your own boundaries for what you feel is acceptable, and then follow through when they are crossed. The follow through is key, otherwise, the bully will continue to see you as a target.
  • Be Specific: When confronting a passive aggressive individual it is important that you bring up the specific action, not their personal character. Avoid using words like “never” and “always”, sticking to the incident that occurred at that moment.


Practicing Assertive Communication

Watch the way in which respected nurse managers and other supervisors interact in the work place. The most effective ones communicate using assertive skills. There is a confidence in how they speak, yet they are non-reactive and respectful at all times. This is good practice for dealing with a passive-aggressive co-worker. Remember not to interject personal blame, but listen to their side, and then stick to your guns about not tolerating any more masked hostility in the future.

These types of individuals thrive on knowing that they are getting underneath your skin, so resist giving them that satisfaction. Once you start facing them head-on and calling out the behavior, they will realize that you are not the weak minded person they assumed you were.

You should also be self-aware enough to know when you are exhibiting passive aggressive behavior yourself. All of us do from time to time, especially when we are angry. Getting angry is a normal reaction, it is how you react to the emotion that you need to watch. This is the time when you rise to the occasion and put assertive communication into practice. You’ll be amazed at how much more respect you earn and work you can get accomplished when you confront an issue head on with your fellow nurses.

The nurse bully may not be stealing your lunch money, but they are sabotaging your opportunity to enjoy work and excel in your career. Learn to put them in their place right from the start to create a positive and productive workplace for the entire nursing staff.

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