Imagine… a young professional nurse excited about her first appointment to a national committee. In the midst of her happiness she discloses the good news to her colleagues. However, much to her chagrin, one associate defiantly insulted her in front of ten colleagues regarding her choice of accepting the offer to join the committee. After the associate’s tirade was over the remaining colleagues said nothing in defense of the young professional nurse. They kept silent and the subject was changed.

Remaining silent or excusing the reprehensible behavior in an attempt to minimize the effects of lateral violence has become commonplace. I refer to this phenomenon as the “Shield of White” comparable to the “Thin Blue Line” of law enforcement. The culture of silence among nurses must end. Silence equals acceptance. Listed below are a few reasons why nurses remain quiet when confronted with workplace bullying.

Fear of retaliation

Fundamentally, retaliation is not about getting revenge or “getting back” at anyone. Instead retaliation centers on making people afraid to complain or to assert their rights. For example, an individual responds to a group email and the status quo does not like this person’s response; therefore the status quo begins to exclude this individual from leadership opportunities within the group. Organizations or hospitals are unlikely to prosper when people are made to be afraid. A few consequences of retaliation are: (1) neglecting to ask the “tough” questions (2) underreporting of unlawful/unethical occurrences (3) an unwillingness to challenge authority. Most healthcare institutions consider retaliation unlawful and prohibited. In July 2012, a jury made an award of 1.2 million dollars in a retaliation case against a rehabilitation facility in Saginaw, Michigan.

Fear of rejection

Humans demonstrate an essential need of belonging to a group. This need can stifle a one’s ability to advocate for others.  Fear of becoming isolated from promotions or social events may inhibit a person’s willingness to speak – out against injustice.  Also, some are afraid of being ignored or criticized within their professional and social circles. Unfortunately, when people speak unfavorably about misconduct, colleagues may employ devious methods of rejection such as deleting the bullied person’s email address from a governing body listserv before their term is over in a thinly veiled attempt to restrict access.

Ambivalence

Conceptually known as “nothing is going to change anyways” or “why bother” mentality. This attitude is exposed among individuals who feel the misconduct is not happening to them so they do not care. People who are ambivalent regarding bullying are indecisive in temperament. Typically these people may share the same views as the bullied individual privately; however publicly they agree with the majority to avoid confrontation and as a show of solidarity to the perpetrator. These individuals understand acts of lateral violence are wrong but feel powerless to change years of bad behavior from peers that has been validated and in certain circumstances enabled by others.

We cannot afford to stand idly by as our colleagues are enduring abuse at the hands of their peers. As Mohandas Gandhi once said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world. One must be willing to advocate for their beleaguered colleagues in order to initiate the difficult conversations of which will prompt change. If each nurse spoke their truth, we would heal ourselves and become agents of change for a wounded profession.

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