Lateral Violence: Ending Incivility in the Nursing Profession

Working in a hospital is a high-pressure environment. There is chaos, confusion, patient demands, family problems, and tension amongst coworkers. There’s simply no getting around the stress that nursing brings to our daily lives.

One negative trend that thrives on this tension is that of lateral violence. Lateral violence is the hostile or aggressive behavior that is show towards a specific coworker or a group of coworkers. In other words, the strain and anxiety that nursing induce in a person is misdirected towards peers rather than the problem itself. This is an unfortunate phenomenon that many have experienced in the workplace, either as perpetrators or victims.

If you suspect that lateral violence is occurring in your workplace, here are some symptoms to be on the lookout for:

  • Verbal attacks. This is probably the most obvious sign of lateral violence in the workplace. Verbal attacks are made out loud and directed at a specific person or group of people. They may be intimidating, insulting, or bullying.
  • Intentional undermining. A nurse who is intentionally undermining her coworker will often insult her ideas or tattle to supervisors over small mistakes. Undermining acts to take away credibility from the victim, whether in front of managers or patients. It creates a level of distrust.
  • Gossip, telling lies, and tattling are all ways that backstabbing takes place in the nursing world. Backstabbing is essentially the action of acting supportive and helpful while face to face but turning around and aiming to degrade or remove credibility when the other person is not around.
  • Keeping information secret. We all know that to do our best in nursing, we need to have all the information. New processes and procedures need to be known for nurses to comply. What happens too often is that some nurses will withhold information from coworkers in order to appear better than them. Without the proper information on a new paperwork procedure, for instance, a nurse will be out of compliance and will suffer consequences that they wouldn’t have faced had the nurse shared the necessary information in the first place. Intentionally withholding information is one way that lateral violence is committed against peers.
  • In every place where people are together for many hours at a time in stressful situations, there will be some sort of fighting. This can range from petty bickering to outright insults and shouting. This type of lateral violence experienced by nurses can prevent them from having the emotional capacity to properly deal with patients and family members.
  • Similar to undermining, scapegoating looks for ways to place the blame on someone else. Using someone as your “scapegoat” means that they will bear the brunt of whatever consequences occur as a result of your own actions. Instead of taking responsibility, blame is placed on an innocent party, which often creates resentment and distrust.

There are many more ways that lateral violence occurs in the workplace. Troublesome and problematic behavior issues like the above will do nothing more than create a hostile work environment that becomes difficult for employees and supervisors alike.

Luckily, there are a few techniques that hospitals and clinics can use to mitigate the presence of lateral violence. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Conflict Resolution Training. It’s no secret that conflict will arise in nearly any workplace. The diversity of employees’ personalities and cultural/social behaviors will create tension even in the most ideal of situations, so it’s pretty unavoidable. The best tactic, then, is to know how to manage conflict when it does arrive. Mandatory conflict resolution training for all employees is a good first step in helping nurses identify their own behaviors that might be contributing to lateral violence in the workplace. This type of training helps employees learn the skills they will need to properly address issues as they arise, instead of resorting immediately to ineffective and counterproductive techniques. For example, conflict resolution training will help employees know how to properly confront a workplace bully while still remaining professional. They will also learn which behaviors are appropriate and which aren’t, leading to extended accountability.
  • Teambuilding exercises are often seen as someone cliché and cheesy, if not completely useless. However, when approached with a goal in mind of actually building meaningful professional relationships between coworkers, teambuilding exercises can be very useful. This does not have to be a long retreat in the woods or playing silly games. Instead, team building could be something as simple as brainstorming ideas during meetings together to strive to reach a common goal. Setting those goals and coming up with ways to reach them together will encourage nurses to build rapport with each other, thus leading to a more successful team with less tension.
  • Get HR involved. No one likes to run to Human Resources to complain about coworkers or work environments. Unfortunately, this is sometimes a necessity. It should, however, be used as a last resort. Because HR issues could have drastic effects, like the firing of an employee, it’s best to use one of the above tactics first. If all else fails, however, it might be time to get human resources involved as a third party that can help arbitrate the situation. They can help employees identify issues and problematic behaviors and help them come to a solution for whatever problem they are facing.

Final Thoughts

Lateral violence in nursing is becoming increasingly more of an issue, but it doesn’t have to be. When employees and supervisors recognize it for what it is, no matter how subtle, they will better be able to choose a strategy that will help them come to a compromise or solution to the issue.