27 February 2012

Knowing better and doing better in uncertain and uncivil times

I recently completed a national study on faculty perceptions of faculty-to-faculty incivility in nursing education and was struck by the extent to which faculty perceive this to be a serious problem. It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in our daily work lives and a phenomenon that requires attention, because lack of civility can cause stress, emotional pain, physical complaints and spiritual distress. The effects of uncivil encounters can be devastating and long-lasting.

Several faculty members wrote stories for my study about the perceived “in groups” and “out groups” of nursing faculty teams (I use the word “team” lightly.) One participant wrote: “We have a faculty member who takes pleasure in targeting new faculty by sabotaging their ability to do their job. She went so far as to completely erase the contents of an online-learning course, so the new faculty taking it over had to start from scratch. The new faculty member was very busy learning the ropes of academe and orienting to the faculty role. She was told by the seasoned faculty member that, since she [the senior faculty member] originally developed the class, she [the new faculty member] could get busy and do the same thing.”

Another participant described interactions during faculty meetings: “One of the senior faculty members routinely cuts others off or talks over the less-senior members she appears to be targeting. She is openly condescending and rude, speaks ill of other faculty members when they are not present and is openly antagonistic to the person she is targeting. At times, the environment is quite tense, yet no one confronts the behavior. At this juncture, I am still in a probationary period and fear that trying to address it could jeopardize the position that I have worked so hard to obtain.” Other participants described experiences with ageism, sexism, racism and being “treated like a second-class citizen” because their academic degrees were in a field other than nursing.

Though these stories vary in content, they possess common features. All of the uncivil encounters resulted in an affront to human dignity and an assault on the person’s intrinsic sense of self-worth. Many believed that directly addressing the situation may be the best approach, though most feared that doing so could result in retaliation, reprisal and lack of administrative support. Others felt ill-equipped to deal with incivility and requested information about specific measures to deal with the problem, including implementing clear policies and procedures, ongoing faculty development and “civility” education, and elimination of power-based hierarchies that perpetuate “in groups” and “out groups” in nursing education. Many suggested the need for taking steps to improve relationship building, including positive mentoring, faculty collaborations, celebrating faculty accomplishments and promoting faculty achievements.

As I was reading some of these faculty accounts, I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes by Maya Angelou, who writes, “We do the best we can with what we know, and when we know better, we do better.” While I appreciate Dr. Angelou’s wisdom, I wonder sometimes if it’s true. Do we really do better when we know better, or is it wishful thinking? I choose to believe it’s true because, given what we are learning about faculty incivility, we must do better.

I am constantly amazed to learn that some faculty members are unaware of how their behaviors affect others. We must make civility a priority, therefore, and raise awareness about the myriad consequences of incivility. With the current nursing faculty shortage, we can ill afford to lose qualified educators. So what shall we do?

If you are experiencing incivility, carefully consider the nature of your situation, especially if you are part of the “out group.” Power differentials can be real or perceived and, in either case, can take a devastating toll on your emotional and physical health. So, take steps to improve your self-care and engage in stress-reducing activities. Surround yourself with positive people, and bask in the light of those you love and those who love you back.

I was recently chatting with a colleague in a non-nursing academic discipline who was experiencing relentless workplace incivility. I asked him how he dealt with the negativity. He smiled and said, “I conjure up a vision of my wife and children and my beloved family dog, and I feel immediate relief.” The conversation reminded me of one way I cope with stressful work situations. I have a number of greeting cards that I have received from family and friends over the years. I keep some of my favorite cards on my desk and select certain ones to cheer me up when needed. At present, I have a delightful valentine from my husband propped up on my desk. It features two adorable yellow labs wrapped up with each other, sheer love and joy written all over their faces. As silly as it sounds, it works for me. The picture takes me to a “happy place’ where I feel safe and wanted and stress free for just a little while.

I realize that more active measures are needed, so I highly suggest and urge all nursing programs to co-create and implement behavioral norms. As Ken Blanchard reminds us, “A river without banks is a pond.” Similarly, I believe an organization without norms is a rudderless ship. Without functional norms, desired behavior is ill defined and, thus, faculty and staff are left to “make things up as they go along.”

To co-create norms, dedicate sufficient time to ask all members of the faculty (and staff) to brainstorm behaviors that lead to effective team functioning and contribute to a healthy work environment. Avoid critiquing the suggestions—let the ideas flow. Some common examples of norms include how each team member will communicate, resolve conflicts and conduct themselves in meetings. Then brainstorm behaviors that do not lead to effective team functioning.

Once the norms are determined, discuss how each team member will “live” the norms and what will happen if the norms are violated. When faculty and staff co-create norms together, they are more likely to approve of and conform to these behaviors. Once the norms are agreed upon, they become the standard for faculty and staff interactions. To keep them dynamic, they will need to be reviewed, revisited and revised on a regular basis.

Fostering civility in nursing programs, or any program for that matter, is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in the absence of skilled, ethical leadership. Leaders who hold formal positions as well as those without a formal title or authority, but who have significant influence throughout the organization, are called upon to effect and sustain civil, respectful workplaces. In addition to taking action to raise awareness, leaders must discuss acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, as well as model and practice civil interactions. It is also important to reward civility and collegiality, thereby reinforcing efforts to build positive relationships between and among all members of the nursing education community.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.