Foster Horizontal Respect

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By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, CSP, FAAN

DCrespectIf you’ve been in nursing a while, you may have heard the expression “horizontal hostility.” This term is used to describe the workplace phenomenon of coworkers in high stress jobs taking out their frustrations on each other with abuse, nastiness, and indifference. The subject has been researched, written about, reported on, and discussed at length. It’s time to take a fresh approach to an old problem. It all starts with you.

Learn to respect yourself first. If you pick up any self-help book today, you’ll find the same message: You’ve got to love yourself before you can love anyone else. The same goes for respect. If you have little self-worth and don’t value your work, you’ll be inclined to tolerate and expect abuse and hostility. Get yourself out of that mindset by using daily affirmations such as: “I am a valuable member of the team. My contributions make a positive difference. I have a right to be treated with respect.” Say anything often enough, and you’ll start to believe it.

Clean your own house. Step back and take a look at your life and work. What steps do you need to take to get out of your rut or to feel more confident and happy? Perhaps you need to go back to school, get active in a professional association, switch specialties, or even change employers. Maybe something in your personal life needs attention. Consider seeing a career or psychological counselor or life coach if you need some help sorting out life’s challenges.

Don’t criticize, complain, or gossip lest you will be the recipient of same. Windsor Regional Hospital in Canada has embraced an anti-negativity, anti-complaining campaign. Nurses wear purple rubber bracelets to remind them about the campaign. Within a few days of launching the program, morale improved, tension eased, and the staff felt more united. Even those who chose not to participate were affected in a positive way.

Make self-care a priority. It’s hard to be a decent human being when you’re stressed, sleep deprived, and abusing food, alcohol, or other substances. Get enough sleep, use journaling for venting and self-reflection, keep up with routine medical care, and partake in diversionary activities such as dabbling in the arts, taking a nature walk, or playing sports. Use relaxation modalities, such as meditation, massage, and deep breathing. Develop personal and professional support systems.

Master conflict management skills. Whenever there are two or more people in the same place, conflict is bound to happen. And while most of us would prefer to avoid conflict, it has to be dealt with. Otherwise, bad feelings fester and get blown out of proportion.

When you have a conflict with someone else, talk it out face to face whenever possible. Be prepared to apologize when necessary and to meet the other person half way. Never resort to name-calling and using hurtful language or obscenities — regardless of what has transpired. Choose your battles: Let small, less important things roll off your back and save your energy for more important issues.

Stand up for yourself when attacked or treated unfairly. Learn to use assertive language and body posture. You don’t have to feel assertive to act assertive. Fake it ’til you make it. Always report abuse or harassment immediately in accordance with your facility’s policy.

If you’re a manager or supervisor, implement and/or enforce a no-tolerance policy for abuse, nastiness, and harassment. Make it clear that abusive behavior will be stringently dealt with. Allow employees to vent, and provide a mechanism to listen to their ideas and constructive solutions to department challenges. You set the tone for your department.

Treat others as you wish to be treated. Be courteous to everyone whether or not they reciprocate. Offer sincere compliments, thank people for even the small things they do, and show appreciation for every member of your department and team. Greet people by name at the beginning and end of each shift, smile at everyone, and extend small courtesies. If you already do this, pump it up a notch. It doesn’t take any more time to be nice. And the effect it has on you and others will be powerful.

Take time to get to know your coworkers. Contrary to what you might have heard, familiarity breeds respect. Participate in social activities like after-work outings, retirement dinners, and holiday parties. It is through fun and social times outside the workplace that you develop relationships that serve as a foundation for teamwork at work. You don’t have to like everyone you work with, but you should respect them. Learning a little about your coworkers’ backgrounds, families, and interests can go a long way to breeding respect.

Welcome new staff members. Whether it’s a new graduate or an experienced staffer, extend your hand to shake, introduce yourself, and offer to show them the ropes. Check in with them from time to time to see how they’re doing, and ask if they need anything.

If you’re still thinking you can’t possibly make a difference and turn the tide on your unit or in department, remember John F. Kennedy’s quote: “One person can make a difference, and every person must try.” It all starts with you.

Tell me how you and your department are fostering horizontal respect via any of my Social Media platforms.

© Donna Cardillo ( All rights reserved.

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