CynthiaClark_authorphoto By Cynthia Clark PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN

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Gaslighting, betrayal, and a culture of fear

My research team and I recently conducted a national study to examine the types and frequency of incivility occurring between and among faculty and administrators in nursing education and ways to address the problem. The following quotes are a smattering of some of the stories shared by participants. 

“Faculty meetings are filled with interruption, grandstanding, and disruption. To make matters worse, no one speaks up to address the problem. The director delights in creating a culture of fear, mistrust, and chaos—there is a gross abuse of power, cronyism, and manipulation.”

“For me, the gaslighting was slow, gradual, and masterfully done. I began to question my own sanity—five faculty have left, and I’ll soon be number six. You either hide or suck it up—I hide. Dealing with incivility in academia is an unfortunate, almost a daily occurrence. If I tried to recall all the instances of incivility I've seen, I’d be writing all day.”

The detrimental impact of incivility in nursing education is well documented. For years, we have known that uncivil behavior adds to faculty/administrator stress levels, erodes self-esteem, damages relationships, and threatens quality of life. We also know that incivility and other forms of workplace aggression lower morale, cause illness, and leave individuals feeling vulnerable and devalued. Incivility can also negatively impact recruitment, retention, and job satisfaction. Therefore, understanding the complexities of incivility is imperative for all academic leaders and educators. This article focuses on perceptions of faculty and administrator incivility and compares findings from two national studies conducted on this topic in 2013 and 2020. 

Understanding studies on faculty and administrator incivility begins with a trip down memory lane. Fifteen years ago, six nursing scholars from across the United States were selected as members of a plenary panel to present their research at a national nursing conference. The overarching purpose of the plenary session was to provide a multifaceted state of the science address on incivility in nursing education. The first four speakers discussed student incivility and academic dishonesty; my session followed and focused on faculty-to-student incivility. The final speaker, Dr. Kathleen Heinrich, spoke on the topic of faculty-to-faculty incivility. During the session, Dr. Heinrich collected hundreds of stories from faculty participants and published her findings in Reflections on Nursing Leadership the following year. This early qualitative work described 261 stories from nurse educators that resulted in a thematic analysis of 10 faculty games with one subject in common—joy-stealing. Heinrich concluded that acts of incivility (joy-stealing games) extinguish partnerships, damage relationships, and lead to an unhealthy work environment. 

After the Heinrich study was published, I was completely fascinated with the topic and compelled to study the myriad complexities of faculty and administrator incivility using a large sample of participants. To meet this objective, I developed a mixed-methods, psychometrically sound instrument to measure perceptions of faculty and administrator incivility. In 2013, my research team utilized the survey to conduct the first national study on this topic and published our findings in two parts the same year (Part 1 and Part 2).

Nearly 600 nursing faculty and administrators representing 40 states in the US participated in the study and 68% reported incivility in nursing education as a moderate to serious problem. The most frequently occurring incivilities included resisting change, failing to perform one's share of the workload, distracting others by using media devices during meetings, refusing to communicate on work-related issues, and making rude comments or put-downs. Stress and demanding workloads were two of the factors most likely to contribute to faculty and administrator incivility. Fear of retaliation, lack of administrative support, and a dearth of clear policies to address incivility were cited as the top reasons for failing to address the problem.

The qualitative portion of the 2013 study asked participants to write a narrative account about an uncivil encounter they experienced with another faculty member or administrator and to suggest the most effective ways to address incivility. Frequent uncivil behaviors included faculty berating and insulting one another, intentionally setting others up to fail, gossiping and spreading rumors, eye-rolling and other types of nonverbal disapproval, and taking credit for others’ work and scholarly activities. Strategies to improve the work culture included improving communication and conflict negotiation skills, hiring competent and effective leaders, eliminating power imbalances, and linking civility to job performance.

In 2020, my colleagues and I repeated the study with a sample of nearly 1,200 nursing faculty and administrators from across the US. Nearly half (50.5%) of the respondents perceived incivility to be a moderate or serious problem, compared with 68% in the 2013 study. We are moving the needle in this regard; however, on a scale from 0-100 (0 being completely uncivil and 100 being completely civil) respondents in the 2020 study rated the overall level of civility in their nursing programs as 62.4 (a new item added to the 2020 survey). Another concerning finding from the 2020 study included 85% of respondents reporting that they avoid dealing with incivility for various reasons including fear of retaliation, lacking conflict negotiation skills, lack of guidelines and policies, and addressing incivility makes matters worse. The most frequently reported uncivil behaviors included being inattentive or causing distractions during meetings, engaging in secretive meetings, and consistently failing to perform one’s share of the workload. These findings are consistent with the 2013 study, suggesting that these behaviors continue to persist over time and may become normalized as part of the academic culture. 

Stress was identified as a leading contributor to incivility in both studies, and it is important to note that stress levels are likely to increase due to COVID-19 and its myriad manifestations. The uncivil encounters described in the qualitative portion of this study are congruent with the joy-stealing games identified by Heinrich and the themes reported in our 2013 study. Common themes for all three studies included displaying unprofessional and bullying behaviors, setting coworkers up to fail, and taking credit for someone else’s work or contributions. Participants suggested several strategies for improving workplace civility such as role-modeling civility and professionalism, establishing codes of conduct with team norms, participating in civility education, and taking personal responsibility for one’s actions. 

As one participant wrote, “We need to keep working on this. We need a multi-pronged, systematic approach that includes civility education and recognition for those who make a positive difference to improve the workplace.” 

Another commented, “Let’s take responsibility and become self-aware of how our actions impact others. Let’s approach situations with humility and ask the question, ‘What do I have to learn?’"

Assessing the complexities of incivility in nursing education and identifying evidence-based strategies to prevent the problem is an important step toward improving the workplace and promoting individual, team, and organizational success. I’m looking forward to sharing more complete results of the 2020 study during a special virtual session scheduled for 19 February 2021 at Sigma’s Creating Healthy Work Environments conference. Hope to “see” you there!

 

Cynthia Clark, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN, is an award-winning tenured professor, scholar, author, and Founder of Civility MattersTM. Her pioneering work on fostering civility has brought national and international attention to the controversial issues of incivility in academic and practice environments around the globe. She is a member of Sigma’s Mu Gamma at-Large Chapter. Dr. Clark is the author of Creating & Sustaining Civility in Nursing Education published by Sigma.

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