Cynthia Clark, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN By Cynthia Clark PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN

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  • North America
  • Leadership

Taking an honest gaze in the civility mirror


“To know yourself, you must sacrifice the illusion that you already do.” –Vironika Tugaleva


“Incivility usually arises not from malice, but from ignorance.” –Christine Porath 


You may find it difficult to believe, but even the most uncivil and impertinent individuals may be blissfully unaware—and sometimes completely oblivious—of how their behaviors affect others and the workplace. No matter how civil and considerate we think we are, the most successful and enlightened individuals are those who seek insight into their behaviors, invite feedback, and consider the impact of their behaviors on others. Becoming more self-aware and taking action to improve ourselves paves the way for building meaningful relationships, healthy work and learning environments, and top-performing teams.  

Daniel Goleman identified self-awareness as one of five key competencies for increasing emotional intelligence (EI). Goleman proposed that EI competencies can be learned, and therefore enhanced, when we intentionally focus on improving them. While all five EI competencies are important for individual, team, and organizational wellness, I want to highlight the competency of self-awareness. 

Self-awareness is the ability to see ourselves clearly and objectively, realize how our emotions and behaviors impact others, and understand how others perceive us. Being self-aware includes an accurate reading of our strengths, limitations, and clarity of values and purpose. Becoming more self-aware helps us connect with others in meaningful ways, improves individual and team communication, and enhances work and social relationships. In a nutshell, self-awareness requires an honest appraisal of who we are and how we relate to others. 

One way to enhance self-awareness is to ask a trusted colleague, friend, or family member to provide feedback about how they perceive and experience us. While asking for feedback can be revealing, it can also be unsettling. Yet, doing so allows us to see situations from the perspective of others, which can lead to better relationships, teamwork, and rapport. Even when we don’t ask for feedback, being open and responsive to the perspective of others can be life-changing. 

Let me illustrate with a personal experience that occurred decades ago when I was a new nurse manager working on an adolescent mental health unit. Our clients were hospitalized for a variety of behavioral health and substance abuse conditions. Our treatment team was a well-oiled crew, firmly committed to helping our clients achieve their greatest level of wellness. It wasn’t always easy because the challenges the teens faced were serious, multifaceted, and long-standing. 

As you can imagine, the unit bustled with activity—often becoming chaotic, especially when tempers flared. When this happened, the team acted swiftly and competently to create calm and prevent further escalation of disruptive behaviors. My role as nurse manager was to lead and support the team and coordinate efforts to restore stability on the unit. 

Honestly, even though I was young and inexperienced, I thought I was doing a pretty good job managing the unit. But one day, that perspective was challenged, and it changed not only my nursing practice, but also my life.

It was a particularly hectic shift. We were short-staffed, admitting two new clients, discharging two others—and to top it off, we were in the middle of visiting hours. While the team was attempting to manage the upheaval on the milieu, a physical altercation between rival gang members threatened to erupt. This situation would surely test my mettle as a new nurse manager!

To bring calm to the situation, I swiftly and fervently began issuing orders—telling clients to go to their rooms, dismissing visitors, demanding that the fighting stop, and brandishing similar commands. Surely, this tactic was the best approach. Wow was I wrong! Even rookie managers know that wielding demands and ultimatums often make matters worse, particularly with clients challenged with oppositional, defiant disorders. As you can imagine, my dictums added fuel to the fire.


Core Competencies of Civility in Nursing & Healthcare


At that point, one of the counselors approached me and asked if we could meet in my office for a brief conversation. I said, “What, are you nuts? This place is in chaos. The last thing we need to do is meet in my office for a conversation.” He looked at me and calmly said, “I believe taking a minute away from the unit will serve us well.” Reluctantly, I agreed. We retreated to my office where he calmly and quietly said, “I have the utmost respect for you. So, I hope you will listen to what I have to say because it comes from the heart and with good intentions to help you become a great nurse manager. From my perspective, when things become hectic on the unit, I notice that your immediate response is to attempt to control the situation. I understand this tendency, but please think about relinquishing some control and trusting the team to help bring calm to a stressful situation.”

As I listened to these words, I instantly felt my body tense—like I had been sucker-punched. I felt defensive and beyond irritated. How on earth could he speak to me this way, especially when the milieu was so volatile? We needed to get back on the unit. But then suddenly, something shifted inside, and I decided to take note because, as much as I hated to admit it, my colleague was spot on. I said, “You’re right; I tend to control things. I’m going to give this conversation a lot of thought. It took courage for you to give me this feedback, and I appreciate you caring enough to give it to me.” 

This valuable feedback from a trusted colleague during a hectic shift changed me in ways that still impacts me today. Am I perfect at letting go, sharing responsibility, and yielding control? Not entirely, but I am much better at it—and because my colleague cared enough to share his observations, which heightened my level of self-awareness, I’m getting better every day. 

This lesson in self-awareness was an important step toward improving my competence as a leader and team member. When we are open to seeing ourselves as others see us, we build trust, collegiality, and stronger relationships—all which contribute to a healthy work environment. 

A heightened level of self-awareness can provide a catalyst for change. Yet, raising self-awareness alone is not enough. Meaningful change requires execution. When we are more self-aware of our behaviors and their impact on others—and we accept the need for change—great things can happen. Remember, nothing will change unless and until we take decisive action to alter our ways.



Cynthia Clark, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN, Founder of Civility MattersTM, author of Creating & Sustaining Civility in Nursing Educationand Core Competencies of Civility in Nursing & Healthcare, is a behavioral health nurse/therapist and an expert in fostering civility and healthy work and learning environments around the globe. 

Dr. Clark will be presenting two Special Sessions at Sigma’s Creating Healthy Work Environments conference in Washington, DC:

  • Illuminating and Sustaining Healthy Work Environments Using the Pathway for Fostering Organizational Civility (with R. Oscar Bernard) | 10:05-11:05 a.m. on Friday, 25 March
  • Gaslighting, Betrayal, and a Culture of Fear: Are We Moving the Civility Needle in Nursing Education? | 1:55-2:55 p.m. on Friday, 25 March 

  • North America
  • Leadership
  • Cynthia Clark, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN