Nurses share their lunch (how to lift each other out of the cannibals pot!)

Nurse cannibals PotThis is our second article in a four-part series on the evolution of workplace culture in nursing: Specifically, the journey from Nurses Eating their Young – to – Nurses FEEDING their Young. Emma and Tracy have collaborated for their whole careers even when not working in the same departments. This is because they have shared values and set a vision early in their careers. This vision is now articulated in Logan Emergency Department where the vision is: Best Place to Work, Best Place for Care. Tracy is now the Nurse Unit Manager in Logan Emergency Department and Emma is seconded as an Assistant Director of Nursing for Clinical Excellence Queensland.

Our story picks up after the first article, Nurse Cannibals - Eating Their Young. We were emerging as leaders in our department, with new opportunities to shape culture and share our vision. We were both passionate about a more positive culture and started with a very small idea. We developed a ‘Blue ribbon for respect’ campaign within the department. The idea is simple. We added a blue ribbon to our lanyards. When people asked what it stood for we told them it showed our commitment to address all staff members respectfully and stand beside any staff member that needed support (this was especially designed for any staff members being verbally abused in our workplace). This was a visual cue of our commitment.

We wrote out this simple pledge and put it on the wall in our tearoom with our names below. Soon other staff were adding their names and wearing the ribbons. As more names went up on the list and we handed out more ribbons the culture started to gradually change amongst our team.  Soon even the laggards were keen to add a ribbon to their lanyard. The tide was turning! We worked to inspire and model the behaviours we wanted to see.

Big cultural shifts start somewhere and this small idea was the first improvement activity we initiated, and we were excited that even as Registered Nurses, we had made a difference and influenced the culture. This gave us the confidence to apply for leadership roles. We wanted to learn more about culture and how to be influential and have a bigger positive impact on the department, but when we looked around for positive role models and mentors to learn from, we didn’t find any. At that time (over a decade ago) there was not a strong investment in leadership in nursing.

Lift others

Instead of feeling deterred, we started on our own leadership development journey together. We decided to be the lift for each other that we were looking for. The easiest way was to start was through reading. We found books that had great leadership lessons and shared them with each other and began implementing our strategies. We encouraged and supported each other, and both applied for Clinical Nurse positions. Successfully gaining these promotions enabled us to have more influence on the departmental culture and expectations. We also actively sought out leadership training (internally and outside of our organisation). Deciding to be the role models we wished we had, we began to deliberately cultivate leadership qualities in other developing nurses. At university we had been taught ‘see one, do one, teach one’. It seemed fitting to carry this forward for our leadership learnings.

We shared lunch, books, ideas and encouragement on hard days. No great leader is perfect, we made many mistakes, but there are few lessons in perfection. We believe that leadership is a team sport. Collaboration makes us better, we acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses and those in each other, we even set each other challenges for developing our weaknesses. Even this article series is greater than something either of us could have written alone.

Tracy- There were many times when I second-guessed myself or took an unkind comment to heart. Having Emma as a trusted sounding board, and as a support who could clearly see what was happening and reframing it for me was invaluable. Emma’s perspective and outstretched hand got me climbing out of the pot fast. Combining our strength stopped us from being thrown into the pot as well. The next step was to make a human chain around the pot. Stopping others from being thrown in.

Emma- Tracy has more compassion for others than I could even imagine having. Tracy taught me to look for the kindness in others as the default operating system. She is courageous about owning her mistakes and something I admire deeply is that she will often reach out after a conversation if she thinks she could have interpreted something wrongly and bring another perspective to consider.

One important thing we as nurses can do to get out of the cannibals’ pot is this: find another person to grow with. LIFT each other up! Give someone a boost and then they can pull you out! Have someone who is always supporting you, is willing to give difficult feedback to help you grow and do better, and who you will do the same for. Integrity and trust are absolutely non-negotiable here. It may be easy to throw one nurse in the pot, but two helping each other out will NOT stay in there for long. The more nurses willing to lift each other, the less vulnerable our new nurses are.

If you see a new nurse in danger will you intervene? 

Bystanders not taking action empower the culture of nurses eating their young! As the adage goes: What you permit- you promote. Cannibals believe that witnesses support them, so this empowers them to continue. The only way to prevent this type of behaviour from recurring is to stand united. Stand up for the new nurse, reach out your hand and lift them out of the pot!

Let’s make the Nurse Cannibals go hungry!



Tracy Churchill, Nurse Manager
Emma Versluis, Assistant Director of Nursing: Practice Innovation

Connect with these inspiring nurses on LinkedIn