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Nursing Pecking Order

Nursing Pecking Order Nursing Pecking Order

My husband and I raise hens in our downtown backyard. Not being a country girl, I used to romanticize animal behavior until I witnessed the bloody pecking and fighting that takes place occasionally between the girls. In my backyard.

I now know that a strict pecking order within the flock is enforced at all times, and enforced with violence if necessary.

Angry Birds, Mean Girls

New chickens introduced to the flock are not allowed in the chicken coop for several days. Weaker hens are not allowed to drink water or eat until the dominant hens have gone first.

Order is established through slight pecks, chasing and minor disputes on the roosts.  Amazingly, each and every bird knows where they rank and who they can and can not push around.

Nursing Pecking Order

Nursing Pecking Order

The pecking order remains the same until a member of the flock is removed or added. One bird will always find another that it can push around, allowing her to climb higher in the pecking order.

Likewise, the pecking order in nursing is well established on every nursing unit.

Feathers, Fluffing of

Dominant hens fluff and flare their feathers to look bigger.

A dominant nurse will text a doctor  in front of you to let you know she is important because of her contact list (but will not share the numbers with you).

She alone knows where to get a size 12 French trochar stat for Dr. Special without having to call Materials Management. (It’s  at the back of a high unmarked cupboard in the Utility Room).

Dominant nurses are the Keepers (and protectors) of Information.

“Dr. (So-and_so)

Does (or Doesn’t)

Like (or Order)

This (that, or the other)”

Above delivered with a sigh and air of resignation towards the newbie.

Nursing Pecking Order

Nursing Pecking Order

Chest Puffing

Hens puff their chests out to establish dominance.  Top nurses squawk opinions as facts “We change central line dressings every Sunday” when in fact, the policy was changed three years ago to change them every seven days, regardless of day of the week.

These opinions must be stated with absolute impunity and no room for discussion. Dominant nurses rely on strong personality and bias of authority/seniority, but not necessarily facts.

“We’ve always done it that way”

Questions are not entertained.

“That may be what they told you in Orientation. But this is how we do it here.”

Especially at times when management is not around for fact checking, they vocally interpret policy the way they like.

“New nurses have to float after one month” 

Stay on Top

The dominant nurse has to maintain the dominance hierarchy of the group. Weaker hens or new chicks must be put in their place. Once established, favors can be bestowed to further demonstrate her position as Top Nurse.

Ways to Stay Top Hen

  • Implying that she has undue influence with the manager
  • Name dropping
  • Calling doctors by their first name
  • Knowing all the latest gossip
  • Clinical expertise, such as being the go-to IV starter
  • By social inclusion/exclusion. Events are referred to, future social plans are mentioned
  • Positions self as best salsa- maker, or cake baker, or crocheter of baby blankets (position not to be challenged)

Senior hens must also routinely reverse decisions made by underlings, such as a patient care assignment. This is best done by rushing in late, picking up the assignment, looking at it incredulously with purse still in hand, frowning,  pulling the charge nurse aside, and voila! the assignment is changed.

Pecking and Flapping

If deemed necessary, the dominant nurse will sharply peck you around your head or loudly flap her wings a time or two to show you who’s boss. You’ll know if you’ve been pecked.

During report, a peck might be a sharp intake of breath and an incredulous “The admission interview is not done?” or a loudly proclaimed “You didn’t start the blood yet?”  or

“You Don’t. Know. Who. The. Cardiac. Consult. Is?” with eyes open wide in shock.

Pecking doesn’t usually draw blood, but it can, depending on the resilience of the chick and the intensity and aggression of the attacking hen.

Roosting Privileges

Dominant hens get the pick of the roost.

It might be a certain chair or space at the nurse’s station that the dominant nurse claims as her own. It may even be holidays off.

It may be her established lunch break time, when by the clock, and to the minute, she will be in the break room, gregariously surrounded by all her best friends.

She has a locker at arm level, not too high and not too low, so she never has to bend down to floor level, or reach up too high.

New Chicks

So what is a new nurse to do with all this? Ignore most of it. This too, shall pass.

Understand group dynamics and your ranking in the flock. New nurses occupy the lowest standing in organizational pecking orders

Traditionally, new nurses show submission by nodding and not challenging the status quo. They tolerate the dominance behaviors of the older nurses, such as eye rolling, or being ignored, at least initially. (If it crosses into bullying, that’s a whole different ball game. And article.) Take the high road and let some things go. Ignore the petty stuff.

New people in a group often try harder to be well liked, and to fit in. Think back to nursing school groups. It’s all temporary, we’ve all done it, and it’s fairly normal social behavior.

Find support. New chicks cluster together for warmth and comfort.

Acknowledge the top hen’s standing in the group. This is what she really wants.  Often she will leave you alone once she realizes you are not a threat.It feels personal, but it is not. The dominant nurse is insecure, and is posturing to keep her position. It’s not about you, it’s about her.

Do find a credible source (such as your educator or preceptor) for information. Learn how to access policies to guide your clinical practice.

 Take it slow. Identify who’s who. Don’t befriend the first overly friendly nurse who approaches you to the exclusion of others. You don’t know the lay of the land yet. Be polite and friendly to all. Don’t take sides or entertain gossip.

Draw on  perspective. Patient safety is important. Petty behavior not so much. Most of this behavior passes within six months of joining the group, if not sooner.

When it’s your turn- be better than that. Next semester, welcome the new students and new grads. You will find joy in being that professional nurse who makes others feel respected and included.


Related Posts

First Day Off of Orientation

Nursing’s Dirty Little Secret

10 Rookie Mistakes


Until next time friend,

Nurse Beth

Come visit me at Ask Nurse Beth career column at for all kinds of  entertaining and informative career questions and answers, and to submit your own question 🙂






About Beth Hawkes (146 Articles)
Nice to meet you! I'm a Nursing Professional Development Specialist in acute care, a writer, speaker and career columnist.

4 Comments on Nursing Pecking Order

  1. Excellent job writing this post- I loved it! You hit the nail right on the head. High school never ends. Unfortunately, for newbie nurses, depending on the size of the facility and the staff turnover, it could take years for the pecking order to change and not be targeted. Meanwhile, nurse bullying continues. However, it will take acknowledgement and awareness to nip this behavior in the bud (which is a uphill battle because many of these people manage to make it to management). But, with enough people like you bringing this issue to light things can begin to change.

    • Thanks, Erica. I like to think it’s changing, and honestly, to call on this new generation of Millennials to be better than that, even if it wasn’t always role modeled.

  2. Excellent post Beth! I would like to add dominant nurse educators to the discussion….Remember when you were in nursing school and you thought all the faculty got along well together….think again!
    Dominant nurse educators are often seen in the Dean’s office….dominant nurse educators have lighter teaching loads and always get the courses they want to teach. Dominant nurse educators have the easiest clinical sites to supervise students.Dominant nurse educators don’t welcome new faculty or share information. They know the inside tract and the politics. If you are a new nurse educator…expect to see some of this….make friends with everyone…do your best and focus on your students. Ignore and be patient. It takes years to learn the dynamics of academic life.

    • It must be the same everywhere. I didn’t know you’re in Education…? I’m thinking your joy has to come from the students, right, not the system.

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