Mentoring: My Take On the Most Essential Task in Nursing

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Is mentoring really the most essential task in nursing? Probably not, but it’s this month’s theme and I’m willing to make a case for it:

  1. Nurses too often mistake the most pressing issue for the most important issue. Even the NCLEX hammers away at the now, as if “What would you do next?” is the only important question in nursing. At times, absolutely, we need to do what has to happen most badly right now: work the Maslow, do some triage. When we let such important tasks become EVERYTHING to us, though, we create many future crises and fail to prevent many more. In this way, we worsen our future. At worst, it becomes a free fall into permanent crisis, and the only relief comes with retirement. Some crises are inevitable, but far from all. Sadly, many nurses take their permanent crisis as evidence of inevitability: we can’t get ahead because we’re too busy to get ahead. It’s not our fault! It’s both tempting and popular to avoid responsibility that way. People who move ahead in life embrace responsibility because they know that it’s a valuable resource. Mistakes and areas to improve: they offer us places entirely under our own control that we can permanently improve. Most people, nurses included, attack the messenger instead. They rationalize the blame somewhere else, and thereby promise themselves more of the same at best. It’s what I call the Bad Path. and it leads to bitterness and burnout. It’s also entirely voluntary: you can step away anytime you like. Far too many follow it to its sad conclusion and pay heavily. Everyone around them suffers for it as well. In teaching, I use such nurses as cautionary tales. We can learn useful lessons from anyone. I’ve put 20 years of work into learning how to prevent crises better. As a result, I’ve avoided countless crises and saved a tremendous amount of time and energy, much of which I’ve reinvested into learning more, trying things, finding, testing, and refining shortcuts, and so on. If you allow permanent crisis, that’s what you get, and giving up is a fantastic way to ensure it never gets better. We’re better than that: you’re better than that.
  2. That all said, many if not most nurses take offense at the idea of mentoring our young. We even do the opposite: we do badly enough as a group to earn a reputation for “eating” them. We’re busy and badly overstressed, yes, and it gets worse every day. It hardly helps when we bully, abuse, and neglect our young, destroy their attitudes, impair their professional development. We worsen everyone’s future and help make it harder, more stressful, more crisis-ridden. When your coworker lacks a skill or refuses to help you or has an awful attitude, the odds are high that other nurses helped make it so. We need to stop causing ourselves and each other pain and failure and start doing the opposite: offer mentoring.  We create our future: let’s make it better, not worse.
  3. Mentoring is like delegating. It takes time and energy and it’s a skill: proficiency only comes with practice. Effective delegation gets more stuff done easier. If you have no rapport and you’re bad at it, you’re a far less effective nurse and you suffer for it. So get better at it, right?
  4. Turnover is a killer! A nurse burns out, hit the wall and get replaced by someone who requires training and time to get up to speed. Each such event sucks time, energy, and patience from every nurse left behind. When we’re “too busy” to help new folks succeed, when we bully them instead, we step on our own feet: we speed up the turnover treadmill. When you try to cut corners with people, it generally costs you far more than it saves. Successful people know it and act on it. A little mentoring can save LOTS of wasted time and energy down the road, and it all adds up. Spiral upward or downward: standing still is a myth. Choose well.
  5. Teachers know: you have to learn material far more deeply and thoroughly to teach it than you do to be a student. Mentoring forces you to hone your craft and become a better nurse.

Phew! Thanks for your patience with my rant. I’ve had an unusually bad week: not all crises are preventable, and for all my progress, my prevention skills are hardly perfect. They’re getting better, though: I’ll accept nothing less because I can’t afford anything less. That all said, I’m done discussing mentoring. I’d like to offer some of my own. I’m too tired to offer much, and I’m writing these words on the day of the publication deadline, but here it is:

  1. Nursing education and training offers very little content about people skills, and barely recognizes that there’s anything to read or teach. We operate on an antiquated notion that when it comes to people skills, you have it or you don’t, or you learn everything you’ll ever know from your parents. It’s the exact opposite of evidence-based practice. There has been a vast, growing literature building for over a century now. Successful teachers like Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill hired research staffs and distilled essential lessons from the known successes in history. Subsequently, researchers have refined these results: cognitive and social psychology, negotiation studies, and so on. Casinos, sadly, are generations ahead of anything in health care when it comes to people skills. They carefully craft every detail of their operations to maximize the money people happily give away, using research we too could use, for good. We could build rapport and cooperation, become more effective teachers and diplomats. Yet most people in health care have never heard of any of it. For 20 years, as I’ve learned and applied better people skills, I’ve watched nurses make their lives harder every day: slow themselves down, encourage patient hostility, distrust, and resistance, them blame patients for the results. This material isn’t magic and many people are difficult to manage, but anyone can enjoy far better results with far less work, given some training and practice. By my best estimate it takes most of us 300 years to perfect them: in other words we never get there. Salvador Dal said not to worry about perfection because you’ll never encounter it. It’s all about progress, and you can make noticeable progress quickly and with little work: easier, quicker work. Common sense and good intentions only take you so far: you need knowledge as well.
  2. That’s it. People skills are number one! Everything you do with other people depends on skills. I’ve never met anyone, myself included, who don’t have more to learn. I imagine folks who near perfection start religions, or kick the British Empire out of India, or some such. We can all do better, and doing so saves more time and energy than it costs. Vastly more.
  3. Here’s a quick reading list from one of my shelves:

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie: both a classic and an easy read.

Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. I’m not into the getting rich part myself, but the richest man on earth, Andrew Carnegie, hired Mr. Hill to research the habits and practices of the most successful people of his day, and he offers useful insights.

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury Practical and ethical negotiation strategies from the Harvard Law Schol Negotiation Project.  I’ve prevented hundreds of violent confrontations at work using their model, most of which my coworkers considered inevitable.

Getting Past No: Negotiating Your Way From Confrontation to Cooperation by William Ury. This follow-up to Getting to Yes focuses on dealing with especially toxic people without failing or geting run over.

Influence: Science and Practice. Robert Cialdini is a Professor of Psychology and a successful consultant.

Yes, they’re all white guys, and none are nurses, They’re also sources that most of the other experts quote or copy shamelessly. It’s long been popular for nursing academics to insist we focus on nurse sources. It’s meant to build up nursing, but it has the opposite effect. To the extent that people ignore good information, they get left behind by those less picky, more open-minded about their sources. 500 years ago, as an example, Islamic nations were wealthy, powerful, and the most advanced on earth in areas including astronomy, mathematics, and others. As Islam lost its power and confidence, it increasingly closed itself off to outside influences.

The results? We see them today.

The way to surge past your rival sis to learn from them, learn from everyone in fact, and outdo them. The way to get left behind is to ignore this lesson.

Don’t get left behind, OK? We both know you’re better than that. Thanks for your patience – Greg

P.S.: I love teaching and mentoring. If you have any questions or problems, let’s chat! I’d also really appreciate any people skill stories you might have…

This post was written as part of the Nurse Blog Carnival. More posts on this topic can be found at If you are interested in participating find out more details and sign up.



  1. Greg – this quote stood out to me “Mentoring forces you to hone your craft and become a better nurse” This is SO true, the first person I precepted on the floor challenged me to no end!!! I had worked on my floor for 5 years and the answer that first jumped into my mind when she would ask me a question was “Because thats just the way we do it”, which obviously isn’t an acceptable answer to give a new nurse eager for explanations… Her constant quest for knowledge challenged me to understand exactly WHY we did the things we did on our floor, and ultimately helped me become a better nurse for knowing!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you agree. Teachers know: you have to know material far better to teach it than merely to pass tests. Mentoring is a form of training yourself, and very valuable without even taking into account benefits derived by students.


  2. Greg. You mention many important facts. What stood out for me is; “People skills are number one! Everything you do with other people depends on Skills.” Learning never stops. For us to make progress, we have to be permanent students. Great Post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. THanks! Sadly, few nurses ever learn that there is anything to learn about people skills. Nursing education worries more about boosting its won academics than it does providing students with the best material possible. It’s a model based on low self-confidence. Nurses need not hide from outside experts or pretend they don’t exist. To do so only helps nursing slide backwards as others leave us behind. Hiding behind high walls of isolation is a proven way to become backwards, weak, and vulnerable: obsolete. Again, thanks – Greg


  3. Interesting that you relate mentoring to delegation. I could see similarities there in that both require give and take. Both require an honest and open relationship. Both require each party to show up in an authentic and accountable way. I love the resources you provide here. Great post, Greg. I can certainly see your passion shine through!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I’m glad I’m on the right track: I made it up as I went, starting out with my appreciation for mentoring and people skills, and seeing how large an impact I could reasonably find. It’s like compound interest with money: huge and ever-growing! – Greg


  4. Hi Greg,
    As you know I am an advocate for nurses with disabilities. Why are some nurses with disabilities more successful than others at maintaining work and receiving accommodations???…PEOPLE SKILLS!

    For example, think of a nurse who is chronically late, doesn’t work well with others, help out when needed….etc. Now, he or she needs workplace accommodations…other staff members push back…Why? Often…(but not always) beacuse of the nurse’s people skills.

    Being a team player, getting along well with others, giving as much as you take… certainly isn’t a guarantee that others will accept/accommodate a nurse with a disability…but it for sure doesn’t hurt!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely! The more you own your failings and mistakes and address them, the more effective you become forever. Most people, most of the time, choose to ignore such issues or make excuses instead. It’s like throwing money away, throwing happiness and success away, over and over.

      Thanks for your great comment and your great work, Donna!

      Liked by 1 person

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