“Behaviors that Undermine a Culture of Safety”, The Joint Commission, Sentinel Event Alert, Issue 40, July 9, 2008 – Updated: June 18, 2021

Behaviors that undermine a culture of safety

Issue 40, July 09, 2008 – Updated: June 18, 2021

Intimidating and disruptive behaviors can foster medical errors,1,2,3 contribute to poor patient satisfaction and to preventable adverse outcomes,1,4,5 increase the cost of care,4,5 and cause qualified clinicians, administrators and managers to seek new positions in more professional environments.1,6 Safety and quality of patient care is dependent on teamwork, communication, and a collaborative work environment. To assure quality and to promote a culture of safety, health care organizations must address the problem of behaviors that threaten the performance of the health care team.

Intimidating and disruptive behaviors include overt actions such as verbal outbursts and physical threats, as well as passive activities such as refusing to perform assigned tasks or quietly exhibiting uncooperative attitudes during routine activities. Intimidating and disruptive behaviors are often manifested by health care professionals in positions of power. Such behaviors include reluctance or refusal to answer questions, return phone calls or pages; condescending language or voice intonation; and impatience with questions.2 Overt and passive behaviors undermine team effectiveness and can compromise the safety of patients.7,8,11 All intimidating and disruptive behaviors are unprofessional and should not be tolerated.

Intimidating and disruptive behaviors in health care organizations are not rare.1,2,7,8,9 A survey on intimidation conducted by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices found that 40 percent of clinicians have kept quiet or remained passive during patient care events rather than question a known intimidator.2,10 While most formal research centers on intimidating and disruptive behaviors among physicians and nurses, there is evidence that these behaviors occur among other health care professionals, such as pharmacists, therapists, and support staff, as well as among administrators.1,2 Several surveys have found that most care providers have experienced or witnessed intimidating or disruptive behaviors.1,2,8,12,13 These behaviors are not limited to one gender and occur during interactions within and across disciplines.1,2,7 Nor are such behaviors confined to the small number of individuals who habitually exhibit them.2 It is likely that these individuals are not involved in the large majority of episodes of intimidating or disruptive behaviors. It is important that organizations recognize that it is the behaviors that threaten patient safety, irrespective of who engages in them.

The majority of health care professionals enter their chosen discipline for altruistic reasons and have a strong interest in caring for and helping other human beings. The preponderance of these individuals carry out their duties in a manner consistent with this idealism and maintain high levels of professionalism. The presence of intimidating and disruptive behaviors in an organization, however, erodes professional behavior and creates an unhealthy or even hostile work environment – one that is readily recognized by patients and their families. Health care organizations that ignore these behaviors also expose themselves to litigation from both employees and patients. Studies link patient complaints about unprofessional, disruptive behaviors and malpractice risk.13,14,15 “Any behavior which impairs the health care team’s ability to function well creates risk,” says Gerald Hickson, M.D., associate dean for Clinical Affairs and director of the Center for Patient and Professional Advocacy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “If health care organizations encourage patients and families to speak up, their observations and complaints, if recorded and fed back to organizational leadership, can serve as part of a surveillance system to identify behaviors by members of the health care team that create unnecessary risk.”

Root causes and contributing factors

There is a history of tolerance and indifference to intimidating and disruptive behaviors in health care.10 Organizations that fail to address unprofessional behavior through formal systems are indirectly promoting it.9,11 Intimidating and disruptive behavior stems from both individual and systemic factors.4 The inherent stresses of dealing with high stakes, high emotion situations can contribute to occasional intimidating or disruptive behavior, particularly in the presence of factors such as fatigue. Individual care providers who exhibit characteristics such as self-centeredness, immaturity, or defensiveness can be more prone to unprofessional behavior.8,11 They can lack interpersonal, coping or conflict management skills.

Systemic factors stem from the unique health care cultural environment, which is marked by pressures that include increased productivity demands, cost containment requirements, embedded hierarchies, and fear of or stress from litigation. These pressures can be further exacerbated by changes to or differences in the authority, autonomy, empowerment, and roles or values of professionals on the health care team,5,7,16 as well as by the continual flux of daily changes in shifts, rotations, and interdepartmental support staff. This dynamic creates challenges for inter-professional communication and for the development of trust among team members.

Disruptive behaviors often go unreported, and therefore unaddressed, for a number of reasons. Fear of retaliation and the stigma associated with “blowing the whistle” on a colleague, as well as a general reluctance to confront an intimidator all contribute to underreporting of intimidating and/or disruptive behavior.2,9,12,16 Additionally, staff within institutions often perceive that powerful, revenue-generating physicians are “let off the hook” for inappropriate behavior due to the perceived consequences of confronting them.8,10,12,17 The American College of Physician Executives (ACPE) conducted a physician behavior survey and found that 38.9 percent of the respondents agreed that “physicians in my organization who generate high amounts of revenue are treated more leniently when it comes to behavior problems than those who bring in less revenue.”17

Existing Joint Commission requirements

Effective January 1, 2009 for all accreditation programs, The Joint Commission has a new Leadership standard (LD.03.01.01) that addresses disruptive and inappropriate behaviors in two of its elements of performance (EPs):

EP 4: The hospital/organization has a code of conduct that defines acceptable and disruptive and inappropriate behaviors.
EP 5: Leaders create and implement a process for managing disruptive and inappropriate behaviors.

Effective Jan. 1, 2022, new workplace violence standards provide a framework to guide hospitals and critical access hospitals in defining workplace violence; developing strong workplace violence prevention systems; and developing a leadership structure, policies and procedures, reporting systems, post-incident strategies, training, and education to decrease workplace violence. The new requirements are located at Environment of Care standard EC.02.01.01 EP 17; Human Resources standard HR.01.05.03 EP 29; and LD.03.01.01 EP 9. In addition, EC.04.01.01 EPs 1 and 6 have been revised.

In addition, standards in the Medical Staff chapter have been organized to follow six core competencies (see the introduction to MS.4) to be addressed in the credentialing process, including interpersonal skills and professionalism.

Other Joint Commission suggested actions

  1. Educate all team members – both physicians and non-physician staff – on appropriate professional behavior defined by the organization’s code of conduct. The code and education should emphasize respect. Include training in basic business etiquette (particularly phone skills) and people skills.(10, 18,19)
  2. Hold all team members accountable for modeling desirable behaviors, and enforce the code consistently and equitably among all staff regardless of seniority or clinical discipline in a positive fashion through reinforcement as well as punishment.(2,4,9,10,11)
  3. Develop and implement policies and procedures/processes appropriate for the organization that address:
    • “Zero tolerance” for intimidating and/or disruptive behaviors, especially the most egregious instances of disruptive behavior such as assault and other criminal acts. Incorporate the zero tolerance policy into medical staff bylaws and employment agreements as well as administrative policies.
    • Medical staff policies regarding intimidating and/or disruptive behaviors of physicians within a health care organization should be complementary and supportive of the policies that are present in the organization for non- physician staff. Reducing fear of intimidation or retribution and protecting those who report or cooperate in the investigation of intimidating, disruptive and other unprofessional behavior.(10,18) Non-retaliation clauses should be included in all policy statements that address disruptive behaviors.
    • Responding to patients and/or their families who are involved in or witness intimidating and/or disruptive behaviors. The response should include hearing and empathizing with their concerns, thanking them for sharing those concerns, and apologizing.(11)
    • How and when to begin disciplinary actions (such as suspension, termination, loss of clinical privileges, reports to professional licensure bodies).
  4. Develop an organizational process for addressing intimidating and disruptive behaviors (LD.3.10 EP 5) that solicits and integrates substantial input from an inter-professional team including representation of medical and nursing staff, administrators and other employees.(4,10,18)
  5. Provide skills-based training and coaching for all leaders and managers in relationship-building and collaborative practice, including skills for giving feedback on unprofessional behavior, and conflict resolution.(4,7,10,11,17,20) Cultural assessment tools can also be used to measure whether or not attitudes change over time.
  6. Develop and implement a system for assessing staff perceptions of the seriousness and extent of instances of unprofessional behaviors and the risk of harm to patients.(10,17,18)
  7. Develop and implement a reporting/surveillance system (possibly anonymous) for detecting unprofessional behavior. Include ombuds services(20) and patient advocates,(2,11) both of which provide important feedback from patients and families who may experience intimidating or disruptive behavior from health professionals. Monitor system effectiveness through regular surveys, focus groups, peer and team member evaluations, or other methods.(10) Have multiple and specific strategies to learn whether intimidating or disruptive behaviors exist or recur, such as through direct inquiries at routine intervals with staff, supervisors, and peers.
  8. Support surveillance with tiered, non-confrontational interventional strategies, starting with informal “cup of coffee” conversations directly addressing the problem and moving toward detailed action plans and progressive discipline, if patterns persist. (4,5,10,11) These interventions should initially be non-adversarial in nature, with the focus on building trust, placing accountability on and rehabilitating the offending individual, and protecting patient safety.(4,5) Make use of mediators and conflict coaches when professional dispute resolution skills are needed.(4,7,14)
  9. Conduct all interventions within the context of an organizational commitment to the health and well-being of all staff, (11) with adequate resources to support individuals whose behavior is caused or influenced by physical or mental health pathologies.
  10. Encourage inter-professional dialogues across a variety of forums as a proactive way of addressing ongoing conflicts, overcoming them, and moving forward through improved collaboration and communication.(1,2,4,10)
  11. Document all attempts to address intimidating and disruptive behaviors.(18)


  1. Rosenstein, AH and O’Daniel, M: Disruptive behavior and clinical outcomes: Perceptions of nurses and physicians. American Journal of Nursing, 2005, 105,1,54-64
  2. Institute for Safe Medication Practices: Survey on workplace intimidation. 2003. Available online: https://ismp.org/Survey/surveyresults/Survey0311.asp (accessed April 14, 2008)
  3. Morrissey J: Encyclopedia of errors; Growing database of medication errors allows hospitals to compare their track recordswith facilities nationwide in a nonpunitive setting. Modern Healthcare, March 24, 2003, 33(12):40,42
  4. Gerardi, D: Effective strategies for addressing “disruptive” behavior: Moving from avoidance to engagement. Medical GroupManagement Association Webcast, 2007; and, Gerardi, D: Creating Cultures of Engagement: Effective Strategies for Addressing Conflict and “Disruptive” Behavior. Arizona Hospital Association Annual Patient Safety Forum, 2008
  5. Ransom, SB and Neff, KE, et al: Enhancing physician performance. American College of Physician Executives, Tampa, Fla., 2000, chapter 4, p.45-72
  6. Rosenstein, A, et al: Disruptive physician behavior contributes to nursing shortage: Study links bad behavior by doctors tonurses leaving the profession. Physician Executive, November/December 2002, 28(6):8-11. Available online: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0843/is_6_28/ai_94590407 (accessed April 14, 2008)
  7. Gerardi, D: The Emerging Culture of Health Care: Improving End-of-Life Care through Collaboration and Conflict EngagementAmong Health Care Professionals. Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution, 2007, 23(1):105-142
  8. Weber, DO: Poll results: Doctors’ disruptive behavior disturbs physician leaders. Physician Executive, September/October 2004, 30(5):6-14
  9. Leape, LL and Fromson, JA: Problem doctors: Is there a system-level solution? Annals of Internal Medicine, 2006, 144:107-155
  10. Porto, G and Lauve, R: Disruptive clinical behavior: A persistent threat to patient safety. Patient Safety and Quality Healthcare, July/August 2006. Available online: http://www.psqh.com/julaug06/disruptive.html (accessed April 14, 2008) 11 Hickson, GB: A complementary approach to promoting professionalism: Identifying, measuring, and addressing unprofessional behaviors. Academic Medicine, November 2007, 82(11):1040-1048
  11. Rosenstein, AH: Nurse-physician relationships: Impact on nurse satisfaction and retention. American Journal of Nursing, 2002, 102(6):26-34
  12. Hickson GB, et al: Patient complaints and malpractice risk. Journal of the American Medical Association, 2002, 287:2951-7
  13. Hickson GB, et al; Patient complaints and malpractice risk in a regional healthcare center. Southern Medical Journal, August 2007, 100(8):791-6
  14. Stelfox HT, Ghandi TK, Orav J, Gustafson ML: The relation of patient satisfaction with complaints against physicians, risk management episodes, and malpractice lawsuits. American Journal of Medicine, 2005, 118(10):1126-33
  15. Gerardi, D: The culture of health care: How professional and organizational cultures impact conflict management. Georgia Law Review, 2005, 21(4):857-890
  16. Keogh, T and Martin, W: Managing unmanageable physicians. Physician Executive, September/October 2004, 18-22
  17. ECRI Institute: Disruptive practitioner behavior report, June 2006. Available for purchase online: http://www.ecri.org/Press/Pages/Free_Report_Behavior.aspx (accessed April 14, 2008)
  18. Kahn, MW: Etiquette-based medicine. New England Journal of Medicine, May 8, 2008, 358; 19:1988-1989
  19. Marshall, P and Robson, R: Preventing and managing conflict: Vital pieces in the patient safety puzzle. Healthcare Quarterly, October 2005, 8:39-44

* The 2009 standards have been renumbered as part of the Standards Improvement Initiative. During development, this standard was number LD.3.10.