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nurse mentorships two way street

Mentorship and collegiality

By: Leah Curtin, RN, ScD(h), FAAN

With all the recent conversations about ethics, mentorship has gained more prominence as the way professionals ought to interact with one another—and that includes all levels of the profession, from those with an associate degree in nursing to those with a doctorate. Despite considerable effort on the part of nursing professional organizations—and their clear success in creating multiple advanced practice roles—there are those who would fracture the profession once again and create a new mid-level practitioner.

What surprises many is that from ancient times, the ethics of a profession prescribed the nature of the relationship that should exist among its members. A profession’s ethics also established the duties professionals owe to one another and the profession—and why.

Most nurses accept that they’re pledged to the work of understanding, interpreting, and expanding the profession’s knowledge as well as the equally disciplined work of self-regulation, and developing and cultivating in themselves and their colleagues the character traits on which personal and professional excellence depend.

The ethical principles undergirding mentorship are the same as those governing professional relationships:

  • Nurses are human and other nurses are obliged to treat them as human beings, so we owe one another the obligations and duties every human being has to other human beings.
  • We all share nurses’ obligations to help ensure and promote the public’s welfare (on both an individual and a societal level).
  • We owe each other mutual help and support. This principle speaks to the nature of professionals’ mutual obligations to help one another and the profession to ensure competent care of individuals, freely share information and research that improves patient care, and determine where collegial loyalty begins and ends. It also includes the duty to deal with incompetent colleagues.

In terms of the sociology of the nursing profession, the function of the professional relationship may be described as modeling, role modeling, and role internalization. The latter occurs when individuals identify with their role models and internalize their behavioral patterns consciously and unconsciously. Some have said nurses today have difficulty identifying with role models because there are so many levels and specialties in practice. If true, this creates a void for both nursing students and graduate nurses who need models of excellence.

All experts were beginners or apprentices who at one time were guided and molded by master craftsmen. If nursing students remain apart from the mainstream of nurses’ work, they likely will develop allegiances to others whose work they know and admire. As a result, the professional bond in nursing will grow stronger and may remain that way for their entire careers.

The structure of work in most organizations requires nurses to function interdependently—to recognize and trust their colleagues’ professional expertise. Mature recognition of their own capabilities and limits leads nurses to rely on and incorporate the knowledge, experiences, and research of other professionals in their own practice. It also requires more educated and experienced nurses to truly mentor their younger or less experienced colleagues.

As a caring profession, nursing involves not only care for patients, but also care for one another. Nurses may not fully appreciate the importance of intraprofessional relationships if their ethical concern is solely on social and patient issues. Although challenging, nurses’ professional interdependence demands a special relationship among the various levels—and not the creation of a “new” mid-level. The profession has “spun-off” enough new professions, ranging from dietitians to physical therapists!

leah curtin registered nurse faan



– Leah Curtin, RN, ScD(h), FAAN, Executive Editor, Professional Outreach American Nurse Journal

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