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Creating Workplace Environments that Support Moral Courage

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Nurses practicing in today’s healthcare environment are confronted with increasingly complex moral and ethical dilemmas. Nurses encounter these dilemmas in situations where their ability to do the right thing is frequently hindered by conflicting values and beliefs of other healthcare providers. In these circumstances, upholding their commitment to patients requires significant moral courage. Nurses who possess moral courage and advocate in the best interest of the patient may at times find themselves experiencing adverse outcomes. These issues underscore the need for all nurses in all roles across all settings to commit to working toward creating work environments that support moral courage. In this manuscript the authors describe moral courage in nursing; and explore personal characteristics that promote moral courage, including moral reasoning, the ethic of care, and nursing competence. They also discuss organizational structures that support moral courage, specifically the organization’s mission, vision, and values; models of care; structural empowerment; shared governance; communication; a just culture; and leadership that promotes moral courage.

Citation: LaSala, C.A., Bjarnason, D., (Sept 30, 2010) "Creating Workplace Environments that Support Moral Courage" OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing Vol. 15, No. 3, Manuscript 4.

DOI: 10.3912/OJIN.Vol15No03Man04

Key words: ethical work environment, shared governance in nursing, professional practice models, leadership, evidence-based leadership, moral development, moral courage, organizational empowerment, support for moral courage, the ethic of care

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
(Martin Luther King, Jr.; Barden, 2008, p. 16).

Morally responsible nursing consists of being able to recognize and respond to unethical practices or failure to provide quality patient care. Moral distress has been defined as physical and/or emotional suffering that is experienced when internal or external constraints prevent a person from taking the action that one believes is right (Pendry, 2007). Ethical dilemmas in practice arise when one feels drawn both to do and not to do the same thing. They can cause clinicians to experience significant moral distress in dealing with patients, families, other members of the interdisciplinary team, and organizational leaders. Nurses experience moral distress, for example, when financial constraints or inadequate staffing compromise their ability to provide quality patient care. These situations challenge nurses to act with moral courage and result in nurses feeling morally distressed when they cannot do what they believe is appropriate (Cohen & Erickson, 2006). Nurses who consistently practice with moral courage base their decisions to act upon the ethical principle of beneficence (doing good for others) along with internal motivation predicated on virtues, values, and standards that they believe uphold what is right, regardless of personal risk.

Ethical values and practices are the foundation upon which moral actions in professional practice are based. Morally responsible nursing consists of being able to recognize and respond to unethical practices or failure to provide quality patient care. The foundation of quality nursing care includes nurse practice acts, specialty practice guidelines, and professional codes of ethics. Familiarity with these documents is necessary to enable nurses to question practices or actions they do not believe are right. Although a code of ethics and ethical principles can guide actions, in themselves they are not sufficient for providing morally courageous care. Moral ideals are needed to transcend individual obligations and rights. The moral commitment that nurses make to patients and to their coworkers includes upholding virtues such as sympathy, compassion, faithfulness, truth telling, and love. Nurses who act with moral courage do so because their commitment to the patient outweighs concerns they may have regarding risks to themselves.

Deciding whether to act with moral courage may be influenced by the degree of conflict between personal standards and organizational directives; by fear of retaliation, such as job termination; or lack of peer and/or leadership support. In this manuscript the authors begin by describing the concept of moral courage. Next they explore personal characteristics that promote moral courage, including moral reasoning, an ethic of care, and nursing competence. Organizational structures that support moral courage, specifically organizational mission, vision, and values; models of care; structural empowerment; shared governance; communication; a just culture; and leadership are addressed.

Moral Courage in Nursing

Nurses who act with moral courage do so because their commitment to the patient outweighs concerns they may have regarding risks to themselves. Packard and Ferrara (1988) proposed that nursing is comprised of four components. These components include: (a) taking the right actions to effect health promotion and quality of life; (b) possessing the knowledge and skills necessary to discern when and when not to respond; (c) knowing what the appropriate action(s) should be; and (d) demonstrating a willingness to act, thus supporting the ethical principle of beneficence. Nurses who are morally courageous are able to confidently overcome their personal fears and respond to what a given situation requires; they act in the best interests of their patients (Day, 2007). Nurses who exhibit moral reasoning and act with moral courage demonstrate a willingness to speak out and do that which is right in the face of forces that would lead a person to act in some other way (Lachman, 2007).

Sekerka and Bagozzi (2007) have asked “What induces people to act in morally courageous ways as they face an ethical challenge in the workplace?” (p.132). They noted that nurses practice with moral courage when they confront situations that pose a direct threat to care. For example, the nurse who questions discharging home a hospitalized frail elder who lacks the appropriate level of home care services and resources, thus jeopardizing the patient’s safety and wellbeing, is acting with moral courage. This nursing response is based upon a commitment to serve and advocate for patients and the profession.

Kidder (2005) has argued that an individual who acts with moral courage is committed to moral principles, cognizant of the actual or potential risk that upholding those principles may require, and willing to endure the risk. Nurses can help their colleagues develop moral courage by reaffirming their colleagues’ strengths and resolve, taking risks in helping to confront obstacles, possessing vision, remaining focused and disciplined toward the intended outcome(s), and taking actions that may go against the status quo but are necessary to do what is virtuous and principled (Walston, 2003).

Purtilo (2000) identified moral courage as a necessary virtue for healthcare professionals, one that enables them to not only survive but to thrive in changing times. Purtilo noted that morally courageous individuals respond to situations that incite fear and anxiety without knowing the end result of their response because they believe in doing what is morally right. The nurse on a general medical unit, for example, who confronts the physician who is reluctant to transfer an acutely ill patient in need of intensive care to the ICU, is acting with moral courage so as to provide safe care for the patient. Purtilo stated that “a rich understanding of care includes creativity, faithfulness to one’s moral foundation, and a focus on the full significance of a situation” (p. 5). Practicing with moral courage responds to the call to act with moral conviction, even when the human tendency would be to act in ways that are incongruent with one’s convictions when one perceives that personal security is endangered (Purtilo).

Personal Characteristics that Promote Moral Courage in Nursing

Nurses can enhance their ability to demonstrate moral courage in nursing by advancing their moral reasoning skills, nurturing their personal ethic of care, and enhancing their professional and cultural competence. Each of these behaviors will be discussed below.

Moral Reasoning

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development provides a useful framework for understanding how one’s personal ability to make moral judgments is influenced over time by personal development, knowledge acquisition, experience, and the environment (Cohen & Erickson, 2006; Ketefian & Ormond, 1988). Individuals at the highest level of moral development use their conscience to determine the right course of action by independently examining and delineating moral values and principles rather than by relying on group norms (Ketefian & Ormond, 1988). Ethical environments are characterized by shared decision making, taking responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions, and utilizing opportunities for collective participation that empower individuals to develop higher levels of moral judgment (Ketefian & Ormond, 1988; Murray, 2007). Nurses who work in ethical environments are “aware of an ethical culture” (Murray, 2007, p. 48). They understand their role responsibilities and how an ethical environment supports their identification of ethical issues and concerns. They engage in meaningful ethical discussions (Murray, 2007).

The Ethic of Care in Nursing

The ethic of care is characterized by attentiveness, responsibility, competence, and responsiveness. The ‘ethic of care’ is not a set of rules and principles. Rather, it is a way of practicing that requires specific moral qualities that facilitate taking the right action (Tronto, 1994). The ethic of care is characterized by attentiveness, responsibility, competence, and responsiveness. Resulting actions include caring for, emotionally committing to, and being willing to act on behalf of a person with whom one has a significant relationship (Beauchamp & Childress, 1994). Nursing practice that includes the ethic of care promotes moral courage. Moral courage is enhanced in situations in which the ethic of care is present as evidenced by building consensus, promoting interdisciplinary collaboration, and positively influencing outcomes that support rather than oppose moral decision making (LaSala, 2009). Consider, for example, a nurse caring for a patient with invasive ductal breast carcinoma and spinal metastases who desires to die at home surrounded by family and assisted by a hospice team, but whose husband is hesitant about taking his wife home, fearful that he will be unable to manage her care. The nurse acts with moral courage by advocating for the patient’s wishes, despite the palliative care physician’s recommendation that the patient remain hospitalized given the probability of imminent death. Through effective communication and collaboration with the physician, the nurse is successful in facilitating the patient’s discharge home with patient-controlled analgesia and hospice care, thus responding to the patient’s wishes (LaSala, 2009). The moral qualities associated with the ethic of care enable nurses to care for patients and families during times of sickness and uncertainty, provide the inner motivation to do what is right and good, and demonstrate moral courage both within the context of patient care and from the perspective of the nurses’ collegial, collaborative relationships with other healthcare professionals.

Nursing Competence

Professional competence is a prerequisite for providing morally responsible care. The elements of a profession, such as formal education based on theoretical knowledge, a code of ethics, professional organizations that guide practice, and the provision of necessary service to society (Miller, Adams, & Beck, 1993), all serve to develop professional competence. Standards for ethical conduct are also necessary in order to provide morally responsible care (Maraldo, 1992).

Leininger (1991) defined transcultural nursing as a humanistic and scientific area of formal study and practice focused upon similarities and differences among cultures with respect to human care, health, and illness that are related to cultural values, beliefs, and practices (norms). These norms include the way rights and protections are exercised, and even what is considered to be a health problem (United States [U.S.] Department of Health and Human Services, 2001). Nurses need to understand and appreciate inherent similarities and differences not only locally, but regionally, nationally, and worldwide as well. In order to provide morally competent care that respects individual values and needs, it is imperative that nurses examine their own health-related values and beliefs, as well as those of the healthcare organization in which they work; it is only then that they can support the principle of respect for persons and provide the ideal of transcultural care (Bjarnason, Mick, Thompson, & Cloyd, 2009).

Organizational Structures that Support Moral Courage

McClure, Poulin, Sovie, and Wandelt (1983) observed that certain healthcare organizations seemed better able to withstand pressure on their professional environments, experiencing less upheaval and producing higher quality patient outcomes with lower morbidity and mortality rates than ‘average’ healthcare organizations. These same institutions showed remarkable resilience in limiting turnover and maintaining patient and staff satisfaction. These observations resulted in nursing’s recognition of Magnet hospitals, a designation that recognizes organizations in which nurses want to work and patients find healing environments (Aiken & Salmon, 1994; Aiken, Smith, & Lake, 1994; American Nurses Association (ANA,) 1998). It was noted that these organizations have in place a number of structures that enhance the quality of the care provided as well as the working environment. Structures that are described below help create the context for actualizing moral courage in nursing.

Mission, Vision, and Values

Creating the foundation for an environment that fosters moral courage among nurses requires that all stakeholders have a clear understanding of the organizational mission, vision, and values, as well the philosophy of the nursing department (Lachman, 2009). Clearly stating and supporting the mission, vision, and values sets the tone for the work of nursing in the organization, pictures a state that implies a commitment to organizational improvement, and suggests the types of activities that will ensure that the organization reaches those goals. Developing a nursing philosophy allows the organization to define itself not only to its internal community, but to its external community as well.

A nursing philosophy describes professional behaviors that hold nurses responsible and accountable for exercising moral courage when acting to achieve the organization’s mission and vision. According to Shirey (2005) “clarity in an organization’s mission, vision, and values is key to effective management in today’s increasingly complex healthcare environment. To clearly articulate mission, vision, and values, employees must experience consistency between what is espoused and what is lived” (p. 59).

Models of Care

Professional practice models include reward and recognition systems acknowledging performance improvement...along with empowerment and engagement in the workplace. Another aspect of professional nursing that promotes moral courage in the workplace includes a professional model of care that exemplifies nursing’s goal of enhancing the lives of patients and colleagues. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (AACN) (2008) has defined a professional practice model as the driving force of nursing care; a schematic description of a theory, phenomenon, or system that depicts how nurses practice, collaborate, communicate, and develop professionally to provide the highest quality of care for those served by the organization (e.g. patients, families, and community). Professional practice models illustrate the alignment and integration of nursing practice with the mission, vision, and values that nursing has adapted. Fasoli (2010) has noted that autonomy, accountability, professional development, emphasis on high quality care, and delivery models that are patient centered, adaptable, and flexible provide a framework for professional practice models in nursing. Professional practice models include reward and recognition systems acknowledging performance improvement, and nurses’ commitment to uphold high standards of practice predicated on a strong value system, moral courage, and quality professional relationships, along with empowerment and engagement in the workplace.

Structural Empowerment

In her theory of structural power in organizations Kanter described four structural factors within organizations that lead to empowerment (Kanter, 1983; Matthews, Laschinger, & Johnstone, 2006). She explained that employees who (a) have access to information; (b) receive support from organizational leadership, subordinates, and peers; (c) are given adequate resources to do the work; and (d) have opportunities for personal and professional development are empowered to contribute to achieving organizational goals (Matthews et. al., 2006; Ning, Zhong, Libo, & Qiujie, 2009). Empowerment may come from within, collectively as in work groups, or from the work environment (Manonlovich, 2007). Nurses who are empowered take control of their practice and participate in decision making at the point of care, thus strengthening a professional practice model and promoting positive patient care outcomes.

An example of this empowerment would be that of Nurse M, who heard other nurses on the unit discussing how patients assigned to Nurse J had recently complained of not receiving pain medication when requested. The nursing staff had recently observed notable changes in Nurse J’s behavior as evidenced by being unwilling to help out, less engaged, and easily angered. One evening after receiving report from Nurse J, one of Nurse M’s patients stated to her that he was in acute pain and had not received any pain medication from the nurse on the previous shift. Upon reviewing the patient’s medication record, Nurse M found that Nurse J had documented that the patient received narcotic analgesia every four hours that shift. This information was also recorded in the unit’s automated medication system. The following day, Nurse M discussed her findings with her nurse manager, who has a reputation for supporting, developing, and empowering her staff. Nurse M did this not only out of concern for that patient’s safety and wellbeing but also because of her compassion for Nurse J whom she had known in the past as a trusted colleague and competent nurse. The nurse manager recognized Nurse M’s moral courage in coming forward, and spoke with Nurse J who became emotionally distraught, admitting to drug diversion and problems with substance abuse. Although Nurse J resigned her position, the nurse manager continued to offer her support and resources to assist in her rehabilitation. Organizational factors, such as those described in this example, including open and supportive leadership, adequate resources, and professional development empower nurses to act and promote moral courage in the workplace.

Shared Governance

Shared governance promotes collaborative decision making and shared responsibility; it empowers nurses to act with moral courage by taking ownership of their practice at the point of care. Shared governance has been described as “a managerial innovation that legitimizes nurses’ control over practice, extending their influence into administrative areas previously controlled only by managers” (Hess, 2004, p. 2). Research has demonstrated several positive outcomes of shared governance, including increased nurse satisfaction and retention and a more motivated, engaged nursing staff (Bretschneider, Glenn-West, Green-Smolenski, & Richardson, 2010). Work environments in which shared governance is firmly embedded facilitate active involvement of frontline staff in the creation of a professional practice model that promotes quality patient care outcomes.

Practicing in a shared governance environment enables the nurse to act with moral courage when aggressive treatment of a patient based on the family’s wishes continues, despite the patient’s expressed wishes that it be withdrawn. In such a situation, out of duty to the patient and to self, the morally courageous nurse will advocate for the patient by initiating conversations with other care providers, consulting with the hospital ethics committee, and utilizing other appropriate resources to engage the family and patient in meaningful discussion that can result in consensus around the goals of care. Nurses practicing in shared governance settings have access to the information and resources they need to make effective decisions, create change, and influence outcomes (Hess, 2004).


Nurses act with moral courage when they use the chain of command to share and discuss issues that have escalated beyond the problem-solving ability and/or scope of those immediately involved. The Joint Commission (TJC) requires that organizations respect the patient’s right to, and need for effective communication; it directs organizations to take action to address communication needs (TJC, 2009). The strength of this directive is based upon overwhelming evidence from TJC’s sentinel event database indicating that communication is cited as a root cause in nearly 70 percent of reported sentinel events, surpassing other commonly identified issues, such as staff orientation and training, patient assessment, and staffing (Joint Commission Resources, n.d.).

Every day nurses and their healthcare colleagues are confronted with challenging situations where effective communication is essential, while at the same time fraught with difficulty. Assertive communication is the act of stating a position with assurance. It is an honest, direct, and appropriate means of communicating that focuses on solving a problem (Lachman, 2009). The use of assertive communication is imperative not only to patient safety and to quality patient care, but also to invoking the chain of command. Nurses act with moral courage when they use the chain of command to share and discuss issues that have escalated beyond the problem-solving ability and/or scope of those immediately involved. Engaging the chain of command both ensures that the appropriate leaders know what is occurring and allows for initiating communication at the level closest to the event, moving the discussion upward as the situation warrants.

Just Culture

The concepts of effective communication and chain of command are inherent in a position statement recently published by the ANA. The ‘just culture’ model seeks to create environments that incentivize rather than punish error reporting. In a just culture, individuals are not held accountable for system problems over which they have no control. A just culture recognizes that patient care safety and quality is based on teamwork, communication, and a collaborative work environment (ANA, 2010). Just culture environments enhance moral courage in the workplace.


Nurse leaders demonstrate moral courage when they oppose work environments that put patient safety at risk. For example, chief nurses act with moral courage when they firmly oppose cost-containment measures, such as nursing layoffs or reductions in healthcare services, that would jeopardize the delivery of safe, competent patient care. Nurse leaders can create environments that support moral courage by clearly providing guidelines for nurses to use when they observe unethical practices and by providing resources, such as ethics committees, shared governance structures, and mentoring opportunities that enable nurses to confront ethical dilemmas in practice (Murray, 2007).

All nurses can demonstrate leadership by role modeling ethical behaviors based on established nursing practice standards. They can also recognize colleagues and peers when they uphold ethical principles and demonstrate moral courage, and work to develop and implement policies and procedures that facilitate effective responses to moral distress at the point of care (Murray, 2007).


Nurses who possess moral courage embrace the challenge of transforming the profession and the workplace. They are the nurses who question the premature discharge of an elderly patient with no social support and limited resources, refuse to administer a medication whose efficacy or dosage they question, challenge those who treat others unjustly, or speak up when others remain silent.

Nurses who act with moral courage take risks knowing that they may encounter lateral violence, including bullying, harassment, or sabotage, as well as risk of termination. Nurses practicing with moral courage know that addressing these issues is leadership in action, the type of leadership that began with Florence Nightingale – who role modeled moral courage on the battlefield, in the classroom, at the bedside, and among legislators in advocating for the rights of patients, colleagues, and humanity. In her writings on leadership, perhaps Nightingale said it best: 

What is our needful thing? To have high principles at the bottom of all. Without this, without having laid our foundation, there is small use in building up our details. This is as if you were to try to nurse without eyes or hand...If your foundation is laid in shifting sand, you may build your house, but it will tumble down (Ulrich, 1992, p.40).


...the accountability and responsibility for creating environments that promote moral an obligation shared by all nurses, in every role, in every specialty, in every setting. Nurses have obligations to patients, one another, and the global community to assure optimal health, personal wellbeing, and quality of life for all with whom they come in contact. In her seminal publication, Nursing Speaks for Itself, Margretta Styles (2006) described the transformation that needs to occur in nursing, writing, “There is a give and take to empowerment, so nursing must be prepared to reshape the health care environment and act as its full partner. Both the culture of the profession and the culture of the workplace must be transformed (p. 10).”

Challenges in the care environment are myriad. All professional nurses assume the responsibility for serving as patient advocates and role models. This duty exists whether nursing practice occurs at the bedside, in the classroom, in the board room, or in the research setting. Quite simply, the accountability and responsibility for creating environments that promote moral courage in practice and transform the workplace is an obligation shared by all nurses, in every role, in every specialty, in every setting.

Letter to the Editor by Rosario Gallegos



Cynthia Ann LaSala, MS, RN

Cynthia Ann LaSala, MS, RN is a Clinical Nurse Specialist in general medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Ms. LaSala has extensive experience in clinical and educational roles and more than 30 years of professional organizational experience, serving in a variety of positions at local, state, and national levels. In 2006, Ms. LaSala was appointed to a four-year term on the Ethics Advisory Board for the American Nurses Association Center for Ethics and Human Rights. She has a vested interest in the specialty of ethics and is currently the coach for the MGH Patient Care Services Ethics in Clinical Practice Committee (EICP), a member of the EICP Advance Care Planning Task Force, the MGH Ethics Task Force, the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH), and the ASBH Nurse Affinity Group. Ms. LaSala has authored and co-authored journal manuscripts, textbooks, and newsletters and has presented on a variety of clinical and educational topics.

Dana Bjarnason, PhD, RN, NE-BC

Dr. Bjarnason serves as the Associate Administrator & Chief Nursing Officer for the Ben Taub General Hospital and the Quentin Mease Community Hospital in Houston, Texas. Dr. Bjarnason is active in a number of professional nursing organizations, including the American Nurses Association (ANA), where she serves as an appointed member of the ANA Board of Ethics and Human Rights; the Texas Nurses Association District 9; Sigma Theta Tau - Alpha Delta Chapter; the Southern Nursing Research Society; and the American Organization of Nurse Executives. She has authored/co-authored several peer-reviewed articles for professional journals. In addition to healthcare regulation and accreditation, Dr. Bjarnason’s interests include patient self-determination, end-of-life care, advocacy, professionalism, and practice. She was awarded a doctorate in nursing from the University of Texas Medical Branch Graduate School of Biomedical Science (Galveston) in 2007 and has been a certified nurse executive since 1999.


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© 2010 OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing
Article published September 30, 2010

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