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Essential Qualities and Characteristics of a Good Nurse

Registered nurses are more in demand than ever in terms of projected job growth, impact, and leadership. With the significant need for RNs nationally and globally, understanding the qualities of a good nurse is critical for hospitals and health systems aiming to attract and retain the best nursing talent.

As new nurses enter the workforce, identifying and encouraging specific nursing qualities helps healthcare organizations recognize strong candidates for hire and understand which of their current nurses would make great leaders. With well over five million RNs in the U.S., it’s helpful to consider the essential qualities of a good nurse that help them succeed in today’s fast-paced and everchanging healthcare landscape.

These are some of the key nurse qualities for success.

Qualities of a good nurse

1 – Caring and compassion

Many people assume that nurses enter the field because compassion is one of their leading qualities — but this nursing characteristic isn’t necessarily a given. Many who choose nursing prioritize the job security of nursing or see it as a career starting point while failing to consider whether they have the compassion needed to become a good nurse.

But as a nursing quality, compassion makes all the difference to patients. Nurses who show they truly care about their patients — and how well they perform their jobs — have a greater likelihood of advancing, making compassion a key indicator for nurse success.

2 – Excellent communication skills

Strong communication skills are an important nurse characteristic. Good nurses rely on the ability to effectively communicate with other nurses, physicians, and clinicians in other units and with patients and their families.

Without the ability to interpret and accurately convey critical information, medical errors are more likely to occur, patients may feel neglected or misinformed, and an entire unit could feel the impact. By prioritizing great communication skills, nurses provide safer care, which in turn benefits their patients, their units, and the entire hospital or health system — not to mention their own long-term careers.

3 – Empathy

With nurses caring for perhaps thousands of patients during their careers, it can be all too easy to become desensitized or forget what it was like to be a nonclinical person. A good nurse is one who shows empathy for every patient, making a true effort to put themselves in their patients’ shoes.

By practicing empathy, nurses are more likely to treat their patients as individuals, focusing on a person-centered care approach rather than strictly following routines and guidelines. When patients are fortunate enough to encounter this characteristic in a good nurse, it makes for a far better care experience and healing journey.

4 – Organization and attention to detail

Nurses are undoubtedly under immense pressure as they balance following orders from physicians with using their own knowledge, skills, and critical judgement to provide the highest quality patient care. Add to this caring for multiple patients simultaneously, and the possibility of making an error can seem almost inevitable.

A good nurse knows the stakes are high and that unlike most other industries, they’re responsible for peoples’ well-being and — more importantly — their lives. Being organized, accurate, and attentive to details are nursing traits that determine how successful they’ll be in their role.

5 – Problem-solving skills

While clinical training occurs throughout a nurse’s education, on-the-job training is the most effective way to develop a nurse’s problem-solving skills. Years of experience help hone this skill, but good nurses work to improve their problem-solving skills.

Problem-solving skills are essential to nursing, as nurses generally have the most one-on-one time with patients and are often responsible for making decisions about issues that arise with their care. Even seemingly small decisions can proactively improve outcomes — or conversely, cause major adverse impacts if incorrectly made.

6 – Stamina and endurance

The physical demand on nurses is perhaps one of the most underestimated aspects of their role. In one shift, a nurse lifts an average of 1.8 tons (roughly the weight of a hippo) by lifting and adjusting patients. Additionally, studies have found that nurses walk an average of four to five miles per shift.

In an average 12-hour shift, nurses exercise a unique balance of physical and emotional stamina that few other occupations encounter. This extremely important quality impacts nurses, their coworkers, and of course, patients. Having sufficient stamina and staying power are important qualities of a great nurse.

7 – Sense of humor and resilience

To derive satisfaction from such a mentally and physically exhausting role, nurses who can find time for a laugh are typically more successful. Because nurses encounter varying degrees of high-stress situations, taking the opportunity to enjoy the downtime and incorporate a lighthearted attitude can provide a sense of stress relief and ensure their well-being over the long term.

Having a good sense of humor also helps spread positivity to other nurses, patients, and their families. A good sense of humor is not only a characteristic of a nurse leader but reminds patients and their families that nurses are people too and ultimately increases their trust and openness to sharing feedback and concerns.

8 – Commitment to patient advocacy

The concept of advocacy is a core tenet of health care, from the Hippocratic oath to nearly every hospital’s mission statement in one phrasing or another — keep patients safe and deliver the highest quality of care. In other words, be an advocate for patients, with special attention to their overall safety.

As one of the leading qualities of a nurse, patient advocacy is a mindset that a good nurse must practice every day with every patient, throughout every stage of the care continuum. Many patients enter a hospital or healthcare setting feeling disoriented, confused, and unable to advocate for their own safety. A nurse who empowers patients through education and engagement will help them get the best care.

9 – Willingness to learn and grow

With constant technological improvements and breakthroughs in science, the healthcare industry and its workers must successfully adapt. Nurses’ willingness to develop themselves — and put their new knowledge into practice — is one of the leading traits of a good nurse.

Improvements in educational approaches such as interprofessional training and personalized learning can help foster successful learning environments, but a good nurse must possess flexibility and a willingness to learn for them to be truly beneficial. This important skill applies to nurses of all ages, throughout every stage of their career — from recent graduates to the highly experienced.

10 – Strong critical thinking

While having the willingness to learn is an important skill, putting that knowledge into successful practice requires the ability to think critically — especially in high-stress situations. A nurse with high-functioning critical thinking has one of the most important characteristics of a professional nurse.

After years of education and training, the ability to apply clinical guidelines and best practices on the floor depends on a nurse’s capacity for critical thinking, which is quickly noticed by leadership, other nurses, and ultimately, patients. While this skill can improve over time, it may come more readily to some nurses than others.

11 – Good time management

Balancing multiple patients, stressful care settings, and competing priorities is no small feat during a 12-hour shift. Having effective time management is a key personality trait for nursing, as is being able to concentrate on the most critical issues first — and not necessarily the most demanding patient or family.

Setting time aside for self-care is also a crucial component of time management. Neglecting to take a quick break or regroup during an especially intense shift won’t benefit anyone involved in the care process.

12 – Integrity and leadership

While most nurses approach their careers with patient care in mind, some will eventually transition into leadership roles. Unfortunately, it’s all too common for a promotion to happen without adequate training, development opportunities, or sufficient mentoring and support to achieve the level of professionalism and ethics that good leadership requires.

The ability to lead is a quality that continues to become more valuable in nursing and is not limited to individuals who are in leadership roles. Exercising leadership skills in any role or level shows that a nurse can serve as a model of integrity and effectiveness for others. Being a mentor in any capacity helps others become better nurses and benefits both the organization and the nursing profession itself.

13 – Experience

It’s important to note that as veteran nurses leave the healthcare field and begin retirement, they’re taking with them years of experience and knowledge that cannot be quickly replaced. As nursing leaders work to bring in new nurses, available candidates are predominantly new graduate nurses — a stark contrast to their predecessors in terms of experience and the many patient care skills and knowledge that can only come with time and practice.

By engaging with new nurses to instill an expectation of continuous learning — while creating a positive environment for them to learn from experienced nurses without fear of judgment — nursing leaders can set new nurses up for success, benefiting their careers, the organization, and most importantly — their patients.

14 – Cultural sensitivity and awareness

With today’s diverse patient populations, every nurse needs to understand the importance of being culturally inclusive of others. Communication, customs, and expectations for medical treatment may vary depending on patients’ cultural backgrounds. A good nurse takes these factors into consideration when treating patients to better understand their needs and provide culturally sensitive care.

Cultural awareness also factors in when working as part of a clinical team. Nurses must work with a continuously changing staff of providers and clinicians who may have different communication or work styles. Being prepared for diversity in healthcare settings ensures that a nurse can work productively with everyone and contribute to a workplace that fosters teamwork, collaboration, and a sense of belonging for all.

Do you have what it takes to be a great nurse?

Prospective nurses should consider these essential characteristics and where they fall in terms of demonstrating each skill or trait. Those who exemplify most of these traits or have the potential and desire to develop them should do well as a nurse.

Everyone must start somewhere, and the main driver of success is a passion to get there. Motivation is perhaps the strongest force to propel a future successful nurse to take the necessary steps to make their career aspirations a reality.


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How to prepare for a nursing career

With the global nursing workforce still experiencing a significant shortage of new nurses entering the field for the foreseeable future, hospitals and health systems can welcome and encourage aspirational nurses through a range of career entry points. Explore the following steps to help prospective clinicians begin their nursing journey:

  • For prospective nurses, it is never too early to learn about nursing. They should connect with nurses they know among their family or community, shadow a nurse, or volunteer at a healthcare facility. One advantage of finding a mentor early is that they can help prospective nurses take the appropriate steps when considering educational options at the high school and college levels.
  • Those who are ready to consider nursing school should look for available programs and funding options. There may be opportunities to support future nurses. If nursing schools are not available or at capacity, there may be alternatives online or nearby.
  • Those who are currently working in a healthcare setting but want to make the switch to nursing have the advantage of observing nurses in action. They can work on the requirements of their new career and ultimately achieve their goal of caring for patients and even saving lives.

Nursing is one of the most rewarding healthcare professions, and many nurses could not see themselves doing anything else. Even with the considerable challenges of the role, many nurses are fulfilled just by knowing they make a difference every day. Nurses have both the privilege and satisfaction of a career spent in service to both the greater good and every patient entrusted to their care.

How Relias can help

As the national leader in holistic healthcare assessments, Relias empowers nursing leaders to leverage data to make informed hiring and placement decisions, helping them achieve better long-term nurse success, satisfaction, and retention. Assessment data helps nursing leaders identify developmental areas and skill gaps, continuously measure competencies, and cultivate future leaders.

Additionally, Relias offers a wealth of professional development for nursing leaders on management and leadership education, including:

  • 100+ courses specific to management and leadership training for nurses, such as Developing Your Leadership Potential and Coaching: An Essential Skill for Nurses.
  • Certification review courses on nursing’s most in-demand topics to help nurse managers prepare for certification exams and recertification and earn CE hours while improving their knowledge.
  • Our Focused CE Series on Nursing Preceptor Specialty Practice maximizes nurses’ knowledge on preceptoring. Topics include boundaries between preceptor and preceptee, critical thinking, time management, evaluation of competency, goal-writing, constructive feedback, patient/family engagement, HCAHPS, NDNQI, and more.

15 Behavioral Interview Questions for Nurse Candidates

Download our guide containing 15 examples of behavioral interview questions to identify great nurses who possess essential characteristics and skills, including communication, empathy, problem-solving, resilience, and a patient-safety orientation.

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