What Makes a Good Nurse? Experts Reveal What it Takes
Nursing is known to be both a highly demanding and highly rewarding career. But what makes a good nurse? Like any other job, a career in nursing requires a specific set of skills. Some of these skills may come more naturally to you, or you will have the opportunity to learn from others in nursing school or on the job.
What makes a truly great nurse, though, is the ability to bring your best qualities into the work environment and use them alongside the skills you have gained in your education.
We talked to the experts—registered nurses (RNs) and other healthcare professionals who frequently work with them—to find out the must-have skills and personality traits for a successful career in nursing. Here are nine skills and qualities to consider when you think about a potential career as a nurse.
9 Characteristics of a good nurse
1. Good nurses are organized
“The number one trait of a great nurse is organization,” says Alaina Ross, RN, PACU nurse and expert contributor for Test Prep Insight. Ross explains that when a shift gets chaotic or a patient is crashing, the most organized nurses have the easiest times adapting, prioritizing and doing what needs to be done.
Since nurses take on so many different responsibilities, organization doesn’t just make that nurse’s day a little easier—it impacts patients and the whole care team. “I admire a charge nurse on our floor who always seems to be organized,” Ross says. “The days just run well when she's in charge. She always has a moment to stop and listen to patients when they need it, and everyone seems happier and more productive when she's charge.”
Organization is also critical to keep patients safe and healing. “Every day, nurses are juggling many different tasks on a number of different patients,” says Sandra Crawley, RN, BSN and medical consultant at Mom Loves Best. Crawley emphasizes that nurses need organization and critical thinking to keep a sharp eye on everything going on.
“Whether it is noticing the small change in your patient before it becomes a big change or collecting labs and passing medications on time, all these tasks have to be prioritized and require you to be able to multitask in an organized fashion,” Crawley says.
2. Good nurses are compassionate
Because nurses work so closely with patients and their families as they deal with difficult health issues, kindness and compassion are vital for a nurse to succeed in their career. Consider a time you or a family member has endured a hospital stay, and you’ll quickly realize the important role a compassionate nurse can play.
“The most important character trait a nurse needs is a caring heart,” Crawley says. She points out that organization and multitasking can be learned and practiced, but truly caring about people and being able to empathize with them runs deeper.
“Being able to sit beside a mother who just lost her child and just be still knowing that your presence is all that she needs at that moment. Meeting your patients on their level, where they are, is often what our patients comment most on,” Crawley says. “We meet these strangers at the weakest and most scared moments of their lives, and they lean on nurses to walk them through.”
This caring and compassionate work is what truly separates the good nurses from the great nurses, according to Crawley.
3. Good nurses practice self-care
“One of the hardest things to do as a nurse is to take time out of our hectic day or week for ourselves,” Crawley says. But without good boundaries and self-care habits, a passionate and hard-working nurse can easily get buried by the job. “If we keep emptying our tank for others without taking the time to fill it up again with things we love, we risk the high cost of nursing—the dreaded burnout,” Crawley says.
“Nurses need to find something to unwind, decompress and recharge.”
4. Good nurses are safe
Dr. Michael Sinnott works with nurses on a daily basis in a hospital emergency room. He suggests that, in addition to maintaining patient safety, nurses need to know how to protect their own safety in a hazardous work environment like a hospital. “For instance, perioperative nurses must know how to protect themselves from scalpel injuries as these cuts can result in infections, blood-borne diseases and psychological distress. Other serious injuries could require microsurgery to repair digital arteries, nerves and tendons,” he says.
“I consider the nurses on the front lines of the pandemic as exemplary,” says Dorothy Keeney, MA, RN and author. “They wear cumbersome hazmat suits with facemasks and other personal protective equipment, which are uncomfortable and hot to care for their COVID-19 patients on long 12-hour shifts.”
Keeney points out that not only do these nurses have to deal with the uncertainty of risking their own health—they also have to learn correct safety procedures for protective gear against a new threat to avoid spreading the virus from a sick patient.
5. Good nurses communicate well
Efficient communication is a critical part of nursing, according to Jared Heathman, a family psychiatrist. “Nurses often receive important clinical information through their time with patients, and their ability to filter and condense relevant information can save physicians time while providing history that improves patient care,” he explains.
6. Good nurses are team-oriented
While great nurses certainly make patients a priority, the very best nurses also find ways to help their whole team. “As any nurse can tell you, there are those nurses we look up to, who we try to emulate, mentors who’ve shown us more than the ropes of a career,” Crawley says. She emphasizes that these nurses advocate for patients, mentor newer nurses and consistently exemplify what it means to support each other.
7. Good nurses are assertive
Kindness and compassion are essential aspects of nursing, but sometimes the kindest and most necessary patient work involves an assertive attitude as well. Natasha Coleman is a health educator who works closely alongside nurses. She says that it can really help if nurses are a bit bossy. If they know how to give clear, firm directions to those they work with, their patients will be more likely to follow their course of care.
8. Good nurses have positive attitudes
Nurses are typically the healthcare professionals that patients spend the most time with. For this reason, Lorna Johnson, nurse and founder of the Advanced Family Care Medical Group, maintains that attitude is everything when it comes to nursing.
“The nursing profession is a very rewarding one, though often very challenging—primarily because nurses are on the frontline of care and can set the tone and mood for healing with their optimism, compassion and critical thinking skills,” she iterates.
“By far and away, the most important aspect of any given week is providing the best care possible for your patients,” Ross says. If that means getting ready a little earlier so you have time for the routines that relax you—making coffee, doing yoga, going for a walk—do it, Ross urges. “Always come to your shift with your best attitude possible because it definitely translates into your work.”
9. The best nurses are lifelong learners
Nurses handle so many different things. While different levels of nursing programs provide the fundamental knowledge and skills you need to begin your nursing career, great nurses never stop learning.
“Nurses are frequently teaching,” Keeney points out. “Whether it is at the bedside teaching the patient how to care for a condition or in clinics, teaching preventive health care, health maintenance and proper nutrition—nurses will take continuing education courses to update themselves on the latest pharmaceuticals and technology.”
Do you have the characteristics of a great nurse?
“Nurses are their own breed,” Crawley says. “The nursing profession is an amazing and challenging career path that requires you to be all in. It’s a field where you return home and feel you have been an ardent advocate for humanity.”
If you can see yourself in some of the personality traits and skills that help make a great nurse, you may be thinking this is the right career path for you. One thing is for sure—the world of healthcare needs amazing nurses. Even at a time when many careers are experiencing insecurity, projected demand for RNs is strong, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.1
The path to becoming a nurse might seem a little daunting, but don’t let the unknown hold you back from exploring this crucial career. Our article “How to Become a Nurse: A Beginner’s Guide” will help by laying out your potential next steps into nursing.
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed January, 2021] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2017. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2021.