Aim: To explore registered nurses' perceptions of standards of nursing practice and factors that affect nursing practice standards. Background: Nursing governance affects nurses' ability to manage nursing practice standards. Lack of nursing professional autonomy has been associated with occupational dissatisfaction, stress, turnover and low morale, which impact upon care quality. Method: Grounded theory was used. Data, gathered by semistructured interviews with 142 nurses, theoretically sampled from three National Health Service hospitals were analysed using constant comparative analysis. Findings: Nurses were dissatisfied with their governance over factors that they believed had most influence on nursing practice standards. Perceived lack of control over factors that affect practice standards generated dissatisfaction, frustration and demoralization. Conclusions: Nurses' perceived lack of governance over their practice requires investigation and attention if occupational dissatisfaction, stress, turnover and low morale, which impact on quality care, are to be reduced. Dissatisfaction with nursing governance indicates a need to review nurses' professional involvement in clinical governance. © 2005 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.