Tall Poppy Syndrome

foto by joshua-hoehne on unsplash

The other day when I was conducting an interview with a key stakeholder at a transformation project I’m currently working on, the person mentioned that one of the problems they have in their sector is the competition between peers that somehow impedes individuals to outstand the group. She said it is called the “Tall Poppy Syndrome”.

When she explained a little bit more about this “syndrome”, immediately I linked to the structural problems a friend of mine is facing with his team. Finally, I was able to put more concrete words into his problem and realize that it was not only my perception and observation but that this is something that really exists and affects many organizations and professional sectors.

basic definition of the Tall Poppy Syndrome has its origins in Australia which refers to the idea of cutting a tall poppy so that it doesn’t stand out from the rest. Therefore, keeping the flowers’ height uniform.

The term has become part of the slang in several countries (but strongly in Australia and New Zealand) where it refers to ‘cutting down’ high achievers who stand out in a field of mediocre performers.

This can be happening because of the hierarchy but also because the peers. Any of the two creates a culture where people are afraid to show who they really are and their true capacities and potentialities. It can happen at work environments but also at any group such as sports, education, and so on.

The Norwegian progressive metal band Leprous include in their song Tall Poppy Syndrome this definition:

“These norms and values have been used to oppress the free thinkers, making sure that nobody uses their talent to distinguish themselves from their peers”

Digging a bit deeper into the concept of the Tall Poppy Syndrome I found more information and examples that helped me to understand it better and provide me the material to show my friend and his teams some concrete examples to learn from.

One interesting article is written by Sophie Simpson at the Thrive Global who defines Tall Poppy Syndrome as the term used to describe the culture of criticizing, resenting, and undermining the success and ambition of other people.

Tall Poppy Syndrome is more visible when a company suffers it as a consequence of the way its people are managed by the hierarchy. The culture is of harsh competition, quite often achievements are undermined and people feel hostility or even been penalized because of their success.

However, it is more difficult to identify, and also to deal with, when this syndrome is the consequence of a strong form of control executed by peer pressure that impedes people to grow and be the best of themselves. The pressure can be subliminal or explicit, a kind of bullying towards the mates that kills proactivity, innovation and creativity.

I say it is hard to identify the Tall Poppy Syndrome between peers because the majority of the time gets undetected by the leadership as it is exercised among peers and hardly ever is openly discussed. Moreover, the majority feels they need to comply with these unwritten rules in order to be accepted into the group.

One study conducted by Thomson Reuters and Women of Influence in Canada, showed that the effects of Tall Poppy Syndrome are harder on entry-level employees because they feel the need to impress their colleagues and managers in order to be accepted into the herd.

But what are the concrete symptoms of this syndrome? The article of the Thrive Global goes further describing some indicators that show that a culture of an organization is suffering the Tall Poppy Syndrome:

* Hesitating to share new ideas.

* Losing ambition and not pursuing goals.

* Fear of making peers uncomfortable with your success.

* Not pursuing goals in order to not stand out from the pack.

* Talking down your achievements to others and to yourself (negative self-talk).

* Withholding from celebrating success.

These symptoms of the syndrome show the impact it has on the organization and also on an individual level where we could find some similarities to the bullying people suffer in other contexts.

In the majority of the cases the Tall Poppy Syndrome is the result of the insecurities of the hierarchy and the peers. They are trying to stop others’ success to avoid being seen weak or perceived as less capable. They act in this way because of their own insecure personality and don’t want to feel there are other members shining brighter than them.

While doing my petit investigation about this topic I found scarcity of examples of companies that succeed in dealing with the Syndrome.

On the other hand, there is abundant information about tips and guides on what to do when you as an individual are confronted with it.

The most common tips for individuals are related to working hard on yourself-recognition, work on your insecurities and start to recognize other people with their strengths and values and be grateful to their contribution towards teamwork. Put your mind and attitude in a collaborative mood and find something challenging that will bring you to try new things.

In a few words, be ready to explore around you with the confidence that you can shine, that you have values and strengths to offer to the world.

At a more organizational level, the key moment is to recognize that the Syndrome is there and start talking openly about it. You would need to make visible changes in the way the organization is managed in order to create a safe environment for people to talk openly about it. Giving an example will be the best way to start.

At the same time that people are starting to talk about the Tall Poppy Syndrome inside the organization, it is important to offer training at all the levels in order to get tools to revert this situation and to learn how to detect it at early stages.

Those are the tips I shared with my friend for him to start facing the sad fact that his company suffers from the Tall Poppy Syndrome as a consequence of peer pressure over their teammates.

However, as I’m lacking concrete case studies of companies that dealt with this syndrome, I’d be more than happy to know or read about any good example (of success or failure) because I strongly believe about learning from other experiences.

Do you have any interesting cases to share with me?

These norms and values have been used to oppress the free thinkers, making sure that nobody uses their talent to distinguish themselves from their peers

Originally published at https://pierogandini.com on February 10, 2020.

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Piero Gandini

Piero Gandini

Motivator of Change, practitioner of equality and inclusion, in constant learning, believes that humans are made to create, innovate and be happy.