Five ways to deal with tall poppy syndrome in the office

Tall poppy syndrome sees the employee's self-doubt increase while morale and productivity decrease

Five ways to deal with tall poppy syndrome in the office

When someone at work is praised for their outstanding work, reaches a personal or professional goal, or secures a promotion, it’s usually met with criticism and judgment from other co-workers and friends that could affect the morale of the employee. This is called the tall poppy syndrome – something that happens so often but rarely are employees and leaders aware of it.

The workplace should be aware of tall poppy syndrome and be able to stop it before it causes long-term damage to the employee and the workforce. But before we dive into ways to deal with tall poppy situations:

What is tall poppy syndrome?

The tall poppy syndrome is a term that was popularized in Australia which spread in modern workplaces everywhere. It is based on the idea that poppies should all grow together at the same pace and height. Therefore, if one of the poppies becomes taller than the rest, it’ll be cut down to the same height as the rest.

In the workplace, the tall poppy syndrome occurs when an employee who’s done well with a project, received a role promotion, or has achieved a milestone in their work is being cut down like a tall poppy by their peers and colleagues through rude comments, sabotaging their work, or spreading harsh rumors that could harm the image, emotions, and connections of the employee.

Read more: Tall poppy syndrome: the office trend killing morale

Why does tall poppy syndrome happen?

According to a study titled “The Tallest Poppy” by Dr Rumeet Billan, in partnership with Thomson Reuters, Canadian HR Reporter, Viewpoint Leadership and Women of Influence, over 87% of 1,501 women from various industries and companies claimed colleagues and superiors undermined their work achievements. About 81% also claimed they experienced hostility and punishment due to their success.

The research shows just how common the behavior happens in the workplace – but why does it happen?

While it may seem like the main issue is how it is a personal attack on the successful employee, it is more often an issue of projection by the co-workers. There will always be people who will try to bring the successful employee down no matter who it is. That is because someone being praised and appreciated can create feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, which could lead to jealousy and anger.

“Their negative feelings are projected and thrust outward to their perceived object of discomfort: the tall poppy,” added to Linda Humphreys, PhD, a psychologist and life coach, in a health and wellness publication Well+Good article on the tall poppy syndrome.

Because of this, tall poppy deteriorates the mental health, psychological well-being, and emotional resilience of successful employees. Instead of celebrating and enjoying the reward and praise they are getting for their hard work, they are bombarded with negative comments and dismissed by others. Because of this, their self-doubt increases while morale, productivity, teamwork, and communication decrease – affecting the output and performance of the company.

What to do to address tall poppy syndrome

If left untreated, the toxic tall poppy behavior in the workplace can cause a lot of conflict between co-workers, and the output of the company is significantly affected. The company should have a plan to deal with tall poppy syndrome to prevent this. Below are simple steps employers can do to prevent the tall poppy syndrome.

  1. Root out biases and favouritisms

The tall poppy syndrome can happen when employees feel there is a sense of favoritism at play with the manager and the employee being rewarded. When this happens, it is important that the company actively celebrates employees’ successes and encourage growth for all team members. Recognizing and celebrating the work of employees is a great way to show them support and appreciation while removing any doubts on managers and leaders having any favoritism.

  1. Lead the team towards a common goal

It’s important for teams to have common goals in terms of personal development and corporate achievements. Having common goals helps employees work cohesively and find ways to achieve certain tasks and goals efficiently together.

Leaders and managers should be able to map out goals and strategies and explain it thoroughly to the team. When employees understand what needs to be done, why it is needed, and how to achieve it, the workflow between teams will be smoother. Working towards one goal also helps strengthen the connection and trust between colleagues. In addition, output and services will be quicker and of more high quality.

  1. Reassure employees that another’s success is not threatening

It’s easy for someone to feel pressured and insecure about their abilities, especially when other employees are being praised for their work. Employers should ensure that employees understand that their colleague’s success does not define their failure. They should make sure employees understand that everyone works differently and are at different stages in their career.

  1. Hold regular meetings to check up on employees

Not every employee would have the initiative to voice out any concerns in the workplace. Having regular, quick meetings to catch up on how the employee is doing helps employers asses whether there are any issues with work and connecting with colleagues. It is the time for employees to express openly any concerns they have regarding work such as whether they feel unappreciated for their effort while others are being rewarded. The meetings allow employers to get first-hand data on how the workplace is affecting the employees.

The meetings are also a time for employers and managers to address any concerns they have with the employee as well as to reassure them of how the company appreciates their hard work.

  1. Create career and succession plans alongside employees

The goal of companies is to encourage growth and development in employees to make them all tall poppies. To do this, employers should create a company culture that allows employees to explore different opportunities and learning experiences that could help them improve their knowledge, skills, and expertise. Offering trainings, new roles, and mentorships are a great way to promote career and talent development.

It's also important to create succession plans alongside employees. Succession plans help the company map out which employees are fit for future leadership and promotional roles and how to help them get there. Involving the employee in this process makes the planning easier as the employee can provide insight into whether they are interested in certain roles and certain strategies that fit their desired career growth. It also lets the employee know that the company values them and wants to see them grow further in their career.

Read more: Tall Poppy Syndrome: How to confront the issue head on

Although handling tall poppy syndrome takes both the effort of the employee and employer, companies should take it one step further and ensure policies, disciplinary measures, and assistance programs are put in place to help address and minimize the risk of the tall poppy syndrome in the workplace.

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