Tall Poppy Syndrome: The office trend killing morale

Are you a victim?

Tall Poppy Syndrome: The office trend killing morale

by Dr. Rumeet Billan

A ground-breaking 2018 study shows the extent to which women’s psychological health and workplace productivity is being negatively affected by interactions with superiors and colleagues.

The Tallest Poppy, a study led by myself in partnership with Thomson Reuters and Women of Influence explored Tall Poppy Syndrome and its impact on Canadian women in the workplace. Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) is a term commonly used in Australia, referring to the expectation that poppies should grow together, and if one grows too tall, it is cut down to size. In the workplace, the study explored whether women were, like poppies, cut down due to their success and achievements. 

Of the 1,501 respondents, drawn across numerous industries and organizations, 87.3% indicated that their achievements at work were undermined by colleagues or superiors. More than 81 per cent said they had experienced hostility or were penalized because of their success.

Many of those surveyed agreed that their workplace has become toxic due to the behaviour of poppy cutters. Among respondents, 69.2% reported a lack of trust among co-workers; 59.2% reported feeling disengaged from their work; and 69% felt that being cut down at work negatively affected their productivity.

“I wish my employer had been able to support the facts and not a hierarchy,” said one respondent. “I wish I had been better supported by others around the process rather than told to leave it alone. I wish the struggle had been acknowledged. I wish the impact it had on my mental health had been considered,” said one respondent.

The study showed that 64.7% of respondents reported lower self-esteem and self-confidence, 60.3% reported downplaying or not sharing their achievements and 46.2% reported negative self-talk because of constantly being undercut. Respondents said that TPS led to withdrawal, mental breakdowns, self-doubt, fear of favouritism, depression, insomnia, anxiety and overeating, among other effects.

For organizations, addressing TPS is not just a “nice” thing or the right thing to do. Instead, HR professionals are pointing to it as a serious issue affecting employee mental health, satisfaction and retention.

“Condoning TPS misconduct can create a poisoned work environment, which results when harassment and discrimination becomes normalized within the workplace due to the employer’s failure to address and course correct unacceptable conduct,” says Laura K. Williams, the principal at Williams HR Law Professional Corporation in Markham.

The study showed that the effects of TPS can be especially hard on entry-level employees who may be eager to impress their colleagues and managers.   

“There is an unspoken rule that superiors, management and senior management know what they’re doing and they’re more knowledgeable/accomplished,” said a respondent. “When they try to cut you down due to their own insecurities, we tend to take that personally and to heart and judge ourselves negatively. I think it’s important to teach that just because someone is in a position of power, they’re not always right or wise. That’s really had to understand when one is young, inexperienced and easily impressed and seeking to please.”

But what makes TPS especially difficult to deal with is that it is not just leadership the contributes to the cutting. Respondents reported that employees at all levels of the organization contribute to the hostile environment and that men and women are almost equally to blame for the poisoned culture of attack. While respondents said they often felt that managers didn't acknowledge or reward their accomplishments, many also noted that they were afraid of the reaction their success would elicit from co-workers. 

Responses like these point to the need for education in companies, says Williams.

“All workplace parties need to be trained on how TPS manifests and on its destructive impact on, not only the individuals who experience this misconduct, but also on workplace culture.” she says. “Training should aid detection of these types of behaviours and also provide practical instruction to employees on how to report observed incidents.”

Respondents to the TPS study offered numerous instances of how the reaction of co-workers poisoned the environment and undermined their success.  

“My promotion was announced in a team meeting. My peers (who worked at the organization longer than me) made ‘jokes’ about my promotion in public settings,” said another respondent. “The impact was me not wanting to raise accomplishments or opportunities with my peers for fear of upsetting them further.”  

Williams says this type of jealousy and resentment can often occur in companies that encourage cutthroat competition between employees as a means of getting ahead, an assertion supported by responses to the TPS study.

“The more successful, the more blowback,” said a respondent. “Someone congratulates you publicly and you immediately look at the faces of others and worry about the impact on your career.”

Williams advises businesses to evaluate the workplace atmosphere and determine if this kind of competition has become a problem. 

“There should be an assessment of whether there are practices that make the workplace susceptible to TPS behaviours,” says Williams. “This includes evaluating whether management is complicit in fostering a competitive, ‘dog-eat-dog’ environment where TPS thrives, such as limiting opportunities of talented employees out of fear that they could ‘outshine’ the manager and threaten his or her job security.” This type of assessment is being created for organizations, and a culture audit can also help leadership gather information about where, how and the impact of TPS in their organization. 

Respondents to the study reported that they felt that their superiors often did not acknowledge their accomplishments, and in some cases, they stole their ideas and actively worked against them when they sought promotion.

“I began to distrust my superiors and felt hopeless,” said a respondent. “It is stressful when you are so committed to a job and people above you have control over the recognition you get because that is the way companies are structured. Very few companies understand how to recognize top talent.”

The result, said many in the study, was that they did not see any point in doing their best work. Over 70% indicated that it impacted their productivity and nearly 60 per cent of respondents said their experience with TPS had led them to actively seek a new job. It’s clear that organizations aren’t getting the best out of their employees and their top talent is leaving their organization. It’s time to reframe the “war for top talent” and focus on how we can retain top talent.

Developing trust in superiors can be even more difficult, especially if an employee feels they have been dealt with unfairly. Employees at companies that have allowed TPS to fester are also likely to have developed a deep cynicism about that workplace. 

“The behaviour has become so innate and accepted in cultures, communities and stereotypes, even senior leaders who believe they support inclusion etc. really don’t,” said a respondent.

Williams points out that failure to address TPS and its effects could very well land a company in legal trouble.

“The nature of the behaviours that are typically engaged in by individuals that cause and contribute to TPS in the workplace are often akin to conduct that could constitute harassment and sexual harassment...” she says. “As such, if employers do not respond to TPS misconduct, they could be in violation of the requirements set out in harassment provisions of health and safety legislation.” 

Williams also says that because TPS tends to target women in the workplace, companies could be particularly vulnerable to complaints of gender discrimination and human rights violations. 

But while potential legal penalties may provide an impetus for action, addressing TPS is a much more complex issue. In the study, more than 40% of respondents said they had witnessed examples of TPS and had done nothing and 10% admitted to undercutting co-workers themselves. Changing that behaviour – and rebuilding trust with co-workers – will take time.

The good news emerging from the study is that while respondents concede it will be difficult, many feel there are ways to successfully deal with TPS in the workplace. Williams agrees that it’s possible for companies to “build and foster a culture of support and success versus one of competition and distrust.”

Echoing many of the recommendations put forward by respondents to the study, she lists five key steps businesses should take:

1. Conduct a risk assessment
Companies need to understand exactly what TPS is and how it can impact and even infect the workplace.  

2. Establish expectations
Put workplace policies in place that make it perfectly clear what behaviour is acceptable and what is not. Make it clear that co-workers share common goals and that everyone will benefit from respectful, courteous and supportive behaviour.

3. Actually apply workplace policies
It’s one thing to put policies in place. But companies must also be willing to enforce those policies and to demonstrate that there are serious consequences for those who violate them. It must be made clear that these policies apply to everybody in the company, from top to bottom. Leaders must set an example and understand that eradicating TPS begins at the top.  

4. Establish a shared responsibility
Addressing TPS in the workplace is everybody’s responsibility. Employers, supervisors and co-workers must all be willing to watch out for and to report incidents of TPS and to support those who might be victims of it.

5. Train everybody to understand TPS
Everybody should undergo training on what TPS is, how to recognize it, how to avoid it and how to support their co-workers. Everybody also needs to know the structures that are in place to allow them to report incidents of TPS and what steps will be taken when they do so.

While implementing these steps may not be easy, Williams says companies have less and less choice in the matter.

“Ultimately, given heightened employee awareness... employers are increasingly [likely] to be found to be in breach of legal obligations and to face costs – financially, culturally and reputationally – for not addressing TPS in the workplace.” 

The business world has reached a tipping point when it comes to TPS and other forms of misconduct, says Williams, and – like it or not – companies have to deal with it.

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