What is Tall Poppy Syndrome?

Beware the signs of this negative workplace behaviour

What is Tall Poppy Syndrome?

In a society that values praise and recognition, being an achiever – ironically – has its downside.

There is a tendency for some to criticise those who stand out. This phenomenon is called the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ – a trend which cultural observers believe is killing employee morale.  

The point of cutting down a tall poppy – in the original Australian context – is to keep the flowers’ height uniform. Over time the Aussie slang has come to mean ‘cutting down’ high achievers who stand out in a field of mediocre performers.

“Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) is a term commonly used in Australia, referring to the expectation that poppies should grow together,” said Dr. Rumeet Billan, who explored the topic extensively in a study with Thomson Reuters and Women of Influence. “If one grows too tall, it is cut down to size.”

Who is a tall poppy?
The term has slowly gained traction in the modern workplace. Not only does tall poppy syndrome entail harsh criticism of any performer – it also means celebrating the downfall of someone whom many might consider to be a cut above the rest; someone who thinks and acts differently from most workers; or someone who might even be maliciously branded by others as eccentric. This label often emanates from the envy others harbour for the tall poppy.  

What are signs of tall poppy syndrome in the workplace?

Employees who feel they are being judged severely for simply doing their job should look for the following signs of TPS among their colleagues:

  • Criticism over minor details
  • Social exclusion
  • Downplaying other people’s achievements
  • Jealousy manifested in snide remarks

“For organisations, 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,” said Dr. Billan.

While addressing TPS is a shared responsibility between employers and team leaders, companies should ensure policies, disciplinary measures and assistance programs are in place to help nip this negative workplace habit in the bud and ensure all workers are supported – and recognised – for their achievements.

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