A betting man takes no great risk in putting money on the imminent downfall of someone who’s just achieved notoriety. What’s a pop-star without lip-syncing accusations, a CEO without fraud charges, or an athlete without a steroid scandal? It’s as if controversy is a prerequisite to fame or fortune, as if one cannot become great without the backlash that inevitably ensues.
However, criticism is an unwelcome byproduct of success in most cases, not just the extreme ones. Think smaller-scale: ever notice that the water-cooler conversations always center around Jimmy since his promotion? Or that someone always has something to say about Suzy after she was assigned to lead that big project?
Such a cultural phenomenon can be aptly described as tall poppy syndrome, a term that was popularized in Australia but remains universally applicable. Tall poppy syndrome describes a common trend wherein people who have achieved notable success in one or more aspects of their life are resented, sabotaged, or belittled by their peers. Much like the tallest poppy is “cut down” to preserve the aesthetic of an even poppy field, so too is the most enviable person in the room.
“One of the paradoxes about the United States is we idolize celebrity. And yet, at the same time, we love to see those celebrities fall from grace,” said John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, to Freakonomics Radio. Mackey describes feeling the effects of tall poppy syndrome ever since he was a child, when he would frequently be engaged by schoolyard bullies because of his stellar grades and self-proclaimed “smart-ass” attitude.
“We love to see, as you say, the tall poppy get chopped down. It kind of reassures people that even striving for that type of success isn’t worth it, because look what happens. It helps people feel better about themselves,” added Mackey, who’s been on the receiving end of a fair share of media attacks during the outrage which followed Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods.
Regardless of any opinion on this venture, the 67-year-old CEO’s success is undeniable. Mackey founded Whole Foods as a college dropout with no real business experience. Nowadays, his company is valued at 13.7 billion, with nearly 500 locations open across North America and the U.K.
It’s not difficult to imagine how tall poppy syndrome manifests in a society as hyper-competitive as ours. The structure of the American economy means that pursuing money or status in any capacity, immediately puts you at odds with those who are doing the same. Wealth is relatively finite, power is only useful insofar as someone else doesn’t have it.
Thus, the instinct to tear down viable competition is honed from a very young age. So it isn’t a question of if you’ll experience tall poppy syndrome in your life, but a question of when. It’s all the more essential to understand how to mitigate the effects, whether you find yourself on the giving or the receiving end.
“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,” said Dr. Rumeet Billan, who studied the topic extensively in a study with Women of Influence and Thomson Reuters, to Human Resources Director magazine.
Employees who are feeling severely judged by their colleagues for excelling at their job should look for telltale signs of tall poppy syndrome from their colleagues. Social exclusion and criticism over trivial details or personal growth are both indicative of TPS. Passive aggressive behavior, which can manifest itself in emails or snide comments, is also a symptom.
In order to combat this behavior, organizations can install policies and assistance programs which ensure that all employees will be recognized and praised for their achievements. Human resources professionals should be vigilant in nipping unproductive workplace conduct in the bud, and guaranteeing it doesn’t proliferate. Ensuring it doesn’t become a part of a workplace is incumbent upon leaders and managers who set, carry and manifest this value into the culture of their organizations.
Similarly, it’s important that company leaders nurture an environment which allows tall poppies to reach their full potential without experiencing toxicity from their peers. High achievers might thrive if they were assigned to special projects. Having tall poppies mentor other employees is another good way to facilitate positive relationships within an organization, and might motivate low performers to grow a little taller as well.
Last, if you ever feel yourself being spiteful toward a high achiever, take a moment to reflect. Tall poppies are tall poppies because they’re hard working and focused on their career path. Perhaps, rather than belittling them, it would be more productive, and ultimately more self-fulfilling, to learn from them and emulate their qualities.
It’s essential that current and next generations of thinkers, employees, managers, teachers, parents and leaders model and insist on learning and imitating the successful habits of tall poppies. Don’t chop down the tall poppies, nourish and reinforce them so that everyone can grow to the same height. Be the best version of you.
If you like this article, check out some of our other ones: You’re Not What You Do: Identity Dependence in the Workplace and Rediscovering Purpose in Your Work.