Tall poppies quick to be cut down, leading to low workplace morale
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Tall poppies quick to be cut down, leading to low workplace morale

by Freya Lucas

June 03, 2019

The phrase ‘tall poppy syndrome’ is ubiquitous in Australian language. It references the idea that poppies should all grow together, at the same height and speed, and if one becomes taller than the others, it will be cut down to size, to maintain the whole crop, and ensure a uniform field when viewed from the outside. When applied to people, the term ‘tall poppy syndrome’ refers to the practice of “cutting down” those experiencing success, by speaking badly of them, sabotaging their work, or implying that there is a reason other than merit for their success.


A recent study led by Dr Rumeet Billan in partnership with Thomson Reuters and Women of Influence has explored tall poppy syndrome and its impact on Canadian women in the workplace, with results which are applicable to Australia, particularly in the female dominated early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector.


Of the 1,501 respondents from a variety of industries, organisations, and sectors, the research found that over 87 per cent of women indicated that their achievements at work were undermined by colleagues or superiors, with more than 81 per cent saying they had  experienced hostility or been penalised because of their success. Many of those surveyed agreed that their workplace has become toxic due to the behaviour of poppy cutters.


Those responding to the survey also rated  a high level of distrust when it came to their coworkers, with nearly 70 per cent reporting a lack of trust, and nearly 60 per cent feeling disengaged from their work as a result of ‘poppy cutting’ behaviour.


For employers, the impacts of such behaviour are a decline in productivity, with nearly 70 per cent of respondents reporting that being cut down at work negatively affected their productivity. Respondents reported that experiencing tall poppy syndrome led to withdrawal, mental breakdowns, self-doubt, fear of favouritism, depression, insomnia, anxiety and overeating, among other effects.


Speaking about the effects, one respondent said “There is an unspoken rule that superiors, management and senior management know what they’re doing and they’re more knowledgeable/accomplished.


“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.”


Tall poppy syndrome affects all levels of an organisation, the survey found, with respondents identifying that they often felt that managers didn’t acknowledge or reward their accomplishments, but also noting that many were afraid of the reaction their success would elicit from co-workers, were it to be rewarded.


One respondent shared the story of how a promotion, awarded on merit, was misconstrued by the remainder of the team: “My promotion was announced in a team meeting. My peers (who worked at the organisation longer than me) made ‘jokes’ about my promotion in public settings. The impact was me not wanting to raise accomplishments or opportunities with my peers for fear of upsetting them further.”


Speaking with Human Resources Director, Laura K. Williams, the principal at Williams HR Law Professional Corporation said “Condoning tall poppy syndrome misconduct can create a poisoned work environment, which results when harassment and discrimination becomes normalised within the workplace due to the employer’s failure to address and correct unacceptable conduct.”


Those employees who are new to a team, or particular profession, are especially vulnerable, the survey found, as these employees are usually the most eager to please their colleagues or managers, leaving them vulnerable to attack from more established team members.


The authors of the research recommend that all workplaces be trained on how tall poppy syndrome manifests itself, and has a potentially destructive impact on individuals and broader workplace culture.


Ms Williams outlined that failing to address tall poppy syndrome and its effects could land a company in legal trouble. “The nature of the behaviours that are typically engaged in by individuals that cause and contribute to tall poppy syndrome in the workplace are often akin to conduct that could constitute harassment and sexual harassment…” she said to Human Resources Director.


To read the research in full, please see here. For the coverage of the research as reported by Human Resources Director, please see here.

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