January 17, 2023

How to deal with tall poppy syndrome

Have you ever felt that when making an achievement in your career, the women in your workplace would downplay your success rather than celebrate it with you? It’s likely that you’ve been a victim of tall poppy syndrome - a term which has recently become more widespread when talking about women in the workplace. But why does tall poppy syndrome exist? How does it affect women in the workplace and their performance? And what can victims, perpetrators, and employers do to deal with it? Keep reading to find out about the ins and outs of tall poppy syndrome.

What is Tall poppy syndrome

Tall poppy syndrome is not so much a condition as a cultural phenomenon. What it means is that a person gets attacked, undermined and is not well liked because of their success or exceptional abilities. To put it briefly, it’s when people don’t like seeing others succeed. The triggers of Tall poppy syndrome can be all kinds of displays of success such as wealth, a job title, a powerful position in a community or even achieving fame. 

The term started appearing in popular culture after the release of Australian author Susan Mitchell’s book Tall poppies in 1984. In this book, the author interviews nine successful Australian women whose achievements have for some reason generated hostility. The idea behind the metaphor is that poppies should grow together, and if any surpass the others in height, they get cut down.

How Tall poppy syndrome affects women

In a 2018 Canadian study led by Dr. Rumeet Billan, it was found that 87% of respondents, most of whom were women, felt that their achievements were undermined by others at work. What’s even more shocking is that almost half mentioned that their own friends had cut them down. In a society where women are often pitted against each other and made to compete to succeed in male-dominated industries, tall poppy syndrome is very real.

Tall poppy syndrome in the workplace

Dr. Billan’s study also focuses on the effects of being a victim of tall poppy syndrome. When speaking of how they have been affected by it, respondents reported having lower self-esteem, downplaying their achievements (or even choosing not to share them at all), and negative self-talk. 

Tall poppy syndrome also comes at a high cost for employers. Almost 70% of the study’s respondents agreed that being cut down had negatively affected their productivity. Among other consequences were lack of trust in teams, disengagement from work, experiencing signs of imposter syndrome, or even searching for a different job.

What causes tall poppy syndrome

So why does tall poppy syndrome exist? What makes people behave this way towards strangers, coworkers, and even their own friends? According to the aforementioned study, there seem to be three top drivers which trigger this behavior: envy, sexism and gender stereotypes, and lack of self-confidence. It seems that we resort to acting this way when we’re feeling insecure or inferior to someone else, and therefore we undermine their success or downplay their achievements to make ourselves feel better. 

The second point is particularly important to realize if you’re a woman. As women still face discrimination and unequal access to opportunities in many workplaces today, we can sometimes tend to feel that because we have had to work twice as hard to achieve success, there’s not enough room for all of us to do the same, and so we have to defend our position. As a result, we’re unsupportive of other females in our workplace and even distance ourselves from them. This is known as queen bee syndrome. If you’re being undermined by another successful woman, it’s highly likely that you have encountered someone with queen bee syndrome.

How to deal with Tall poppy syndrome

When you’re the one getting cut down

Understandably, the most difficult position to be in is when you yourself are the victim of tall poppy syndrome and are being cut down by others. While it’s important to keep in mind that none of this is your fault and that you don’t in any way deserve to be punished for being successful, here are a few things you can do to make things easier for yourself.

Realize where the attacks are coming from

Don’t make excuses for the person undermining your achievements, however you can try to understand where their behavior is coming from. You may have at some point been both considered for a promotion which eventually went to you, and this person has been feeling bitter about this ever since. They may be going through a difficult time in their personal life which is negatively impacting their self-esteem. Either way, the behavior is coming from them, not you, and it’s important to keep this in mind.

Keep your supporters close

This is exactly the situation where you should reach out to your support network. Whether it’s coworkers, friends, family, or women from your professional community who have got your back, share with them openly what is happening to you and explain that you need their support. Spend time with them when you have received unfair treatment - they will reassure you of success and you’ll feel better.

Stand up for yourself

What can start with a comment here and there can eventually escalate into full-blown workplace bullying if not addressed. Of course the responsibility for solving the problem does not rest on your shoulders, nevertheless it never hurts to stand up for yourself and protecting your wellbeing. Let the colleague in question know that their comments are hurting you, and if that doesn’t help, or if it’s simply not possible, don’t hesitate to let your manager or your HR department know. You may not be the only victim of tall poppy syndrome in your company, and knowing about the problem is the first step to solving it.

When you’re the one cutting down others

Have you caught yourself making comments or having thoughts where you’re cutting down a successful colleague’s achievements? Here are a few things you can do to minimize the damage and prevent it from happening again.

Reflect on why you’re doing it

Try to dig a bit deeper. What emotion did you feel just before that comment came out of your mouth? Was there a specific event that triggered that emotion in you? Maybe another woman on your team got praised and you felt envy. Could this be because you yourself had not been praised for a while? Try to get to the bottom of it so you can better understand what’s going on next time.

Apologize to those you’ve cut down

This is a no-brainer: women must support each other, and so if your words have hurt someone, apologize to them sincerely. If you have a close enough relationship, you could even use your knowledge from the previous step to explain what made you say it. You could find that this builds a greater sense of understanding between you, and you might even come out supporting each other rather than constantly competing for praise.

Work on your self-confidence

To move on from tall poppy syndrome, it’s important that your own achievements are enough to bring you satisfaction, not putting others down. The root of the problem likely lies in your self-esteem. You may even be experiencing imposter syndrome. Focusing on your wellbeing or working with a coach to discover what you need to increase your confidence could be great solutions for you.

When you’re an employer

As was mentioned, nearly 70% of respondents in Dr. Villains study agreed that being cut down by others negatively impacted their productivity at work. From the position of an employer, you should explore if this has anything to do with the culture and atmosphere of your workplace. For instance, if you see that your female employees often speak negatively about each other and try to undermine each others’ success, it may be because they feel that women in your company don’t have the same opportunities to succeed that their male counterparts do. Therefore, tall poppy syndrome behavior appears as a result of the feeling that there’s not enough room for them at the top. The answer to this is promoting inclusive leadership.

One way to build a culture of inclusion and support a diverse set of employees in their career growth is by building a workplace mentoring program. You can choose to do this either internally as your own effort, or reach out to an external company specializing in mentoring for employees. By having individual employees each work with their personal mentor, you’re ensuring that they’re addressing their specific needs and challenges and setting themselves up for success in a way which suits them each best.

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