Tall poppy in field

Getting cut down for standing tall

How tall poppy syndrome influences morale and productivity in the workplace

Written by Professor Gary Martin FAIM
3 minute read
Tall poppy in field

In most workplaces, we prefer an understated Ugo or a low-profile Leanne to an overachieving Oliver.

When an employee is recognised for their outstanding performance, achievement of goals or promotion to a new position, their success is often cause for criticism rather than celebration by colleagues.

The phenomenon of “cutting down” those who might show them up is referred to as tall poppy syndrome (TPS) and can damage a high-performing employee’s morale.

TPS is based on the analogy of taller poppies being cut down to the same height as the other plants in a field to ensure a level growing performance.

Tall poppies represent those workers who rise above their colleagues in terms of their performance. Cutting down the flowers symbolises those high performers being hacked back to the same level as others through personal attacks, resentment and criticism so that they no longer stand out.

Poppy cutters, or disgruntled colleagues, sharpen their shears and strike by making use of one or more rudimentary “pruning methods” to achieve their goals.

This includes making adverse or derogatory comments about their target, sabotaging their work and suggesting their success might be attributable to reasons other than merit.

A person who falls victim to TPS might hesitate to share ideas, drops their performance levels for fear of being shamed, downplays their achievements and shies away from any recognition or celebration of their accomplishments.

The ripple effect in an organisation

When several high performers in a workplace are touched by TPS, the output and performance of an organisation can be impacted negatively.

Perhaps worse, the presence of TPS in the workplace can ripple across all employees in an organisation to create a culture of mediocracy that limits innovation and creativity and leads to a lack of growth and development.

Interestingly, while many link TPS exclusively with an Australian culture that values the underdog and battler, the phenomenon appears in cultures right around the world.

The Japanese say either that “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down” or there is a need to “mow the lawn”.

In England, they talk about “beheading the tall poppies”.

The French refer to “cutting the heads that stick out” while in Germany it is all about a “culture of envy”.

The Portuguese explain that it is about “cutting the wings of the best”.

TPS is in large part driven by others’ sense of insecurity. People who are not high achievers or less successful can feel threatened by others’ accomplishments.

And it will not come as a surprise that women are more likely to experience TPS than men – particularly those who are highly successful in traditionally male-dominated fields.

Those targeted for their achievements in the workplace are advised to avoid taking the comments or behaviours of jealous or resentful colleagues personally. Identifying those actions as TPS will help to make understanding their predicament somewhat easier to work through.

As for those in charge of our workplaces, reassuring employees that others’ accomplishments are not a threat is an important approach to preventing TPS from occurring in the first place.