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I Don't Get It: Tall Poppy Syndrome


Though I have lived in Australia my entire life —save one year I spent abroad, I did not hear about tall poppy syndrome until last year when I was reading Ashleigh Kalagian Blunt’s book, How to be Australian. I was alarmed when I learnt what it was and that it is an intricate part of Australian culture.

A tall poppy is a term used to refer to high achievers and successful people. Interestingly, tall poppy syndrome does not refer to tall poppies themselves as people who let success get to their heads but to people who ‘cut down’ tall poppies, to the people who can’t appreciate others’ achievements, big or small. The metaphor refers to the belief that poppies should grow together at the same rate, remain the same height and if one grows too tall then it should be cut down to the same size as the others. Tall poppy syndrome thus refers to those who criticise successful people because their success makes them stand out.

For Blunt, she first encountered tall poppy syndrome when she was struggling at university. She had always been a decent student and didn’t understand why she was struggling. When trying to explain this to her advisor she mentioned how she won the gold medal back in Canada and her advisor found this remark off-putting. While I believe humility is a desirable quality and don’t particularly like arrogance, I did not get this from Blunt’s remark. To me she was not bragging and I don’t understand why people shouldn’t be able to talk about their achievements.

The Tallest Poppy was a Canadian study led by Dr Rumeet Billan in partnership with Thomas Reuters and Women of Influence in 2018 into tall poppy syndrome and its effects on the workplace. The survey covered 1501 respondents across a range of industries with 87 per cent admitting they felt their accomplishments were undermined in the workplace and 81 per cent recalling that they experienced open hostility for their success.

Tall poppy syndrome in the workplace can create a toxic environment and can seriously impact employee satisfaction with their work, colleagues and themselves. The Tallest Poppy revealed that while employees often felt their accomplishments went unacknowledged, they were also afraid of acknowledgement due to how their co-workers might react. Respondents reported that when their accomplishments were acknowledged their success was devalued by their peers. This can come in many forms including pointing out flaws, criticising minor details, social exclusion, jealousy, snide remarks, jokes and downplaying achievements such as suggesting there is another reason for their success besides their own hard work.

As a result of tall poppy syndrome in the workplace, high levels of distrust can occur between employees. The victims of tall poppy syndrome have also reported feeling disengaged from their work, decline in productivity, mental breakdowns, self-doubt, fear of favouritism and depression. There is an overall loss of morale which can have an enormous impact on individuals and a company’s business success as well. Essentially, when tall poppy syndrome goes by unaddressed it is normalising harassment and discrimination.

Though this is a Canadian study, tall poppy syndrome can be seen reflected in Australians. The 2018 CGU Ambition Index reveals Australian’s negative attitude towards success. Seven out of ten Australians fear being seen as braggers when talking about their ambitions and so they prefer not to. Many Australians also don’t act on their ambition for fear of reaction if they were to make a success out of themselves. This further demonstrates the limitations tall poppy syndrome puts on ourselves, holding us back from our dreams. And tall poppy syndrome isn’t just limited to the work environment but can occur anywhere between anyone with similar effects as Blunt’s experience demonstrates.

It might be difficult to believe that this can occur if you’ve never experienced tall poppy syndrome yourself. Or maybe you haven’t noticed because it is a part of the culture you grew up in. While Australians pride themselves on their laid-back, down-to-earth attitudes, practicing tall poppy syndrome is an overkill. The more I’ve thought about it, the more concerned I have become. I’ve noticed myself that Australian’s often talk down and can be deprecating to themselves and others in everyday situations. It’s not just a case of deflating someone’s over-inflated ego but a normalised practice that has serious mental health effects on people. Repeated exposure to this, especially when someone hasn’t grown up in such an environment or even if they have and just don’t realise what it is and what it is doing, can seriously impact their sense of worth and purpose.

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