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Tall Poppy Syndrome

Tall Poppy Syndrome Tall Poppy Syndrome is a term most familiar in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, but to one degree or another, the spirit is found among many cultures and most people will recognize the effect even if unfamiliar with the term. Although there are many interpretations, the most common understanding of Tall Poppy Syndromerefers to a phenomenon that directs criticism, personal attack and/or resentment against anyone who appears to elevate themselves through honest merit or achievement. Collins English Dictionary defines it as a tendency to disparage any person who has achieved great prominence or wealth.From a leadership perspective, it’s important to recognize and counteract Tall Poppy Syndrome when it is suspected or evident because the effect, left unchecked, can poison team dynamics, morale and culture. Imagine an organization of fifteen individual teams that all report to one leader. Among those teams there is Team A, led by Jessica, that consistently achieves its goals, delivers its tasks and accomplishes its objectives. The other fourteen teams are simply unable to match the success of Team A. What begins as envy quickly turns to jealousy then moves to resentment and soon takes the form of destructive action. The other teams create the impression of valid criticism against Team A and Jessica in order to gain support among each other, justifying their efforts to cut Team A down to size. Groupthink leads to the conclusion that Team A really isn’t performing better than everyone else, that Jessica isn’t a good team lead or that they simply have a much easier time of it. Rumor becomes accepted as fact and the members of Team A, feeling the negativity, decide to limit their achievements rather than bear the collective hostility, making Jessica’s job all the more difficult. The result is lowered morale and productivity for the entire organization. When tall poppying is directed at an individual the results can take on a form of bullying. Interestingly, a kindergarten teacher may spot this type of behavior against a star student right away and take the appropriate action to stop it. It’s a teaching moment because five-year-olds don’t know any better. In too many corporations, however, poppying is permitted to take root and become part of the culture. Ineffective leaders fail to recognize the pattern and watch the slow motion self-destruction of their group, all the while moving pieces around the board in search of the elusive magic bullet that will turn the organization into a highly effective team.
Combating the Tall Poppy Syndrome takes awareness, professional courage and confidence. If you consider yourself a leader in the organization, remain on the lookout for the behaviors that suggest poppying is occurring within your domain or team. Ask the question: is one group or individual the subject of broad or increased criticism or scrutiny? If so, protect your entire team through deliberate action that squashes the behavior linked with Tall Poppy Syndrome. Don’t immediately react to rumor or unsubstantiated accusation Request more information when necessary, especially from the targeted team or individualEnsure uniform assessment of the parties and procedures linked to the criticism or scrutiny Evaluate options only after all information is available Check all the facts: separate rumor, speculation and circumstances Put yourself in the place of each team or individual to see things as they do Communicate to your team members or team leads that the organization wins together or fails together; it is not a zero sum game. As someone affected by tall poppying take steps to limit the criticism or scrutiny coming your way by paying attention to your own behavior and modifying your actions in hope of avoiding invitation of the disparagements that come with your consistent achievement and wins. Don’t brag or celebrate your wins in ostentatious fashion Don’t deliberately try to outshine anyone Don’t invite or support comparison to other teams and their achievements, or lack there of Offer to help others and remain genuine in doing so Remain open to constructive criticism and modification of your process / procedures that might allow others to become more effective Avoid excitement when you win; there is a philosophy that states achievement on behalf of others brings humility while achievement on behalf of yourself brings excitement. Gain understanding with your boss on how you can best contribute to the entire organization’s success Everyone has a part to play in the efforts to limit, even remove, the notion of Tall Poppy Syndrome from their organization in order to maximize the potential of the talent and drive success for the entire company.

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