Supportive cultures encourage the growth of ‘tall poppies’.

 Oct 24, 2018 9:15 AM

It seems unbelievable that workplaces today are still dealing with the age-old topic of jealousy, despite efforts to be inclusive. Recent Tallest Poppy research, which focused on women, found that more than 40% of 1,500 survey respondents witnessed co-workers being attacked or 'cut down'. Behaviours by perpetrators (equally split between women and men) included dismissals of achievement, cyber-bullying, taking credit for others' work, leaving out or ignoring successful coworkers, or downplaying achievements.

If you Google 'Tallest Poppy' syndrome, you'll find it comes from ancient legends with symbolism related to 'cutting down' people who were challenging to the success of others. Some of these metaphors include: in the days of Aristotle, leveling a corn-field by plucking off the ears that stood out above the rest; in the 7th century BC, rulers pre-empting challenges to their rule by 'cutting off all of the best and tallest ears of wheat'; and in the 1700s, 'striking off the heads of tall poppies' to stop their growth.

In the workplace, the tall poppy syndrome is the desire to pull down or down-play a high-performing, successful colleague. It could be that this scenario is closer to home than you think. There may be signs that your organization has a culture where the 'tall poppies' are afraid of coming across as 'smarter' than their bosses, feel bullied by peers, or are disengaged because they are not given opportunities to excel. Reflect for a moment on the culture of your workplace and ask yourself:

1: Does the culture feel collaborative or competitive?

2: Are 'stand-out' employees recognized or are their achievements downplayed?

3: Do employees speak positively about their co-workers or does 'water cooler' talk revolve around criticizing and cutting down others?

4: Do high-potential employees see a path for their careers or have high performers (the ones who are hard to replace) exited your organization because they weren't given opportunities to flourish and grow?

Last month, our blog focused on Red-flag behaviours that contribute to a toxic culture. And behaviours such as devaluing the contribution of others was #1 on our list. This may sound 'corny', but to go along with the ancient garden metaphor, building a culture where everyone is valued is about cultivating and ensuring the growth of your entire 'garden', from short marigolds to tall poppies!

At the Centre for Character Leadership, we help organizations build Character Cultures and Character Values where:

  • No one feels lessened because someone else succeeds;
  • People provide generous positive feedback and tell others how their work is valued;
  • Everyone contributes to an enjoyable workplace where they feel safe, engaged, and valued;
  • Everyone celebrates the progress and success of others; and
  • People work together to achieve goals.

Would you like help in building a culture where people celebrate others' success rather than cut others down? There are many ways to get started in building a character culture, and the solutions will vary depending on your current culture. For example, if you have had high performers move on to careers in other organizations, a good place to start may be to conduct exit interviews to find out why your 'tall poppies' left.

If you suspect that there is an issue in your organization, contact me and we'll get started in diagnosing the situation and then building an action plan. The end result should be a safe and supportive environment where all employees feel valued and want to build long-term careers.


Kathleen Redmond, MA, MCC

Kathleen Redmond

Kathleen Redmond is the Founder of the Centre for Character Leadership. She is certified Master Certified Coach (International Coach Federation), an author and Adjunct Professor of the University of Guelph’s MA Leadership Program.


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