"Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) is a term commonly used in Australia, referring to flowers that grow higher than others being cut down to size by the shorter flowers around them. [...] TPS is alive and well in Canadian companies, and the result is devastating to female employees" ( The Tallest Poppy, p.3).
The report from Billan and Humber (2018) reveals the costs of TPS in a Canadian context. It is a call to action for all of us to examine our unconscious biases, and our responsibility in stopping this toxic behaviour.
A breath of fresh air
I remember not so long ago when I was interviewed by a hiring committee.
The people in that room seemed to perk up when I started to speak. They were tired and had that ‘been there, done that, waiting to retire any minute now’ look. I was young and full of energy and ideas.
The thing they kept commenting on was how “refreshing” I was. I was like a “breath of fresh air,” they told me.
And I got the offer! I remember how impassioned I was about the role and how I couldn’t wait to join the team.
Very quickly, my bubble burst.
One by one, colleagues started to put me in my place.
“This place is corrupt,” one colleague chirped when she confronted me about getting the job. “You must know people,” another fumed.
Another was past the angry stage by the time she greeted me with a bitter giggle, “There’s no way you’re more qualified than I am.”
I was crushed.
And this type of behaviour continued throughout my time in that role.
It's a real thingReading this report, I felt a great sense of relief. It wasn't me! I was doing my best, and there was absolutely nothing I could do to change those toxic and damaging behaviours.
Some of the quotes from respondents mentioned in the report really struck a chord with me:
“I’m forced to choose between mental health and continuing to be a high achiever.”
“I try hard not to stand out.”
“I dismiss my own accomplishments at work.”
“It made me nervous to go to work or care about what I did.”
And this report suggests that on the whole, this issue is widespread and impacts entire organizations, not just individuals.
As the report says,
"Tall Poppy Syndrome [...] exists across Canada, in all industries and at all levels of all companies. It’s an issue that certainly affects the corporate bottom line, in terms of productivity, engagement, morale and retention. It’s an issue that destroys capital, both the psychological capital of employees and the literal capital of a company’s balance sheets" (p. 18).
How can we change it?
As the report suggests, change will require leadership at all levels, policy changes, enhanced communication, and not punishing individuals who speak up.
When I think about my own experience, I remember feeling very alone. Colleagues were too afraid to speak up, so the behaviours continued. It can't just be the tall poppies fending for themselves.
The work I do with leaders around the world is about naming problems, facing them head-on, and developing strategies for addressing them through systematic change. If leaders are willing to look at these issues honestly and with a genuine intention to change, we can start to shift toxic workplace cultures.
Get in touch
If you want to change the status-quo in your workplace, and are considering working with a coach to elevate your leadership, Schedule a consultation with me today to discuss your specific leadership challenges and how I can support you to get different results.
For more information, please visit jennwicks.com
Billan, R. & Humber, T. (2018). The Tallest Poppy: Successful women pay a high price for success. Thomson Reuters.