“. . . the tall poppy syndrome, where the successful are cut down to the same size as everyone else, quick smart. You’re not supposed to stand out for intelligence, achievement, or, worst of all, wealth.”
— Peter Hartcher You may be wondering what poppies have to do with the workplace. It’s a reasonable question. The allegory behind tall poppy syndrome goes back centuries, but the emotions
of envy and resentment toward strong performers—and the desire to “cut them down to size”—are timeless. So is the reality—evidence indicates that individuals whose performance and status rise above the rest (the tall poppies) sometimes find their careers are decapitated by jealous coworkers (the shorter poppies) who undermine their efforts. Tall poppies are more likely to be victimized by
group members, and group members are often pleased if a tall poppy is “brought down” by outsiders.
Tall poppy syndrome seems to be motivated by the observer’s personality traits, emotions, and perception of justice. When individuals believe the high achiever is undeserving of his or her status, or conversely when individuals believe they deserve a higher status than they’ve been given (called relative deprivation), resentment and envy are heightened. The degree of the tall poppy syndrome
also seems to relate to the traits of the people who judge their coworkers. People who have lower self-esteem and who do not value power and achievement tend to think high performers are undeserving and should fall. Finally, the general likability of the achiever seems to influence the emotions of observers. If achievers are popular, part of the in-group, work hard, and exhibit high moral character, observers are less likely to feel resentful and wish them ill. The tall poppy syndrome may be universal, but there are cultural differences. Research has shown that in collectivistic societies like Japan, students in a study were more inclined to cut down a high performer because they resented distinguishing one person more than the rest of the group. In contrast, students from the individualistic United States were more likely to reward high achievers than Australian students because the Americans did not feel the same degree of envy. To the extent that it cuts down those with legitimate achievements, there is nothing good about tall poppy syndrome when high performers are victimized and work performance is limited to a common denominator. Both the high performer and the organization can employ some countermeasures aimed at lessening the emotional reactions of observers. For one, high performers can demonstrate humbleness and humility. This may allow them
to boost the performance of coworkers, who then no longer feel resentful of their success. Second, managers can increase work group identity for the coworkers, so they see the success of one individual as the success of the group, rather than as an injustice.
4-17. Have you observed tall poppy syndrome in your workplace or school? Which traits seemed to
bother the observers the most?
4-18. In what specific ways do you think high performers can mitigate feelings of envy and resentment? Give examples.
4-19. In what ways do you think managers can foster a group attitude toward success?
Sources: P. Hartcher, “Voters Now at Ease with Rich Pickings,” The Sydney Morning Herald (July 30, 2013), http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/federal-election-2013/voters-now-at-ease-with-richpickings-20130729-2quvp.html; N. T. Feather, “Analyzing Relative Deprivation in Relation to
Deservingness, Entitlement and Resentment,” Social Justice Research 28 (2015): 7–26; E. Kim and
T. M. Glomb, “Victimization of High Performers: The Roles of Envy and Work Group Identification,” Journal of Applied Psychology 99, no. 4 (2014): 619–34; and K. Van Valkenburgh, Investigating
Tall Poppy Syndrome in United States Financial Institutions: An Attitude and Values Perspective, doctoral dissertation, Alliant International University (2013), publication number 3595388.
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Go to mymanagementlab.com for the following Assisted-graded writing questions:
4-20. In relation to the Ethical Dilemma, in what scenarios would you agree to have your emotions read and interpreted by your organization?
4-21. Concerning Case Incident 2, have you ever been a tall poppy? If so, what reactions from others did you get, and were there consequences for you? If not, why not?
4-22. MyManagementLab Only – comprehensive writing assignment for this chapter.