Get New Ideas by Email. Join 3k+ Readers.

Tall Poppy Syndrome in the Workplace and the Laws of Power

Envy, the Greek philosopher Plutarch knew, was the only disorder of the soul that no one confessed to. There are two sides to this feeling of resentfulness towards the successful or the lucky. The reaction of envious people and how those who are being envied handle them. Both play a role in Tall Poppy Syndrome, a condition common in Australia and New Zealand. Let’s explore what it is, where it comes from and, most importantly, how to overcome it by observing the laws of human nature and power in the workplace.

What Is Tall Poppy Syndrome?

Tall Poppy Syndrome is a social phenomenon that occurs when someone’s success causes them to be envied, resented, criticized or discredited. In other words, if you grow too tall of a metaphorical flower, you are to be cut down. The condition appears to affect mainly Australian and New Zealand citizens. Though, permanent residents seem to be in the risk group, too. Tall Poppy Syndrome can be triggered by any notable success such as achievements in sports, accumulation of wealth, reaching celebrity status or a mere promotion at work.

The idea of cutting down poppies goes back to ancient Greece and Rome. Here it started off as a figurative instruction to deal with those who had become too powerful. This idea seems to have fallen on particularly fertile ground in Australia. It’s recorded that a single book, Susan Mitchell’s 1984 Tall Poppies, popularised the syndrome in Australia to the point where it became a cultural phenomenon. Today, Tall Poppy Syndrome is arguably as Australian as the Sydney Opera House, kangaroos and Tim Tams.

Tall Poppy Syndrome in Australia

Anyone spending any meaningful amount of time Down Under will eventually come in contact with Tall Poppy Syndrome. Usually, by means of an Australian who name-drops the term like a drop bear whenever someone smells like success, which is kind of how the disease seems to be transmitted. Once injected with a decent amount of paranoia, anyone can spot it, though.

An Australian Legend

I noticed how Australian I had become while strolling down Melbourne Park. This is where The Tennis, that is The Australian Open is held. Beneath Rod Laver Arena towers the statue of an Aussie tennis legend, Rod Laver himself. The plaque of the monument lists an unfathomable number of titles and achievements, the likes of which the world had never seen. It concludes: Belying his mighty achievements, Laver remains an unassuming champion, an inspiration to his fellow Australians and a national treasure.

Tall Poppy Syndrome
Rod Laver AC MBE

Perusing these carefully engraved words made me feel unsettled yet strangely comforted. As if someone had injected me with a virus and the antidote at the same time. I became highly suspicious of Rodney George Laver AC MBE’s grandeur while feeling consoled by the Rocket’s stubborn unassumingness. My fever dropped. I was reassured that Rod was a decent bloke, a magnificent poppy albeit of average height. For now.

Mateship & Egalitarianism

Humility and unassumingness seem to be obligatory insurance against Tall Poppy Syndrome for ambitious Australians. It’s hard to say what made us so susceptible to the ancient phenomenon. It may be the strong egalitarian tradition and values of our nation. While the United States holds up the ideals of liberty and the American Dream, Australia advocates the much more low-key ethos of mateship and the view that everyone should get a fair go.

Not only do we all deserve the same opportunities and help each other in the spirit of mateship. Australian egalitarianism is also subtly reflected in small details of everyday life. After all, this is a country where you can call a police officer mate without being tackled to the ground. It’s a nation in which your own Prime Minister will humbly oblige if you ask him to please get off your freshly reseeded lawn while he’s holding a press conference in front of your house.

The Dynamics of Tall Poppy Syndrome

But what are the dynamics behind Tall Poppy Syndrome? In a pessimistic scenario, Tall Poppy Syndrome works as a form of compelled self-deprecation, a societal pressure policing arrogance. It may function as a way of forced mediocrity. Or at least being forced to pretend to be average. As a result, people may be reluctant to strive for greatness or spend an awful amount of energy on downplaying and hiding their successes.

In an optimistic scenario, Tall Poppy Syndrome could be seen as a way to preserve the trademark Aussie laid-backness in the face of inevitable progress and inequality of outcomes. It would function as a gentle tongue-in-cheek reminder not to fly too high if you made the most out of your fair go. In effect, it wouldn’t keep Aussies from striving for greatness but encourage them not to lose touch with society at large.

It’s probably a bit of both: A promotion of decency by way of discrediting others relative to one’s own success. Unsurprisingly, this dynamic also plays out in the workplace.

Tall Poppy Syndrome in the Workplace

Tall Poppy Syndrome isn’t limited to celebrity high-achievers and society at large. More recently, Human Resource Departments have identified Tall Poppy Syndrome as a serious workplace issue. TPS, recruiters fear, puts productivity in jeopardy and destroys office morale. Whenever HR latches onto something, gives it an acronym and declares your national pet peeve a workplace issue, you know it must be serious.

Meanwhile, somewhere else in the country, the Australian Institute of Policy and Science has long taken a rather tongue-in-cheek approach. For around two decades, they’ve been recognising up-and-coming scientists with their annual Young Tall Poppy Science Awards. Here, the courageous underlying message is: Congratulations! You’ve achieved a target. Now turn around so we can put it on your back.

As far as I can tell, this mindset is part of a wider defiant counter-culture in Australian workplaces. A counter-movement of the successful and unsuccessful alike. The boss didn’t promote you? Tall Poppy Syndrome. People look at you funny after your promotion? Tall Poppy Syndrome. It looks like the cultural phenomenon has also become a convenient shorthand explanation for personal setbacks. So how do you shield yourself from this societal illness?

How to Evade the Envious

One thing seems clear. Complaining is a futile long-term strategy. A better one is to understand how Tall Poppy Syndrome fits into an elaborate game of power baked into human nature. According to Robert Greene, the author of The 48 Laws of Power, we all play those games. No matter how virtuous or egalitarian people deem themselves. Because ultimately, power games are about the art of deception and indirection.

The nature of power games particularly shines through when it comes to envy; the disorder of the soul we have such a hard time confessing to. As Greene points out, the success of others makes us feel inferior. Our inflated sense of self is confronted with a cold hard truth. Admitting envy would be tantamount to an admittance of inferiority. As a result, those feeling the poisonous emotion in the face of your success will hide it. But nevertheless work against you. The goal, therefore, is to defuse the envy of those we are surpassing. Two of Greene’s laws seem relevant here.

1. Don’t Outshine the Master

Nicolas Fouquet, we could argue, was an early victim of Tall Poppy Syndrome in the workplace. The finance minister under the legendary monarch Louis XIV wanted to celebrate the Sun King by throwing a lavish party in his honour. It was a party as extraordinary and pompous as it was successful. Unfortunately, he inadvertently provoked envy in Louis. There were other factors. But the party’s grandeur broke the camel’s back. The monarch and his ego cut Fouquet down by way of throwing the minister into prison for the rest of his life.

Fouquet made the mistake of outshining his master. To avoid falling into the same trap, Greene recommends: “Always make those above you feel comfortably superior in your desire to please and impress them, do not go too far in displaying your talents or you might accomplish the opposite — inspire fear and insecurity.” This is not to say we should give up on excellence. Instead, we must work to avoid triggering insecurities in others. And the best strategy to accomplish that is by remaining strategically humble and attributing our successes to our superiors.

2. Never Appear Too Perfect

There’s a related power law that applies on a societal level outside of hierarchical organisations: “Appearing better than others is always dangerous, but most dangerous of all is to appear to have no faults or weaknesses. Envy creates silent enemies. It is smart to occasionally display defects, and admit to harmless vices, in order to deflect envy and appear more human and approachable.” In other words, perfection causes suspicion, which is why we should embrace our faults and weaknesses.

The challenge with not appearing too perfect is that “it takes great talent to conceal one’s talent or skill.” François Duc de La Rochefoucauld, yet another 17th-century Frenchman, knew how difficult it was to craft a humble persona secretly cursed with knowledge and skill. This is why Greene suggests always accepting power with reluctance, framing it as a burden rather than a pleasure, learning how to downplay your achievements and overall conducting yourself unpretentiously and with modesty.

Just like Rod Laver, the likable bloke from Rockhampton who still outshines Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as the only individual who ever won four tennis Gand Slams in a single calendar year.

Closing Thoughts

Australia somehow managed to give Tall Poppy Syndrome a special place in its national psyche. However, envy, resentment, hubris and arrogance are obviously universal human vices. If not to others, we should at least confess having such emotions to ourselves.

It’s a constant in life to be perpetually surpassed by others. Most likely more times than we come out on top. So the solution cannot be to let resentment consume us. Instead, we should use these explosive emotions as rocket fuel, to propel us to great new heights.