Tall Poppy Syndrome: The Problem of Being a High Achiever at Work

Sometimes, the one who shines the brightest and has the most talent in a work environment is seen as a threat, both to the rest of the colleagues and to the management itself. High exposure or tall poppy syndrome also has serious psychological effects.
Tall Poppy Syndrome: The Problem of Being a High Achiever at Work
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Tall poppy syndrome suggests that when one flower is taller and more beautiful than the others, it’s seen as something that damages the harmony and balance of the rest of the field. Therefore, the solution is to cut it down. This frequently occurs in work settings. It’s known as the problem of being a high achiever.

It’s curious how society instills in us such clearly contradictory ideas. On the one hand, you’re driven toward excellence, to develop all your human potential. Indeed, from a really young age, you learn that it’s positive to develop skills. Furthermore, you’re led to believe that those who are brighter should hold higher positions.

However, the reality is a little grayer, more ironic, and much crueler. Because often, the one who sticks out is like a nail, the one that gets hit by a hammer to put it back in place. Likewise, the competitiveness of the business environment means that the brightest and the most skilled are frequently viewed as a threat.

As a matter of fact, a high achiever tends to generate distrust in others. In addition, they arouse feelings of discomfort due to their abilities and skills. They can even pose a risk to the organization itself. Because, suddenly, their colleagues find themselves faced with someone who’s brought a breath of fresh air into an establishment that, far from advocating innovation, prefers to continue with traditional established patterns.

These are complex situations that many men and women experience on a daily basis.

Workers talking about high exposure syndrome at work

The problem of the high achiever

The tall poppy syndrome consists of the feeling of rejection and hostility experienced by someone with high skills and talent in a work environment.

Often being good or ‘too good’ in certain contexts causes these people to choose to keep a low profile. In other words, to minimize their achievements in order to blend in with others and avoid conflict.

This is clearly a problematic and demeaning phenomenon. However, it occurs extremely frequently. In fact, it’s really common for co-workers or middle managers to directly criticize or execute subtle strategies to boycott the high achiever’s work. Furthermore, they might spread rumors, undervalue, and even undermine them.

The desire to cut down the tallest poppy in the field hides a series of psychological dimensions. These are well worth knowing about.

Envy, distrust, and fear of change

Tall poppy syndrome at work highlights the undeniable fact that our society still doesn’t know how to take advantage of human capital and talent. As a matter of fact, many organizations adopt the attitude of ensuring that nothing changes.

In many cases, this policy of protectionism means cutting down more than one poppy. It relegates the talented workers to the corners of oblivion because their ideas and talents are viewed as little more than a threat.

In addition to the fear of change, work colleagues are often envious. Indeed, the fact of having someone who’s more brilliant, productive, with great charisma and personal impact, causes them discomfort and friction.

  • When a taller poppy appears, there are only two options. The rest of the poppies must either grow at the same level or its sought to cut down the one that stands out the most. Generally, the latter option is chosen.
  • Those who suffer the most from occupational exposure syndrome are women. Studies such as the one conducted by McMaster University (Canada) highlight this fact.

It seems that when women opt for high positions in a company in light of their values and skills, multiple obstacles often arise. These tend to trip them up before they’re even able to apply for that desired promotion.

Woman climbing stairs to represent the attempt to reduce high exposure syndrome at work

The serious consequences of the tall poppy syndrome

Whoever renounces their talent renounces themselves. To understand this, put yourself for a moment in the place of someone suffering from tall poppy syndrome. You choose to keep a low profile as a survival mechanism. However, this is a way of destroying your self-esteem.

On the other hand, if you dare to take a step forward and allow yourself to shine, this could be risky. Because your environment may quickly turn off your light for the simple fact that you had the audacity to show your talent. It’s easy to see how this syndrome can result in anxiety disorder and depression.

Studies such as those conducted by Dr. Norman Feather of the Australian Psychological Society demonstrate that tall poppy syndrome occurs in most companies, reducing their productivity by up to 20 percent. Indeed, to this day, the attitude toward those who have talent or who propose changes that represent progress, unfortunately, continues to be negative.

This dynamic does nothing but curtail progress and increase feelings of discomfort in any organization. It’s worth bearing in mind the message that the writer Elbert Hubbard left us, “It’s a fine thing to have ability, but the ability to discover ability in others is a true test”.

It’s well worth thinking about.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.