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What We Can Do About Tall Poppy Syndrome

Are you a tall poppy? Have you found success in your career or life and have stood out and been criticized because of it?

The tall poppy metaphor comes from the idea that poppy fields have some poppies that grow taller than the others. Because taller poppies are seen to be more prominent and visible, they are also more vulnerable to being cut down or attacked by those who are jealous or resentful of their success. The term "tall poppy syndrome" is more commonly used in Australia and New Zealand, however, a lot of cultures have a similar term or saying. For instance, in Japan, a similar common expression is "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down."

Perhaps we don't hear it as much here because our culture, for the most part, values individual achievement and innovation. We are less a collective and conformist culture. This doesn't mean the dynamics of tall poppy syndrome doesn't happen among friends, family, partners, and colleagues. When I got into business, there were some friends who never asked me about it. I could understand if I was in their face about it but that wasn't the case. I didn't talk about it unless asked, but that generally did not happen.

Thankfully, I knew about the phenomenon of change back. Change back occurs when you decide to make a change (usually a positive change) and others, generally unconsciously, try to change you back to who you were. Typically, they feel threatened or jealous about your change and want to maintain the status quo so they potentially don't lose you, have to become like you, or shine brighter than them. To me, tall poppy syndrome is another way to label change back.

If you are experiencing tall poppy syndrome or change back, here are some things you can do about it:

  • Labelling the phenomena is helpful because it can allow you to be more understanding and compassionate about what's happening.

  • Expect tall poppy syndrome, or change back, when you become more successful or make a positive change. Typically, I would avoid this advice about 'expecting it' because our reality can mirror our expectations, however, I'm pretty certain this dynamic/phenomena is the exception. It won't be a surprise or shock to you if you expect that to happen on your journey. It can also help you navigate any roadblocks to your achievements.

  • Re-evaluate your circle of influence and environment. You may not want to hang out with people all that often or at all who don't support you. If you're in an environment or culture at work, or somewhere else, that wants you to conform as opposed to celebrating your accomplishments then you might want to reconsider the group or job. This also goes for societal culture, in some cultures’ success is seen as a zero-sum game, where someone else's success means that there is less success available for others. If you're experiencing this, maybe it's time to move.

  • Be mindful of the way you deliver your successes. It's one thing to share and celebrate your wins, however, it's another to outright brag about it. The two have completely two different tones and intentions. Are you sharing your success because you're proud of it or because you are trying to make others feel less? Most people can distinguish the energetic difference. This said, there are some people who no matter what tone or intention you have about your successes will interpret it negatively. If this is the case, please re-read the point: Re-evaluate your circle of influence and environment.

Whether or not you are a tall poppy, it's important to be aware of these dynamics. If you have been the poppy/person to cut others down because they are too tall or shine too bright, then, hopefully by reading this, you can be more supportive. I don't see other people's success as a zero-sum game. Yes, success can be defined how the media portrays it (e.g., an affluent lifestyle), however, it can also be deeply personal and non-traditional. Whatever the case may be, I believe there is an abundance of both and, hopefully, you do too so there is not more cutting down of tall poppies.


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