Women of Influence+, a leading global organisation committed to advancing gender equity in the workplace, today released its groundbreaking findings from “The Tallest Poppy 2023” study. The first international research project of its kind, “The Tallest Poppy” uncovers the consequences of the tall poppy syndrome and the impact it has on women in the workplace worldwide. The tall poppy syndrome occurs when people are attacked, resented, disliked, criticised, or cut down because of their achievements and/or success.
According to the study’s findings, 86.8% of respondents experienced this phenomenon at work. The study heard from thousands of working women from all demographics and professions in 103 countries to determine how their mental health, well-being, engagement, and performance are affected by interactions with their clients, colleagues, and leaders surrounding their success and accomplishments. “The Tallest Poppy” reveals that successful women are being bullied and belittled, challenged on their successes, and made to feel as though it’s not their place to take up so much space.
“Our data tells an eye-opening story about how tall poppy syndrome negatively impacts ambitious, high-performing women, and what this means for organisations,” said Dr Rumeet Billan, the CEO of Women of Influence+ and author of the study. “When reading through stories about personal experiences from respondents, we noted a recurring theme: those who had, or are, experiencing tall poppy syndrome did not know these phenomena had a name. Not only does our data reveal the negative effects of being cut down because of one’s achievements, but it also helps us understand how the cutting is being done, who is most likely to do the cutting, and most importantly, legitimises the experiences of women who, in many cases, have experienced this throughout their careers.”
Cutting down tall poppies: Who is holding the shears?
“According to initial feedback and comments from respondents about the tall poppy syndrome, many believe that women are most likely to cut down other women because of their success and ambitions, our data tells a different story,” said Dr Billan.
The “Tallest Poppy” study found that men in leadership positions were more likely to penalise or undermine women due to their success. Women, on the other hand, were more likely to cut down on peers or colleagues.
The act of “cutting” someone down because of their achievements or success manifests in the workplace in a number of different ways. Any or all of these actions are a form of “cutting” and contribute to Tall Poppy Syndrome:
- 77% of respondents had their achievements downplayed
- 72.4% of respondents were left out of meetings and discussions or were ignored
- 70.7% said they were undermined because of their achievement(s)
- 68.3% had their achievement(s) dismissed
- 66.1% said others took credit for their work
Additional ways people experience Tall Poppy Syndrome include: belittling, being silenced, disparaging comments, and microaggressions.
The impact of the tall poppy syndrome
Experiencing tall poppy syndrome is detrimental to a woman’s self-confidence and well-being. Of the respondents surveyed:
- 85.6% indicated that their stress had increased because of the tall poppy syndrome.
- 73.8% indicated it had a negative impact on their mental health.
- 66.2% cited lower self-confidence.
Other effects include feelings of isolation and burnout and the lack of desire to share or celebrate one’s success or accomplishments.
This phenomenon has a direct impact on productivity and, if not dealt with, can damage an organisation’s culture. According to the study, top talent will burn out, check out, and ultimately leave.
“Organisations often talk about the ‘war for top talent,’ when instead, there should be a focus on retaining top talent,” said Dr Billan. “As a result of Tall Poppy Syndrome, high-performers are minimising their skills and accomplishments, 60.5 per cent of those who responded to our survey believe they will be penalised if they are perceived as ambitious at work. When ambitious workers find themselves in an environment where excelling is penalised, their productivity will be impacted, and they will have one foot out the door. This not only negatively impacts the individual, but the organisation as well.”
- 67.8% of respondents looked for a new role/job and 50 per cent left their previous role/job.
- 75% agreed that experiencing tall poppy syndrome at work impacted their productivity.
- 77.5% said their experience with tall poppy syndrome created a culture of distrust.
When the goal is productivity and the impact is the bottom line, understandably, no organisation would want to allow tall poppy syndrome to continue in their place of work.
What can organisations do to counter tall poppy syndrome?
Who better to look to for the solution, than those experiencing the impacts of tall poppy syndrome first-hand? When given the opportunity to weigh in about how organisations should be handling this, a few respondents threw their hands up in frustration and resignation.
“I really don’t know,” one said. “I wish I knew.” Others added: “I honestly have no idea,” “I wish I had an answer for you.”
But, many others offered up well-thought-out solutions. The responses came in loud and clear. Women are calling for change and accountability.
- Raise awareness – this phenomenon has a name: tall poppy syndrome. Organisations must listen when someone comes forward with a report of being cut down or diminished in the workplace. “Listen to your employees,” said one respondent. “Name it. Talk about it. Share how it’s unacceptable and why. What it does to people, teams, and the organisation’s success and culture,” said another.
- Hold people accountable. Paying lip service to reports of the tall poppy syndrome is a disservice to organisations’ top talent. Action should be real and impactful. “Stop talking and take action,” said a respondent. “Hold people accountable for their actions,” said another. “Recognise it. Recognise that women are treated differently when successful.”
- Set a standard of transparency. Whether that means being transparent when it comes to salaries, opportunities for promotions and advancement, or ensuring all employees are held to equal and equitable standards, transparency will do much to remedy the tall poppy syndrome in the workplace. “Create a culture of trust and transparency,” said one respondent.
- Adopt zero tolerance. No employee should be made to feel less than others because they are working hard. In some cases, respondents shared that they were told their accomplishments were making others “look bad.” Success is not something to be blamed and shamed for. It is not something that should be downplayed, ignored, or attacked. “Don’t look the other way,” said one respondent. “Acknowledge it happens, create a clear understanding of what it is and how to identify it, and create a culture of zero tolerance.” This can aid in creating and fostering a culture of trust and belonging.
- Invest in training for all employees and celebrate wins. “Spend more time and money investing in women’s training programmes, retention programmes, and sponsorship (not just mentorship),” said one respondent. Respondents suggested emotional intelligence, communication, bias awareness, and psychological safety as topics that training should focus on. Make a practice of celebrating wins, recognising, and acknowledging people the way they want to be acknowledged, and creating a culture where it’s safe and encouraged to succeed. “Normalise promoting qualified women into positions of power.” And, as one respondent said: “support women”.
The “Tallest Poppy” study demonstrates that Tall Poppy Syndrome is an issue impacting women in the workplace across countries, organisations, industries, and sectors. No organisation or individual is completely immune to it. During a time when women are burned out, stressed out, and fed up, organisations can no longer afford to drag their feet or turn the other way.