When tall poppy syndrome is left to manifest in the workplace, it can have an adverse effect on an organization’s culture and lead to issues with employee mental health and productivity, said Rumeet Billan, a leadership, emotional resilience and mental-health expert, during the keynote session at Benefits Canada‘s 2023 Healthy Outcomes Conference in October.
She cautioned that tall poppy syndrome — when the morale of women in the workplace is cut down due to their ambition, success and achievements — can lead to organizations losing high performers. “We often talk about the war for top talent and I challenge that: It’s not the war for top talent, it’s retaining top talent.”
A recent global study she conducted with Women of Influence found female respondents experienced an increase in stress due to being ostracized, resented and attacked for their successes and achievements, leading to a negative impact on their mental health and self-confidence. Indeed, three-quarters (75 per cent) said they agreed or strongly agreed that tall poppy syndrome had an impact on their productivity, 68 per cent said they were seeking a new job or role and 50 per cent left their job or role.
Though the study focused on women in the workplace, Billan said it can happen to anyone — and the people doing the cutting aren’t often aware they’re exhibiting microaggressions. “Your intention might be in the best place possible. You really aren’t trying to hurt someone or be offensive, . . . but the impact is offensive. I may have really wanted to congratulate you, [but saying], ‘Congratulations, . . . they were looking for a woman for the role,’ [is] offensive.”
Tall poppy syndrome can lead to a culture of fear, she said, noting without psychological safety in the workplace, it can be difficult to build a culture of belonging or trust and can lead to employees working in silos. “We don’t communicate because if I feel as though you’re going to do harm to me or my career, I’m going to avoid you at all costs. We can’t talk about belonging without also talking about trust and how we earn it.”
Employers can put a stop to tall poppy syndrome by raising awareness of this type of toxic workplace culture, which starts with naming the behaviour and adopting a zero-tolerance policy, said Billan. That way, when employees, including senior management, see it happening, they can hold people accountable regardless of their positions.
It’s also important for employers to develop policies and clearly articulate them and the consequences, she added. To establish a culture of trust, companies need to hold everyone accountable. She also suggested employers make processes for advancement in the company transparent and invest in emotional training for leaders. Hybrid working has changed communication, so she highlighted the value in training around communication, bias and psychological safety.
“[Change] starts with every single one of us . . . because we choose how we . . . act, react and interact when someone achieves something.”
Read more coverage of the 2023 Healthy Outcomes Conference.