The Tallest Poppy: High-performing women pay a steep price for success
For women, getting ahead can sometimes come with negative consequences. A recent survey points to successful employees being attacked, criticized, and ostracized too often at work. Here’s what organizations can do when their tallest poppies are being cut down.
By Rumeet Billan and Todd Humber
Successful women are being undermined at your workplace, and it’s taking a massive toll on productivity, self-esteem, turnover, succession planning and, yes, the bottom line.
That’s the clear conclusion from an exclusive survey of more than 1,500 professionals across Canada which delved into the experiences — primarily of women — who have been attacked, resented, disliked or criticized because of their success.
The Tallest Poppy, a partnership between Thomson Reuters, Canadian HR Reporter, Viewpoint Leadership and Women of Influence, revealed the true scope of the issue of women being cut down at work.
When this research was in the planning stage, we had an inkling it was a significant problem. We didn’t have to look far to find plenty of anecdotal evidence. But what shocked us were the numbers showing the pervasiveness of the problem — nearly nine in 10 respondents (87.3 per cent) feel their achievements have been undermined by others in the workplace.
Tall Poppy Syndrome: What is it?
Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS), a term that was popularized in Australia, occurs when a person (the poppy) is cut down due to their success or recent achievement.
The poppy may be cut down by their boss, peers, colleagues, direct reports or by their family and friends. Ostracization can occur directly or indirectly and the consequences, as we have learned, have a deep impact on the individual as well as the organization.
Women versus women?
One assumption going into the study was quickly debunked by the data — the myth that women are their own worst enemies. In fact, respondents told us the person primarily responsible for cutting them down was almost as likely to be male (27.6 per cent) as female (31 per cent). About four in 10 (41.2 per cent) said the offenders were both male and female.
Where there was a difference was the role the “cutter” had within the organization. For example, men who held the title of CEO were primary offenders, and an overwhelming majority of women identified as peers and colleagues were doing the cutting.
These co-workers often engage in silent and passive ways of penalizing successful women, such as ignoring them and leaving them out of group gatherings and lunches. But the penalties could often be more severe, as women reported being either overworked or demoted and, in some cases, terminated.
Respondents were not shy in sharing how these penalties, both direct and indirect, impacted them. Almost two-thirds (64.7 per cent) indicated their self-esteem and self-confidence had been affected while 60.3 per cent found themselves downplaying or not sharing their achievements at all.
Not surprisingly, being cut down takes a serious toll on mental health. Depression, anxiety and stress were common terms that came up in the comments from respondents. As one participant noted, they felt “forced to choose between mental health and continuing to be a high achiever.”
High cost for employers
TPS not only has an impact on individuals, it also carries a high price tag for organizations. Nearly 70 per cent of respondents said it impacts their productivity.
In addition, 59.2 per cent said it leaves them disengaged from their work; and 56.6 per cent feel disengaged from their organization.
About four in 10, though, dug in their heels and said being cut down made them want to achieve more. While some may view that as a silver lining, there is a dark side: The experience of being ostracized or cut down encouraged tall poppies to look for employment elsewhere — nearly 60 per cent said experiencing TPS made them actively look for a new job.
It’s no benefit to an organization if a woman, inspired to do more, takes that inspiration and talent to a competitor out of frustration.
Perhaps most troubling for an employer is the high cost of turnover – often pegged as two times a person’s compensation. And let’s not forget we’re talking about losing people who are likely considered to be high performers, stars who are even more difficult and costly to replace.
Culture of distrust
A strong majority (72.1 per cent) of respondents also said TPS is happening not just to them, but to people all around them, and is a systemic problem within their organizations.
That manifests itself in a culture of distrust, something 78.7 per cent of respondents identified as an issue at their workplace. In that type of environment, teamwork becomes difficult and psychological safety suffers. As a result, employers are “not getting the best out of their talent” and “the culture becomes one of mediocrity and complacency,” said one respondent.
It left one woman searching for a “work culture where this doesn’t happen to rebuild myself again.”
Even women who aren’t leaving may still “turtle,” in a sense, as 48.9 per cent say it impacts their desire to apply for a promotion. One said there was “no hope for even asking for (a promotion)” while another opined it was “too exhausting to have a voice.”
Even those who received a promotion didn’t necessarily see it as a panacea, as they often found themselves attacked or resented by peers and colleagues who were not supportive of their achievements.
The data, anecdotes and examples paint a clear picture: TPS is a real issue with significant consequences both for women in the workplace and their organizations.
Interestingly, respondents told us TPS isn’t just a problem in the workplace — it also follows them home. Many reported being cut down for their success by friends and within their social networks — the company they kept outside of work too often reinforced what they were experiencing on the clock.
What’s the solution?
Participants spoke loud and clear about solutions and ways in which TPS can be managed within an organization. The top three ways to address the problem were: training and development, leading by example, and speaking up.
Training and development:
Respondents identified several areas that could be tackled, including training in sensitivity, leadership, cultural safety, gender bias, diversity, emotional intelligence and an overall general awareness of what TPS is and its impact.
There was a call for more diversity among the executive teams, better-crafted policies, transparency in paths for promotions, building safe and supportive environments and an overall cultural shift within organizations.
Leading by example:
Not surprisingly, it starts at the top.
“Accept without question that it is real, it is happening,” said one respondent. “That people are suffering. That an organization is less than it should be for allowing it to occur or ignoring its existence. That if leadership, at all levels, does not accept it as real, does not examine the roots and processes that allow it to flourish and grow, then they are the ones empowering this widespread, debilitating ‘disease’ to spread.”
Another implored leaders not to be “bystanders” and to address TPS when it happens.
“Similar to harassment, racism and exclusion, it has to be addressed, highlighted and brought up at staff meetings to demonstrate how to lead by example.”
There were clear calls for zero tolerance of this kind of behaviour and a desire to eliminate bullying. Encouraging the “echo effect” was identified as an effective strategy that could be used to manage TPS.
One respondent shared exactly how this could be done: “Name and echo. Name the achiever and echo what she’s done to achieve, including the process she followed to get there.”
It was heartening to see so many solutions provided by respondents on the table — including exit interviews, celebrating achievements and mentorship opportunities.
“CEOs should personally do exit interviews and some key skip-level meetings with women in their organizations to see if this is happening,” said one respondent. “Even in large organizations, CEOs are sometimes too far removed from the culture of their companies and need to spend real time in conversation and observation. Unless, of course, they are the problem. Then perhaps boards of directors need to engage.”
These strategies, coupled with a cultural shift that promotes trust, achievement and collaboration, can help to not only manage TPS, but to encourage women and support them in reaching their full potential without experiencing backlash for their success.
Organizations can’t afford to ignore the issue — solving it may not be easy, but meaningful efforts to address it will pay big dividends.
The next generation
There is a real opportunity to pave the way for the next generation of successful tall poppies and eliminate TPS in the workplace.
Mentorship and professional development opportunities can go a long way, but we also need to start young — when children are still in school. And participants made it clear this should not be gender-specific.
“Teach (everyone) how to support one another and how this benefits everyone,” said one respondent. “It’s not a zero-sum game.”
We were fortunate to read the hundreds of stories that were shared in the data, however, there are many stories left untold.
Unveiling the results is just the first stage of the conversation. Join Women of Influence Co-CEO Stephania Varalli at a special event exploring the findings in-depth. Attend in person in downtown Toronto on Oct. 9, or via live webinar. For more information, and to register, visit www.hrreporter.com/tallest-poppy-event.
Rumeet Billan is the lead researcher and chief learning architect at Viewpoint Leadership. Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management, published by Thomson Reuters.