“Nothing is as approved as mediocrity; the majority has established it and fixes it fangs on whatever gets beyond it either way.” – Blaise Pascal
I hadn’t realised “tall poppy syndrome” was an Australian condition until doing a little research. Apparently similar concepts do exist around the world but they aren’t as pervasive as here in Australia. ‘Jantelagen’ or ‘jante law’, in Scandinavia, ‘a kent yer faither’ in Scotland, ‘maaiveldcultuur’ in the Netherlands and then some other traces in minority American communities. Let’s explore…
What is it specifically? The definition varies; the criticism of success, criticism of non-conformance and criticism of difference are probably the most common. Those definitions suggests it’s pretty easy to identify though. Words specifically targeted at minimising someone’s success or directly attacking their character, like back-biting for example.
I think there are more subtle forms though, and perhaps forms that can have a greater impact on people. Some could almost call it bullying, but again very subtle. Things such as
- General lack of support (especially noticeable if the level of support from people changes)
- Distancing ourselves from non-norm opinions/thinking, actions and people
- Distancing ourselves from activities that would help or support someone (e.g. declining invites, avoiding meetings, not responding to communications). It’s the decision not be involved I guess.
- Taking longer to complete activities/requests or just findings reasons not to complete them.
- Keeping quiet when you have an opinion that may help or support someone
- Avoiding ‘out there’ people
- Even ‘group think’ – supporting strong members of a group, or compliance to the norm
For me I tend to notice it most when things are going well. When I am scoring some wins and enjoying life, things seem harder to achieve, people less willing. Have you ever noticed any lack of support when you’re at your highest… you feel like your pulling everyone along, trying to share your energy and positivity while most around you seem harder to engage, focused on moping and putting up walls for you. But when you’re feeling average people seem more willing and less threatened? I’d almost go as far as saying they feel a small bit of satisfaction knowing they are able to help you, and that you’re in need of support.
So tall poppy syndrome is not just about someone being more successful or perceived as a better person. It is also about happiness. People seem to want happiness levels to be equal too, and if someone is feeling better than us, I think in our society there is a tendency to ever so subtly undermine that happiness. Bring them back to the norm (or below) so that we feel ok about ourselves.
It’s also natural for us to seek out support and energy from those who are happy and doing well. Which can also explain why it appears things get tougher when we are happy; more people seek us out.
Another observation… the unwillingness of people to form teams based on individual strengths to become successful. Over the years I have lost count of the people who own their own small business (alone) and reject the idea of joining together with others. We don’t seem to be able to acknowledge that others may be able to contribute to and better our success. Or to be willing to enable someone else’s success for some greater outcome. We seem to want to climb, alone, and be seen as successful.
In the workforce people also refer to this syndrome as ‘politics’. But politics is so vague and is basically accepted, calling it politics is really just condoning the behaviour. This is not politics, it’s at least severely unhealthy behaviour, at its worst it’s passive bullying. Either way it is destructive. I’ve also seen this passed off as ‘personality conflicts’, just as easy and convenient as calling it politics but still just avoiding dealing with the issues in many cases I think.
Let me take it a step further now :)… because my wife asked me ‘why do you think it exists’…. a simple question I hadn’t even thought about at the time (I was so happy with my analysis to date you see).
The reason it exists is different between the countries mentioned, but both inside cultural maturity. Scandinavia is clearer cut – as individuals they are focused on the group. Generally, Scandinavians feel the need to establish clear and strong family, workplace and social groups and then the rules are enforced for the greater good of that group. Not in a blind compliance way but instead they put some of their individual wants aside to improve life for everyone. So tall poppy syndrome in Scandinavia is about bringing people back into line with the group for a greater good. Australia, I am less sure of but I think it comes down to cultural immaturity. There is no heavy skew of people who are group focused in Australia. The personalities, styles and backgrounds are far more varied. So where Scandinavians have developed a culture which encourages individuals to be group focused, in Australia our culture (collectively) sees no value in the group and so the group behaviour is to focus on what’s best for individuals. So even if members of a group do think beyond themselves, as a group the behaviour is still self-interested. Take a drive down most busy roads in Australia and I would be surprised if you didn’t experience some kind of aggression or self-interested behaviour. That’s a demonstration of group behaviour and doesn’t always indicate how that person would then go and act in a different group (e.g. family). I base this on principles from Spiral Dynamics.
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller. Tall poppy syndrome’s existence prevents us as individuals from reaching our potential because we lack the breadth, skills, knowledge, energy and support a group can provide.
What would it take to change ??? I don’t have a clear answer but I suspect it’s with empathy. It seems clear to me that not thinking of others and of what can be achieved by a team has landed us here. And it doesn’t seem like we consciously decide that person X doesn’t need support or consider the impact of our actions. So developing empathy may be a path.
I also think our leaders have a strong role to play – as key drivers of group culture. It is possible to develop groups which don’t display tall poppy syndrome. By calling it out, by understanding it and by encouraging different behaviour (including developing empathy). It takes a while but it is possible. We NEED TO address actions which result in people feeling less valued, less supported or unhappy. We need to start looking at tall poppy syndrome the same way we now see bullying. We need to understand that it is both within the actions of individuals but also a group behaviour.
By embracing others with all the strengths and weaknesses they may bring, together we can be happier 🙂