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There’s a silent but significant syndrome wreaking havoc on corporations and their ability to promote, retain and engage top talent – and its impact is being felt globally.

Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) is a term referring to poppies that grow higher than others and are cut down to size so that they are the same height as the flowers around them. In the workplace, this occurs when people are attacked, resented or ostracized because of their success and/or achievements. Successful individuals are cut down, rather than celebrated, for their accomplishments.

Through the first international survey of its kind, Women of Influence+ heard from thousands of women across professions, industries and sectors to determine the effects of TPS on their lives, personally and professionally, and on the organizations in which they work.

The results were telling.

Of 4,710 women surveyed, nearly 90 per cent reported experiencing TPS at some point during their careers. TPS can manifest in different ways. It can look like being ostracized or made to feel ashamed or embarrassed because of your accomplishments. It can look like being bullied, knocked down or criticized for getting ahead. It can also look like others taking credit for work you’ve done or convincing you it’s best not to celebrate your success.

Undermined and penalized

While the survey showed a large majority of women have experienced TPS at work, this is not just a women’s issue.

The effects of TPS are negatively impacting corporate culture, employee morale and most notably the bottom line. And it’s a problem that couldn’t be happening at a worse time. There is a gap in the workforce where many accomplished women used to be that is growing wider every day.

For women who are committed to forging ahead, TPS is a barrier to advancement that’s driving many to reconsider their career aspirations and places of employment. As one survey respondent said, “I was openly promised a promotion to the C-Suite and then later told I was too outwardly ambitious and excited for the opportunity, so I was not promoted. [Now], I’m completely checked out, embarrassed and looking for new jobs.”

To better understand this phenomenon, we must determine who is undermining and penalizing women, and why. The results of the survey indicate that these aggressions come from all levels of seniority – from co-workers, clients, vendors, managers and executives. They also come from people outside of the workplace, such as family and friends or mothers in the school yard. The majority of women report that those undermining them are men, but women are also cutting each other down and are more likely to do so to their peers, colleagues, and direct reports.

These findings beg the question: Why are we so uncomfortable with women’s success?

It’s a question that needs to be taken seriously. The effects of TPS can be significant and lasting. For example, women who have experienced TPS report increased stress (85.6 per cent), a negative impact on their mental health (73.8 per cent), lowered self-confidence (66.2 per cent) and feelings of isolation and burnout.

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From a workplace perspective, TPS has a direct effect on productivity, engagement, retention and organizational culture. Three-quarters of all respondents said being cut down by others impacted their productivity at work. As one respondent explained, “I’m completely burnt out, my mental health has drastically suffered, and I don’t understand why I’m being punished for doing exceptional work and asking for what I deserve.”

Of those surveyed, half said their experiences with TPS negatively impacted their desire to apply for a promotion, while 60.5 per cent said they believed they’d be penalized if perceived as ambitious at work.

It’s time to take action

No company or individual is completely immune to this silent, systemic syndrome. In order to determine how to manage, mitigate or eliminate TPS, companies need to better understand why TPS is so prevalent.

Respondents overwhelmingly agreed that jealousy, envy, sexism, gender stereotypes, lack of confidence and insecurity were among the top contributing factors shared by those responsible for the cutting down. Other reasons included competitiveness, ageism and greed.

So, how does an organization take stock of these factors to determine whether they’re present and negatively impacting women? The first step would be to listen to women when they report mistreatment and take action to eliminate it.

In the survey, 42.6 per cent of women who did speak up at work said they were given no further suggestions or advice to take action, and 23 per cent were encouraged to keep their ‘complaints’ to themselves. One respondent said she was blamed for the issue she was reporting. Another said she was told she was being too emotional. Another was given more work.

This problematic culture of silence and lack of action speaks volumes.

When respondents were given the opportunity to weigh in on how companies should handle TPS, their suggestions were substantial. Women want to be seen and heard in their place of work and are calling for accountability and change. Those who continue to face ambivalence will mostly likely look elsewhere for work, if they haven’t already begun to do so.

In order to support Tall Poppies, respondents suggested that organizations take the following actions:

  • Awareness: The first step is to name it, talk about it and commit to taking action. Awareness is key to making change, and that means listening to women when they come forward with reports of TPS.
  • Accountability: Organizations must move past lip service and implement real and impactful actions that will begin to eliminate the culture that supports this kind of cutting down.
  • Transparency: Set a standard of transparency, such as being more forthcoming when it comes to salaries, opportunities for promotions and advancement and ensuring all employees are held to equal and equitable standards.
  • Zero tolerance: Commit to stopping TPS in its tracks. This means knowing how to identify it, acknowledging when it happens and creating a culture of zero tolerance. The behaviour of cutting others down should no longer be overlooked or encouraged within workplaces.
  • Training: Finally, invest in training for employees and celebrate wins. Respondents shared that training around emotional intelligence, bias, communication and psychological safety would be effective. Organizations should make a practice of celebrating wins, recognizing and acknowledging people the way they want to be acknowledged and creating a culture where employees feel safe and encouraged to succeed.

Above all, companies need to commit to supporting women. The next step is change, and it must come quickly. In a time when women are burnt out, stressed out and fed up, organizations can no longer afford to look the other way.

“When you know better, you do better,” as one respondent said. For the sake of all of these women and thousands more, the time to start doing better is now.


Advertising feature provided by Women of Influence+. The Globe and Mail’s editorial department was not involved.

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