Study Finds That Many Women in the Workforce Globally Are Experiencing Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS)
The Tallest Poppy™, is a 2023 international study led by Women of Influence+, a leading global organisation committed to advancing gender equity in the workplace. The groundbreaking findings uncover the consequences of Tall Poppy Syndrome and the impact it has on women in the workplace worldwide.
Shockingly, almost 90% of women surveyed in this research say that they are penalised because of their achievements at work.
In this blog, I explore what Tall Poppy Syndrome is, share some of the findings of the report, share my thoughts and identify who it’s really hurting and how we can address it.
What is Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS)?
According to the study, TPS occurs when people are attacked, resented, disliked, criticised, belittled, silenced or cut down because of their achievements and/or success. It is shown to apply largely to women and it is detrimental to their self-confidence and wellbeing.
This is reported to be as a result of a mixture of reasons, including; jealousy, envy, sexism, gender stereotypes, lack of confidence and insecurity… and it adds to increased stress, negative impact on mental health, lower self-confidence and burnout.
Tall poppy syndrome is a silent systemic syndrome, recognising a limiting action that is having a severe impact on individuals and workplaces.
The Tallest Poppy study heard from over 4500 respondents from across 103 countries, who completed the survey between January and February 2023. They were asked questions to determine how their mental health, wellbeing and performance are affected by interactions with their clients, colleagues and leaders surrounding their success and accomplishments.
These attacks were shown to occur at all stages of a woman’s career, across a wide variety of industries, and have been experienced by individuals at varying levels within an organisation.
This study reveals that Tall Poppy Syndrome is an issue impacting women in the workplace across countries, organisations, industries, and sectors. The study findings say that; “No organisation or individual is completely immune to it.”
“Organisations often talk about the ‘war for top talent,’ when instead, there should be a focus on retaining top talent,”said Dr. Rumeet Billan, CEO, Women of Influence+ and author of the study. “As a result of Tall Poppy Syndrome, high-performers are minimising their skills and accomplishments… 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.”
The high price ambitious women pay for their success
Here are some key facts and figures drawn from this study; they don’t make for easy reading.
- 86.8% of respondents across 103 countries experienced Tall Poppy Syndrome at work
- 60.5% of those who responded to the survey believe they will be penalised if they are perceived as ambitious at work
- 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
- 67.8% of respondents looked for a new role/job and 50% 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
- 85.6% indicated that their stress had increased because of Tall Poppy Syndrome – 73.8% indicated it had a negative impact on their mental health – 66.2% cited lower self-confidence
When asked how they were being cut down in the workplace, these were the findings:
- 77% Downplaying achievement
- 72.4% Being left out/ignored
- 70.7% Being undermined
- 68.3% Dismissal of achievement
- 66.1% Others taking credit
Cutting Down Tall Poppies: Who’s Holding The Shears?
“According to initial feedback and comments from respondents about 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 peers or colleagues.
The study findings state that: “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.”
Just Part of a Bigger Problem – My Thoughts
The gender gap undoubtedly still exists – whether that’s about career opportunity, remuneration, culture and workplace belonging, the proportional impacts of raising a family, and so much more.
It’s a topic that I’m enormously passionate about – women having the right to choose the life and career they want, to not be judged for it, to not have to work harder for it, to not have to overcome barriers others don’t face, and to not have to fight tooth and nail for equity.
And, as this study illustrates, to not be cut down because of their successes and achievements.
The study shows that health, well-being, engagement, and performance are all affected and Tall Poppy Syndrome is detrimental to women and the organisations within which they work.
This is not acceptable.
The aspiration for a level playing field shouldn’t feel so hard. And, whilst there has been significant progress in recent years, I still think the pace is frustratingly glacial.
The Tallest Poppy 2023, is the first international study of its kind. It feels an important one, and I hope it’s repeated on a periodic basis, so that we can monitor changes and (hopefully) progress.
When you read research like this, you can’t help but reflect on your own experiences; I’m sure you’re doing the same.
And in truth, I have mixed feelings and thoughts.
I undoubtedly have first-hand experience of Tall Poppy Syndrome, predominantly not being heard, others taking credit for my ideas and delivery, and even missing out on remuneration due to successes not being seen as mine. It’s a crappy experience, it knocks your confidence, and ultimately limits your progress and available opportunities.
But, I’ve also experienced the exact opposite. Supporters, advocates and allies actively supporting my growth, development, and career progression. And my gratitude for that is off the charts. Not only has it helped me, but I recognise these leaders were doing it against a backdrop of pervasive gender discrimination and Tall Poppy Syndrome – courageously going against the grain – actively supporting.
In my work I have the privilege of hearing the experiences of my clients within and outside the workplace. Evidence of Tall Poppy Syndrome comes through regularly in these conversations, but here’s the interesting insights and inspirational brilliance I witness just as frequently:
- The tolerance for Tall Poppy Syndrome behaviour, and any form of gender discrimination or bias, is reducing at a faster pace than I’ve observed before.
- Those dissatisfied with their experiences are voting with their feet and searching for a culture that works for them.
- Active challenge of this culture is increasing, from all genders.
- Allies exist, they want to make a difference, and are keen to have the conversations about how.
How do we manage, mitigate, and eliminate this silent systemic syndrome?
There’s no denying that this groundbreaking research clearly reveals the impact of Tall Poppy Syndrome on women in the workplace and my natural conclusion is that we have to speak out and address it.
Understandably, no organisation would intentionally allow Tall Poppy Syndrome to exist or continue in their place of work.
So, how do we create and maintain a culture where all are encouraged to raise each other up, rather than cut each other down?
What organisations could do to address things:
I don’t pretend to be the expert here, but some obvious things spring to mind when thinking about those first steps in examining this syndrome and working to make a positive difference.
Here are 10 things that came up for me. I’m sure you can add many to the list – so please do.
Explicitly acknowledge and recognise others achievements, big and small, and in their many guises.
Celebrate and support the ambitions of women, whatever they are, whenever they have them.
Talk about Tall Poppy Syndrome and raise awareness – this phenomenon has a name and there is now research to aid discussion.
Encourage an environment of active support, where people can safely challenge the things they want to change.
Provide young tall poppies with an abundance of support, whether that be role models, cheerleaders, allies, or networks, encouraging them to break the mould around career progression steps and norms.
Review recruitment, retention, and attrition stats and feedback – and look under the top line information for a truer picture of what’s happening.
Review employee engagement and any form of feedback for clues on cultures and micro-cultures that may need addressing.
Listen when someone comes forward with a report of being cut down or diminished in the workplace.
Hold people accountable – the easiest one to say and often the one most neglected.
Increase transparency on all matters relating to equity and opportunity.
We need to cut Tall Poppy Syndrome out of organisations allowing this generation and the next to thrive.
If we don’t, top talent will burnout, check out and leave.
How I Can Help
I help leaders explore this topic on a daily basis through my coaching work, even if it’s not labelled TPS. We work through what’s happening, why, ways to address and improve, or even actions to take to move away from that culture, if things aren’t changing for the better.
And, I partner with leaders in looking at their business area, key trends, issues to tackle, and how to create an inclusive culture from the top.
The Tallest Poppy, an international research project led by Women of Influence+. 4710 respondents completed the survey between January and February 2023.
Methodology: The study was planned and carried out in 2023. An online survey was sent out to contacts in Women of Influence+’s database and was also shared on social media. Most of those who received the survey identify as women. The survey was sent out on January 9, 2023, and closed on February 10, 2023. In the end, 4,710 respondents took part in the survey across 103 countries.
For more information, to download Women of Influence+’s The Tallest Poppy white paper, or to view the infographic, visit: www.womenofinfluence.ca/tps