OPINION | Why are we so quick to judge successful people?

Picture: Shutterstock.com
Picture: Shutterstock.com

Tall Poppy Syndrome is a social construct that appears to be particular to the fabric of Australian society. We’ve all seen that person in the workplace who seems to have it all – the looks, the charm, the skill, the ideas, the clout – and many of us have thought privately (or publicly) that perhaps they’d benefit from being taken a peg or two.

You know, to ground them, after all, “must be windy up there on that pedestal all by yourself,” right?

As easy as it is to equate success with arrogance almost on autopilot, it’s not necessarily the case. Often, success is achieved as a result of hard work and of seemingly invisible failure. It’s easy to misinterpret communication exchanges and to misrepresent facts to suit a narrative that has been constructed around the expectation of superiority, credit-hogging, trampling the team and perhaps, exploitation of connections with management, and use this “evidence” to build the Tall Poppy profile of the individual, which creates a self-fulfilling justifiable circle of expectation.

Essentially, the image of the Tall Poppy is often created through the prejudice and bias of those around them, regardless of the tough breaks and hard slog they’ve put in to get to where they are.

After all, it’s easier to believe that they have achieved success through nefarious means than to consider that they have had the same opportunities that we have had without the same outcome.

Envy plays a large part in Tall Poppy Syndrome and yet it can be extremely difficult to identify in the workplace, but it can lead to destructive behaviour in the professional sphere that leads to businesses losing their best leaders who were driving their business forward. Whereas colleagues or lower-ranked staff members may well be driven by envy, management can be driven to snap the stem of the tall poppy through fear and a sense of threat. An up-and-coming leader with new ideas who is innovative and well-connected represents a frightening threat to the status quo where expectations might change as a result of the achievements of this “poppy paragon” and suddenly you find that both the team and the management are looking for the garden shears when all the individual has done is work hard.

Steve Jobs famously said: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do,” and there is an important lesson to be learned here – team design is about putting together people who all bring something different to the table and then valuing them for that niche skill.

Perhaps, if your workplace is experiencing Tall Poppy Syndrome, the team wasn’t designed strategically where each team member had a purpose driven by specific value, or it is being led by a leadership team with fragile confidence.

We seem to be living in a society where business leaders are demonised more than they are celebrated. Whereas Richard Branson is idolised overseas, our own business leaders are so often criticised.

Perhaps some of our Aussie moguls come with their own baggage and bad press, but their continued commitment to philanthropy is always swept under the carpet because it doesn’t fit the Tall Poppy narrative of arrogant, entitled and full of their own self-importance. Perhaps if we all patted our high achievers on the back, rather than snipping them off at the root, we’d have a labour landscape with more colour, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit than headless stalks struggling to build themselves up again.

Zoë Wundenberg, www.impressability.com.au