Unpacking tall poppy syndrome


Pamela Xaba is the founder of Nonkosi Creatives, and has over two decades of experience as a corporate HR professional. She is passionate about diversity and inclusion both in workspaces and society.

There are many articles that have been written about tall poppy syndrome. In a simplified version, poppies are flowers that thrive better when they grow together, but farmers or gardeners usually cut the ones that grow taller than the others to allow all of them to grow at the same pace and length.

In the workplace, this occurs when people are attacked, resented, or ostracised either because of their success or achievements, and/or their ambitious nature. Unfortunately, this often diminishes the accomplishments of individuals, leading to a toxic culture of either silence, reclusion, or disempowerment.

More HR and business leaders are starting to realise the importance of workplace culture as it is becoming clear that the business can be either strengthened or undermined by the type of culture it has. For a healthy workplace culture to exist, this requires a very strong partnership between the business leaders and HR, where they can work on promoting a culture that values psychological safety for all employees.

The responsibility of defining and developing company culture should lie with the business leaders by how they show up in their actions and utterances, and HR reinforcing and guiding the approach with the appropriate tools.
Ultimately this cultivates a culture of accountability that promotes a positive employee experience at all levels, but the sad reality is that this is not always the case.

In some environments, where workplace culture is toxic, HR seems to always bear the brunt of it and may be the victims of tall poppy syndrome themselves, when attempting to uphold certain policies such as talent acquisition in the context of diversity and inclusion.
We all know that diversity and inclusion foster creativity and innovation: many articles have been written on this. In our local HR landscape, this is even more heightened by the current dynamics of employment equity legislation, which puts even more pressure on the relationship between business and HR leaders if there is no alignment in terms of the approach in this area. This is where tall poppy syndrome can fester in terms of power dynamics, which may leave HR leaders feeling helpless and their mental wellbeing negatively impacted as a result.

This can also be compounded by the fact that HR professionals at senior or executive levels are generally from underrepresented groups and may be outvoted when it comes to hiring decisions, but are then held accountable when the organisation is required to report on employment equity with the relevant legislation bodies.

Of course, this is just one example on how tall poppy syndrome can manifest itself in the workplace and in the HR landscape.
Another example is that tall poppy syndrome can also exist amongst HR team members, which is created by unhealthy competition that exists in most toxic environments, or the lack of career advancement opportunities, and in extreme cases, some business leaders pitting HR team members against each other.

In most cases, HR leaders are expected to promote overall employee wellbeing, however the irony is that their own mental wellbeing can be negatively impacted by the toxic work environment resulting from tall poppy syndrome.

The culture of accountability starts from the top, so business leaders need to lead the culture of accountability that roots out biases and favouritism. Transparent recognition and celebrating the work of employees is a great way to show support and appreciation.
Leading the team towards a common goal and a clear business strategy is another way of strengthening the connection and trust between team members at all levels. Reassure employees and other leaders in the organisation that another’s success is not a threat: everyone works differently and/or are at different stages in their career. Work with HR teams to come up with transparent succession plans and career paths as this can assist in rooting out tall poppy syndrome.

Hold regular meetings or skip level meetings to check up on employees, by promoting a culture of psychological safety. These are just some of the strategies leaders can use to root out the culture of tall poppy syndrome from their environments.
With September being heritage month, let us rejoice in the incredible richness of our diverse backgrounds and cultural tapestry. Let this be a reminder that our shared history binds us and offers a source of inspiration. We are privileged to have such a wealth of vibrant cultures and languages. Let us seize the opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations, and build a more cohesive society.


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