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Does Your Business Have The Tall Poppy Syndrome?

One of my clients talked about avoiding Tall Poppy Syndrome in their office. Here is the meaning.

Tall poppy syndrome (TPS) is a term used in Australia for a levelling social attitude, pushed to the point of bad behaviour. Someone has tall poppy syndrome when they are envious, defamatory, or overly critical of someone because of their notionally higher economic, social or political position.

The term originates from an account in Livy’s History of Rome, Book I. A Roman tyrant, Tarquinius Superbus received a messenger from his son Sextus asking what he should do next in Gabii, since he had become all-powerful there. Rather than answering the messenger, Tarquinius went into his garden, took a stick, and symbolically swept it across his garden, thus cutting off the heads of the tallest poppies that were growing there. The messenger, tired of waiting for an answer, returned to Gabii and told Sextus what happened, who realised that his father wished him to put to death all the most eminent people of Gabii, which he then did.

In modern Australia, tall poppy syndrome is frequently invoked as an explanation when a public figure is on the receiving end of negative publicity – even if such publicity can be seen as a result of that person’s own misconduct.

Australians and New Zealanders have a reputation for resenting the success of others; whether this reputation is deserved is another question. Many Australians have achieved success and wealth without attracting such hostility (e.g. Dick Smith). Apparent cases of tall poppy syndrome can often be explained as resentment not of success but of snobbery and arrogance, combined with an egalitarian attitude. Thus, Australians and New Zealanders are often self-deprecating, especially those in the public eye.

Belief in the strength of this cultural phenomenon, and the degree to which it represents a negative trait, is to some extent influenced by politics. Conservative commentators, particularly city-based ones, often criticise Australians for their desire to punish the successful. They sometimes compare Australia unfavourably to the United States in this respect, in the belief that Americans generally appreciate the successful as an example to admire and attempt to emulate.

However, this phenomenon is often misinterpreted by foreign observers. For the majority of the population, the targets are those who are seen as flaunting their success without humility or taking themselves too seriously.

Tall poppy syndrome may well be a universal phenomenon, accentuated in some cultures. The concept of janteloven, or “Jante law”, in Scandinavia is very similar. Similar phenomena exist in Canada and the Netherlands where many commentators have also noticed a tendency to distrust or resent the successful. In the United States, public schools are periodically criticised for acting as a Handicapper General. Tall Poppy Syndrome has been quite prominent to the likes of Kiwi sportspeople, for example Michael Campbell. Over his bad years of Golf, he has been highly critisized for it, but now that he has begun winning tournaments, he is praised for it, and all of the critics have gone along, and taken a ride with all of the glory.

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