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Have you ever been “Tall Poppied?”

Have you ever been “Tall Poppied?”

poppy flowers in a field

By India Madsen, LA&PS Voices Blog Editor 

According to the ancient Roman historian Livy, there once lived a son of a tyrannical king, who upon seizing political power in a distant city, sent a messenger to his father asking what to do next. The father responded with no words. Instead, he simply grabbed a stick, and in one broad stroke, sliced off the tallest poppies among a group of flowers that happened to be growing near him. The son listened to the messenger’s account of what the king had done, and interpreted this act as a symbolic message to kill the most prominent, powerful people in the city. The son followed his father’s instructions to ensure the longevity of his political reign. 

What does such a legend have to do with us today? More than you might expect.  

Named after the king’s actions in the legend, many high-achieving people today experience what is known as Tall Poppy Syndrome: being bullied (or “cut down to size”) by peers who resent their success. Unfortunately, Tall Poppy Syndrome disproportionately affects women.

The Tallest Poppy, an international research project conducted this year and led by the organization Women of Influence, studied the impacts of women having their accomplishments downplayed, dismissed, or undermined at work. They found that more than 85 percent of respondents had experienced Tall Poppy Syndrome, and more than 60 percent of respondents believed they would be penalized if they were perceived as “ambitious.” Tall Poppy Syndrome can appear across many levels of women's professional and social spheres, with perpetrators including superiors, co-workers, family, and friends.  

To me, the saddest part of The Tallest Poppy survey was the account of the negative ways respondents adapted to what they had experienced. One became “frightened to celebrate [her] success” while another “want[ed] to hide to make others succeed.”

In spite of the discouraging accounts shared in The Tallest Poppy study, I encourage all of you to share your goals or accomplishments with at least one person. Being able to confidently speak about your accomplishments is an important habit to develop not only because it helps form a positive self-image, but because it’s essential to advancing your career by speaking in interviews, negotiating raises, and securing promotions.

Furthermore, it fosters a culture where we view each other's achievements not as threats, but as stones in the foundation of our own success. Since my first day at York, I have met so many talented and intelligent women. Witnessing their achievements has expanded my vision of what I deemed possible for my own future. If they had made themselves seem smaller to allow others to feel taller, I wouldn’t be where I am today.  

Most importantly, on a larger scale, refusing to share your ambitions and accomplishments with others prevents you from connecting with a community of people who will support you through times of struggle and join you in celebrating your achievements.

Why does “tall poppying” happen in spite of the benefits of a supportive community? In my opinion, the culprits are jealousy, insecurity, and above all, an attachment to traditional gender roles that confine women to “supporting” roles and exclude us from leadership roles. Despite strides towards equality, much of the business world remains a “boy’s club.” For example, a recent global study on gender equality found that Canada had more CEOs named Michael than CEOs who were women. As women challenge stereotypes and expectations at work, they may inspire resistance and retaliation. 

If you have ever been “cut down” for an achievement, remember that, like the people who the tyrant viewed as the “tallest poppies” in the Roman legend, you are probably being targeted because people feel threatened by your potential. In other words, you’re on the right track if you’re looking to change the world.