Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 244
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Tall Poppy Syndrome

Researcher explores the destructive action of envy in the workplace.

Australia has a problem called the Tall Poppy Syndrome. It's rooted in their culture and it hurts their economy, but the more you learn about it, the more familiar it sounds. You may have it yourself, and if you do, recent research by Suchitra Mouly, from the University of Auckland, will help you.

Australia was originally settled as a British penal colony, and many current Australians trace their heritage to the criminals sent there. They were angry and violent people, failures in British society, and one thing they didn't like was successful people.

Conspicuous success aroused envious hostility, and modern Australian culture began with a shared attitude of hostility toward successful people and behaviors to thwart them and ruin their success. Today, Australians call successful people "tall poppies," and cutting them down to size is called "tall poppying." The terms are based on Aborigine stories.

People involved in the economic development of Australia denounce "tall poppying." They say it ruins the success of Australia's most creative and energetic people, hurts the economy, and spoils their efforts to modernize it. To me, it sounds like fifth grade, where the kids who do well on tests face abuse on the playground from those who don't.

Do you experience envious hostility because of your success? Do your best employees experience it?

Suchitra Mouly studied the case of a highly successful professor who applied for a double increment in her university's promotion system. The facts suggest that her application was appropriate, but doing so aroused envious hostility in her peers. They acted on this hostility and manipulated the promotion process to deny her application. They "tall poppyed" her, and in response, she left and went to a different university.

Mouly wanted to know how they had done it and why the university was unable to stop it. We can apply what she learned in our own settings so our best people won't be hurt by envious peers cutting them down to size.

The most critical factor Mouly found was the management of meaning. Like the fifth grader who faced censure for doing well, employees are able to transform reasons for commendation into reasons to criticize. They are also able to create the impression that these criticisms are valid, impartial, and widely agreed upon by other employees.

This transformation is encouraged by incentives for performance, appraisal practices that identify individuals with outstanding performance, and uncertainty in the evaluation criteria.

In the case Mouly studied, peers misrepresented facts and slanted facts that led them to two false criticisms of the professor:

    1. She felt superior to her coworkers and acted like it.
    2. She refused to help coworkers and acted selfishly.

These false criticisms led to two incorrect conclusions:

    1. Her high achievement wasn't so high after all.
    2. Her high achievement came at too great a cost.

Managers in this university could have corrected this obvious mistake, but they didn't. They accepted the conclusion that she wasn't a high performer and she left. They shot themselves in the foot. Mouly found these factors hampering them:

    1. They didn't check facts or sources of information.
    2. Their evaluation procedure was rigid without an ability to step outside of it.
    3. Some of their evaluation criteria were vague allowing others to supply a meaning that suited their purposes.
    4. They accepted the assumption of wide agreement concerning criticisms of the professor.
    5. They assumed their procedures for evaluation were fair and refused to consider any criticism.
    6. They failed to request further information.

We often hear employees comment about each other, but it can be difficult to recognize envy: the underlying anger that another person possesses and enjoys something desirable, and the desire to take it away or spoil it. Envy attacks the very qualities we value, and if it succeeds, it ruins hope.

Managers need to help envious employees recognize their destructive feelings and replace them with gratitude. Outstanding performers bring benefits to everyone. With understanding, managers can help their employees recognize envy and replace it with gratitude.

Reference: Mouly, V. Suchitra and Jayaram K. Sankaran (2002) The Enactment of Envy Within Organizations. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 38 (1), 36-56.

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