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Root out ‘tall poppy syndrome’ – it could save your company


Has tall poppy syndrome taken root in your company? If there’s a tendency to cut ambitious high achieving employees “down to size,” the answer is likely yes.

Tall poppy syndrome takes its name from the idea that gardeners often trim back the tallest flowers to the height of the rest, to maintain a uniform look. That may be a good practice for a formal landscape, but in the workplace, it can lead to low employee morale, workplace toxicity and higher turnover among your top talent.

For the sake of this conversation, we’re refer to high achieving employees and “tall poppies” interchangeably.

Here’s what to know about tall poppy syndrome, how to correct it and how to nurture the tall poppies in your company.

What kinds of employees inspire “tall poppy syndrome?”

Sometimes, people within your organization who are very focused and have a plan for their career path can stand apart from their peers. That’s especially true if they’re brave enough to tell their higher-ups that they’d like their job eventually.

Those types of employees want to be noticed for their hard work, and there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, setting goals and reaching objectives are some of the reasons we have employee performance evaluations. Tall poppies take those goals and objectives seriously and put their all into reaching them.

Problems arise when co-workers or even leaders feel threatened or are made to look bad by the high achiever’s strong performance. It’s human nature not to want others to outshine us, but the impulse to trim down or hold back those peak performers can be damaging to talent and to the organization.

That’s because tall poppies are doing all the things they’ve been taught to do in order to excel in their careers. If they’re suddenly held back, or if others make rude remarks or try to sabotage them, these hard workers may become confused, angry and isolated from their teammates.

To prevent this toxic dynamic from happening in your organization, or to root it out if it’s already happening, you need a plan to deal with tall poppy syndrome.

Root out trouble in your organization

The best way to avoid tall poppy syndrome is to build a culture that outlines pathways for growth, so that your peak performers know what to expect and all employees know what career paths are open to them.

This approach can include:

  • Employee career path mapping, to help tall poppies clarify their goals and give managers a sense of what these employees want to accomplish.
  • Other employee development practices like mentor programs, industry education programs, and employee discussion groups to meet tall poppies’ need to keep learning and achieving.
  • Regular communication about tall poppies’ progress toward their goals.
  • Succession planning to develop new leaders, retain top talent, and keep your organization stable during leadership changes.

By giving employees a clear view of where they can grow in your company — and where they may not be able to — you can help them develop realistic expectations and find the support they need to reach their goals.

Cultivate tall poppies or transplant them elsewhere?

As with everything in your organization, your approach to dealing with tall poppies needs to start at the top. Managers and employees will take their cues from the leadership team.

Often, leaders assume that high performers will be willing to wait a few years to move into a leadership role of their own, but with tall poppies that may not be the case. To avoid letting these contributors stagnate, it’s important to:

  1. Communicate with them about their goals.
  2. Make a path for their career development.
  3. Or help them find a new opportunity outside your organization.

1. Talk with your high-performing employees.

Conversations about goals and objectives can help you understand what your tall poppies – and all your employees – want to do within your company and what their long-term career goals are. That information is crucial to understanding whether there are opportunities for them to advance now and whether you can create future opportunities for them within your company.

For example, if you have a high achiever who wants to lead your sales team or head up a special project that may be doable, depending on their timeline and when those roles might become available. On the other hand, if your tall poppy wants to become CEO of your organization and the current CEO has no plans to leave, it may be time for the tall poppy to find a new path elsewhere.

2. Create pathways for tall poppy development.

If you want to create a culture that nurtures the tall poppies in your company, you need a plan. A commitment to talent development can help your company create a succession plan and identify and train the right people to fulfill it. That can establish growth pathways for your top performers.

Having your tall poppies mentor other employees may be another way you can support their growth, while also helping them strengthen positive ties with others in the organization and helping others grow a little taller as well.

High flyers can also thrive when they’re put in charge of special projects. For example, if your CEO might have a project they’ve wanted to get to but haven’t had time. Putting a high achiever on the job gives them the chance to:

  • Function at the CEO level
  • Build leadership skills
  • Bring great value to the organization without usurping the chief executive.

3. Recognize when a tall poppy needs to move on in order to grow.

Leaders often feel they’re to blame somehow if a talented employee outgrows their organization. However, not every employee can find the opportunity they want at every company. After all, not every talented worker can rise to the top of an organization.

Instead of trying to hold on to those tall poppies when you can’t offer them room to grow, you can help them take that next step. Referrals, references and support from you can help those high achievers find a new place where they can flourish while helping to maintain good morale in your organization.

Tending tall poppies helps everyone bloom

When you communicate career path options clearly to your employees, talk regularly with them about their goals, and support your high achievers – by finding the right place for them in your company or helping them move on – you create a culture that nurtures tall poppies and helps your other employees to thrive, too.

Want more tips on creating a culture where talent can thrive? Download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to company culture.