Tall Poppy Syndrome: 5 Ways You Can Help Your Clients!

Tall Poppy in a Field for Tall Poppy Syndrome

We've all had the experience of being shamed when we have done well: Don't get too big for your boots!, Your head'll get so big you won't fit through the door!, Who do you think you are? Tall Poppy Syndrome is all about the act of 'cutting someone down' to size when they have achieved success.

The Tall Poppy is a person who has done well for themselves. They have stretched out and grown tall over the heads of others. Perhaps they have more knowledge, expertise or are more skilled and talented. They have succeeded where those around them have not, or can't yet.

Tall Poppy Syndrome is where shame, guilt or criticism (both subtle and direct) are used as tools to 'cut' people (who have grown taller than everyone else) down to size. It is something the "Tall Poppy" feels, because of the words and actions of others.

And people who suffer from Tall Poppy Syndrome have internalised all the negative messaging, and taught themselves to stay small to avoid being 'cut back' by others. They learned that it's dangerous to be "the tall poppy" in the room.

How to spot someone who suffers with Tall Poppy Syndrome? They often struggle to do their best and 'stand out' because of all the negative experiences. They may lack confidence, even though they're good at what they do. They may find it hard to trust others and receive genuine compliments. They find it difficult to share their successes and ask for a promotion. They may find it challenging just to be themselves...

Why do people do this to others?

It can be a way for someone to 'level the playing field' so they don't feel so bad about themselves. And it is also used by managers and those in a position of power to protect others ie. cut one person down so that others around them don't feel badly about themselves. For example, in schools, where a teacher shames a student in front of the class to prevent the rest of the class from feeling less.

Tall Poppy Syndrome is a Big Obstacle to Growth

But whether it's our own inner critic, mom, sibling, sports coach, colleague, friend or lover these Tall Poppy Syndrome experiences (or fear of them) are one of the biggest blocks to our growth.

Why? Because we are literally shamed into being and doing less! The experience of shame feels so terrible that we dumb down, tone down, keep quiet and stop trying so hard just so we don't have to experience that again. In short we decide not to become a target by not growing taller than anyone else...

A Noble Goal? Many People Mean Well

While cutting one person down to size so that no-one feels bad about themselves seems like a noble goal, it actually hurts all of us. When someone's successes and strengths become shame-worthy, we're sending a message out to EVERYONE: Don't succeed (too much) or this could happen to you too...

It can help us to understand the intentions behind the people who put us in our place - as many people mean well (at least to society at large!).

Here are 3 categories of Tall Poppy Syndrome instigators, they want want to:

  1. Protect US from what OTHER people think. Often this comes from people who care most about us - they're trying to protect us from ourselves!
  2. Protect THEMSELVES. i) They feel personally threatened by your success and achievement and aim to make themselves feel better by making you feel smaller, or ii) They worry you might leave them behind if you get too strong/successful - they're trying to keep you from outgrowing them...
  3. Protect SOCIETY. They feel the need to teach you a lesson or slow you down – for the betterment of society.

Help Your Clients Stand Tall!

Each of us has unique talents and skills, and when we worry too much about how others feel about our success, it dilutes excellence. The chances are your client has been on the receiving end of Tall Poppy Syndrome at some point in their lives. It's why so many of us keep playing small.

So, next time you notice your client is holding back on celebrating, acknowledging their strengths or taking a risk and going for it in their lives, tell them about Tall Poppy Syndrome, and help them stand tall.

Here are 5 Ways You Can Help Clients with Tall Poppy Syndrome

Work with your clients to:

  1. Let go of the guilt! We can't all be good at everything. Everyone has their own unique strengths, skills, talents and gifts - and it's each person's responsibility to find their own! If someone hasn't found their strengths and talents yet, it isn't your client's fault.
  2. Stop worrying what others think! There will always be someone, somewhere who will find fault with them. This quote sums it up rather nicely:
    "If you limit your actions in life to things that nobody can possibly find fault with, you will not do much."  Lewis Carroll
  3. Remind them that other people's success brings out the best in each of us - helping us focus, improve and see what we might be capable of. (Until Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile, no-one thought it was possible. But once he broke the record, suddenly everyone else was doing 4 minute miles too...)
  4. Figure out what they ARE good at - and unashamedly reach to be their best! You may also like these 10 Essential Questions to Help Your Client Identify Their Strengths!
  5. Get better at noticing and celebrating what other people are good at too! When your client notices other people's strengths and successes, they become part of the change. And it makes it harder for those people who do want to cut them down to size too...

Wrap-up (let's help everyone succeed!)

Tall Poppy Syndrome, is a terrible misuse of energy. It is a form of bullying. And when people spend time pulling others down, we create a false and inauthentic society where people hold themselves back for fear of what others will say, think or feel.

Instead, if each of us focused on our strengths instead of comparing ourselves to others, the world would be a much easier place for everyone to succeed!

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Emma-Louise Elsey Headshot

Contributing Author:

Emma-Louise Elsey has been coaching since 2003 and is the Founder of The Coaching Tools Company and Fierce Kindness.com. She's passionate about coaching and personal development. Originally a project and relationship manager for Fortune 500 companies she combined her love of coaching, creativity and systems to create over 100 brandable coaching tools, forms and exercises including 30+ completely free coaching tools. She now serves coaches and the coaching world through her exclusive newsletter for coaches, Coaches Helping Coaches Facebook Group and many other great tools, resources and ideas for your coaching toolbox. The Coaching Tools Company is an official ICF Business Solutions Partner.

Learn more about Emma-Louise & see all their articles here >>

Image of Tall poppy in field by cocoparisienne via Pixabay

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