Periander, ruler of Corinth, sent a messenger to Thrasybulus, ruler of Miletus, to ask him how he could better govern his city. Thrasybulus led the messenger out of town to a seeded field. While walking through the wheat, he wondered why that messenger had come to him. While that question was around his mind, he was cutting the highest wheat ears he found on his way, until he ended up destroying the best part of the crop.
In the end, he decided not to say a word and sent the messenger back. When the herald returned to Corinth, Periander wanted to hear what advice he brought, but the man told him that Thrasybulus had given him none. The messenger added that he was a strange man, a madman and a destroyer of his own possessions. He told Periander what he had seen.
However, Periander thought he got an implicit advice in those actions of Thrasybulus: he had to kill the subjects who had an outstanding influence or ability. And so he became the tyrant who remembers the history.
This story, told by Herodotus and collected by Aristotle, inspired what in many Anglo-Saxon countries is known as “Tall Poppy Syndrome.”
What is the Tall Poppy Syndrome?
The Tall Poppy Syndrome affects people who stand out from the average, either because of their high skills, their excellent qualities or because they have achieved great success. Related to the Procruste’s Syndrome, it is known as the Tall Poppy Syndrome because all plants are expected to grow at the same speed and height, so those that grow too fast must be reduced.
In the same way, in groups or societies that promote egalitarian principles, standing above the average is considered antisocial since it goes against the dominant culture. As a result, these people arouse in the others feelings of hostility that give way to harmful attitudes and behaviors to try to tear them down.
Therefore, the Tall Poppy Syndrome implies the desire to “crush” the winners or exceptional people to adapt them to the average.
Why do exceptional people bother us?
According to Max Weber, a German sociologist, in certain social groups gaining prestige and power is a zero-sum game, so there is a more marked tendency to want to knock down “tall poppies.”
In practice, in these groups there is only a limited amount of prestige that must be shared among its members, as well as a specific amount of attention, authority and resources. According to his theory, for someone to climb, another must fall, since only then can be maintained the balance.
Therefore, a prestigious, talented or successful person is seen as an obstacle by the others. As a result, the group is likely to do everything in its power to decrease that person’s power or success.
The Tall Poppy Syndrome can show off in any context. Although it is more common in workplaces and schools, it can also occur within the family. Throughout history, many pioneers in different fields of science have been considered “tall poppies” and the scientific community struggled to denigrate their discoveries or theories.
However, beyond the social dynamics that tends to crush those people who excel too much, the truth is that the Tall Poppy Syndrome is not reduced to a social phenomenon, but has deep psychological roots.
Some people find it difficult to genuinely appreciate the achievements or qualities of the others without a trace of envy. As writer Elbert Hubbard said, “There is something much more scarce, exquisite and rare than talent: the talent of recognizing the talented.”
The problem is that people who stand out can be perceived as a danger to the ego of those who do not feel up to it. So, to prevent self-esteem from suffering, these people try to tear down the other by implementing different actions:
• Disregarding the success with phrases such as “it was just good luck.”
• Disdaining the skills and hard work of the others.
• Pointing out small errors or irrelevant failures instead of congratulating them for the great achievements.
• Refusing to collaborate, so that person does not succeed.
• Throwing up roadblocks.
• Criticizing each step they take to reduce their worth.
• Highlighting the fields in which they are not so good, to try to reduce their achievements or abilities.
The consequences of the Tall Poppy Syndrome
Two investigations conducted at the universities of Waikato and Canterbury found that a culture nuanced by Tall Poppy Syndrome can generate an average yield decrease of up to 20%.
These psychologists also confirmed that people who suffer “pruning behaviors” by others may begin to present:
• Fear of highlighting, as they learn that it is not well seen.
• Personal insecurity, since they cannot express themselves as they are.
• Ostracism, since they generally turn to themselves for fear of rejection and criticism.
• Low self-esteem and reluctance to share their achievements with the others.
As a result, the mental balance of these people ends up yielding, so they are more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety.
What to do? The necessary mentality change
Benjamin Franklin Fairless, the president of the United States Steel Corporation gave us the best advice: “You cannot strengthen one by weakening another; and you can’t increase the height of a dwarf by cutting off giant’s legs.”
To end the Tall Poppy Syndrome we must understand that comparisons are unnecessary and counterproductive. We are all different and shine differently. We also need to understand that we all have limitations and that it is not necessary to get to where others arrive. Everyone must seek their way to happiness, not success.
We must feel grateful for diversity, instead of seeing it as a danger. Only when we make that change of mentality, on a personal and social level, we can let each poppy grow at its own pace and get where it wants to go.
Dediu, A. (2015) Tall Poppy Syndrome and its effect on work performance A dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Science in Applied Psychology. New Zeland: University of Canterbury.
Spacey, S. (2015) Crab Mentality, Cyberbullying and “Name and Shame”. Semantic Scholar.