I was talking to someone who I hadn’t yet realised wasn’t my friend. At the time, I was only just beginning to think about undertaking an Honours year. I was explaining the process to them, focusing on the marks you need to achieve to be considered – because that’s what they asked me.
They looked down at me and said, ‘I just can’t imagine doing that, it’s really not for me…a whole year for what?’
According to the Australian Government, common values held by Australians are: respect, freedom, and dignity (Department of Home Affairs). These words form part of the Australian Values Statement that must be signed by anyone who is seeking provisional, permanent, and a small number of temporary visas in Australia. Above all, applicants must pledge to respect these values of Australian society.
But what happens when Australian citizens can’t lead by example?
The cautionary words ‘be careful who you step on your way up, because you’ll meet them again on your way back down’ represent an odd way of thinking in Australian society.
Australians are afflicted by the strange phenomenon of tall poppy syndrome. Tall poppy syndrome describes a practice where people who are high achievers are ‘cut down’, resented, or criticised for their achievements. Tall poppy syndrome has slightly deviated from its original meaning as Australians have made it their own – taking a more sarcastic angle, and even directing the vitriol at themselves. In Australia, tall poppy syndrome is seen as bringing someone ‘down to earth’ and is deeply rooted in the ‘fair go’ mentality. But according to the Australian Spinal Research Foundation, there is a blurred line between maliciousness and a ‘good natured ribbing’ (Australian Spinal Research Foundation 2016).
In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, the head of engineering at Google Australia Alan Noble stated that ‘the classic Aussie trait of not wanting to broadcast our successes may “actually hinder us”’ and ‘there’s nothing like success to foster success’ (Sydney Morning Herald 2012). More concerningly, Dr Damian Kristof stated in his 100 Not Out podcast that ‘in order for people to move ahead, they almost need to disassociate themselves from their peers because their peers generally are the ones that are going to hold them back’ (100 Not Out 2016). Tall poppy syndrome is a direct block to the future of work and deviates away from values-centred professionalism. Tall poppy syndrome upholds a toxic cultural value designed to limit self-worth, which is the opposite of respect, freedom, and dignity.
‘I just can’t imagine doing that, it’s really not for me…a whole year for what?’
‘Well that’s ok, it’s not for everyone.’
But then I thought: Yeah? You’re not smart enough anyway.
Tall poppy syndrome is an issue at both an individual and societal level. One solution to combatting it is narrative practice/therapy. According to Alice Morgan, ‘narrative therapy seeks to be a respectful, non-blaming approach to counselling and community work, which centres people as the experts in their own lives’ (Morgan, 2000). Narrative practice is the ‘re-storying’ of conversations. Morgan states that:
‘…we have stories about ourselves, our abilities, our struggles, our competencies, our actions, our desires, our relationships, our work, our interests, our conquests, our achievements, our failures. The way we have developed these stories is determined by how we have linked certain events together in a sequence and by the meaning we have attributed to them’ (Morgan, 2000).
For example, a person may have an idea of themselves as a good problem solver. This person would string together evidence of themselves demonstrating problem solving skills and interpret these as indication that they are a good problem solver. This is called ‘dominant stories’ – these dominant stories are given meaning and assist in shaping lives for future decisions. Outside influences may also have a significant impact on solidifying a dominant narrative: this includes the tall poppy phenomenon.
When examining how narrative practice can combat tall poppy syndrome, we can look at a case study of speaking up in the workplace. This is not referring to a situation where people are required to report misconduct, but rather sharing their ideas and offering solutions to problems. In the news article ‘How to Speak Out at Work Without Being Labelled “Bossy”’ by Libby-Jane Charleston, the idea of being a woman and speaking up at work is followed by concerns of being perceived as ‘over opinionated’ or being ‘up herself’ (Huffington Post, 2016).
If we take the situation in the Charleston article and examine it with a hypothetical example, we are able to come to an understanding of how tall poppy syndrome is multifaceted.
It is Person A’s job to identify complex problems and offer solutions to fix them. Person A speaks up at a work meeting, knowing that what they are saying is correct and beneficial to their workplace. However, Person A’s main concern is not the workplace issue, but rather that they do not want to be perceived as over-confident by their colleagues. Person A’s colleagues – Person B, C and D – think that while Person A is correct, they should have kept quiet during the meeting and offered the solution privately to the manager. Person B may now also hold some resentment towards Person A because they also thought of the same solution, but felt they couldn’t speak up because they would be perceived negatively.
Person A’s dominant narrative about themselves may now shift – usually they are a problem solver, but the reaction of their colleagues might indicate they have started a problem instead of solving it. This may not be the first occurrence of this situation in Person A’s work history.
Where narrative practice can resolve the damage of tall poppy syndrome is through the teachings of Michael White, who drew on his experiences of working with trauma survivors to help develop narrative therapy. White’s technique is based on having patients externalise their problem and come up with stories to re-evaluate the situation from a positive perspective (NY Times 2008). This has also been given the label of ‘the absent but implicit’ – which is a way of understanding how we react to situations we don’t like (Bowles, 2018).
Yeah? You’re not smart enough anyway.
Now that I look back on that situation there are so many different ways I would have reacted. I would have challenged the other person. Told them the truth. Asked questions.
Maybe they weren’t smart enough. Or they were jealous.
Or did they genuinely think they didn’t have the ability?
And why was my first conclusion that they couldn’t do it, rather than they just didn’t want to?
No one likes being cut down to size.
This notion of absent but implicit can be extracted through the ‘small steps’ exercise. This exercise is about ‘learning from a decision or intervention or small step that you took recently, in relation to yourself or others, that had a successful outcome’ (Bowles, 2018). The exercise involves four steps focusing on naming, reflecting, connecting, and noticing support. The questions aim to help the person develop a sense of the values that are important to them (the absent but implicit). When practicing the absent but implicit, Dr Kate Bowles stated that ‘preferences for good ways of living and working will often be centred on your core values, sometimes you will only learn about these through experiencing grievance’ (Bowles, 2018).
In a work environment, the small steps exercise would be completed by two people who have had a small conflict – if we apply the small steps exercise to the above hypothetical example of how tall poppy syndrome works, it would happen like this:
Person A and Person B would work together to answer the same set of questions.
Person A would identify a situation at work which left them unsatisfied, paying attention to the details of what did not sit right with them – in this case, it is the fact they were perceived as over-confident by their colleagues for doing their job.
The next step is to determine what would have been the opposite of that outcome. Person A would find that they wished their colleagues were more supportive of their work ethic. This identifies that support is a possible value that Person A has.
The third step is to reflect back on past actions – has Person A found that in other situations, they have successfully supported others? Person B might come to the realisation that Person A has showed a supportive nature many times in the workplace.
The final step is to identify someone who knows Person A would act this way. This gives Person A the confidence that they have correctly identified a value about themselves. Their goal is to support others by problem solving, not being overconfident in meetings.
Person B now comes to an understanding of why Person A acts the way they do. And when Person B completes the small steps exercise, Person A will have the same understanding.
Employees and managers often struggle with solving conflicts in the workplace, especially if it is caused by a societal issue like tall poppy syndrome. The implementation of narrative therapy/small steps as a means to solve workplace conflict is a collaborative, non-invasive approach that is directed by the shared interests of all parties involved – everyone learns from listening to themselves and to other people’s stories. This form of narrative practice fosters an understanding of values-centred professionalism and lays down the framework for how the future of work may possibly be shaped – and assists in stamping out the toxic affliction of tall poppy syndrome in the workplace.
Respect, freedom, and dignity are values that would encourage Australian society to move away from tall poppy syndrome. But instead of implementing them at the highest point of government and hoping they trickle down into the community, they should be demonstrated at grass roots – in schools, universities, and the workplace.
Leading by example is the most effective way to lead.
I submitted my Honours application four days ago.
I think back on the friend who wasn’t my friend, and I understand now that you can only bloom where you are planted.
Australian Spinal Research Foundation 2016, ‘Haters Gonna Hate: How to Kick Tall Poppy Syndrome’, Australian Spinal Research Foundation, viewed 29 October 2018, <https://spinalresearch.com.au/haters-gonna-hate-kick-tall-poppy-syndrome/>
Bowles, K 2018, BCM313-18 Week Four, Seminar, University of Wollongong
Bowles, K 2018, BCM313-18 Week One, Seminar, University of Wollongong
Charleston, LJ 2016, How To Speak Out At Work Without Being Labelled ‘Bossy’, Huffington Post, October 29 2018, <https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2016/07/07/how-to-speak-out-at-work-without-being-labelled-bossy_a_21425509/>
Department of Home Affairs, Australian Values Statement, Home Affairs, 29 October 2018, <https://www.homeaffairs.gov.au/trav/life/aust/life-in-australia-book>
Kristof, D and Pearce, M 2016, ‘100 Not Out’, podcast, 25 April, The Wellness Couch, viewed 29 October 2018, <http://thewellnesscouch.com/show/100-not-out>
Moses, A 2012, Australian and tall poppies: time to wake up, Sydney Morning Herald, viewed 29 October 2018, <https://www.smh.com.au/technology/australia-and-tall-poppies-time-to-wake-up-20120628-21413.html>
Morgan, A 2000, What Is Narrative Therapy?, Dulwich Centre, 30 October 2018, <https://dulwichcentre.com.au/what-is-narrative-therapy/>
Pearce, J 2008, Michael White, 59, Dies; Used Stories as Therapy, NY Times, October 30 2018, < https://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/28/us/28white.html>
Featured image: Nicole Honeywill