Many 'tall poppies' cut down at work

Women often belittled, bullied or dismissed – but many determined to rise back up: Exclusive Canadian HR Reporter survey

Many 'tall poppies' cut down at work
The Tallest Poppy research project attracted more than 1,500 responses from professionals across Canada. Shutterstock

To rise up in the workplace, to succeed and stand tall — to be a “tall poppy” — is something that should be celebrated and encouraged. And yet many women find themselves cut down, attacked, resented and criticized because of their achievements.

This can lead to productivity and disengagement issues, alongside absenteeism and turnover, according to a survey delving into “Tall Poppy Syndrome” (TPS) by Canadian HR Reporter in partnership with Viewpoint Leadership and Women of Influence.

The perpetrators are almost evenly split between women (31 per cent) and men (27 per cent), or both (41 per cent), found the survey of more than 1,500 people.

And the most common ways they cut women down is through cyberbullying (64 per cent), bullying (58), dismissals of achievements (55), calling someone selfish or superior (52), taking credit for others’ work (51), and leaving out or ignoring successful women, or downplaying their achievements (both 50 per cent).

Mostly, it feels as if tall poppies are being penalized, said Lauren van den Berg, national vice-president of government affairs at Restaurants Canada in Toronto.

“Whether it was doing a good job on a project or making a win on a particular policy issue, whatever the case was, it was downplayed in public, it wasn’t celebrated the way the successes of my colleagues, my male colleagues may have been — to the point where you start thinking you’re taking crazy pills,” she said. “And that sort of self-doubt perpetuates itself.”

For Jennifer Petryshen, a lawyer at the Office of the Attorney General of New Brunswick, it was mostly behaviour you would characterize as bullying, so “people just refusing to speak, people being overly critical of things that were either minor mistakes, or not really mistakes at all, which this one person escalated to the point of yelling at me in front of a waiting room full of people, like ‘I don’t know why you think you’re so special.’”

And the response from the organization was disappointing, choosing to view it as a personality conflict with the mantra that “people just need to get along,” she said, when the situation was clearly beyond that.

Sometimes, it can be more passive-aggressive behaviour, according to Reva Ramsden, associate dean at the School of Manufacturing, Automation and Transportation at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, in recalling a meeting where a supervisor was explaining an issue and said it was probably too complicated for some of the people in the room.

“It was so subtle and so inappropriate, and I thought about it after, and I’m like ‘Does he even realize how that came across?’ I don’t even think he was aware of it, because it was accepted for so long.”

At a previous employer, Jennifer Cordeiro, manager of talent acquisition in consulting and deals at PWC in Toronto, was faced with women who had been there for a long period of time and resented her success.

“They didn’t like that so much and would try to sabotage that. So (that meant) not delivering on my client messages, not taking the orders from clients that would call, things would go missing — just so I would then have a fall from that.”

Productivity issues

Not surprisingly, this kind of behaviour takes its toll.

Seventy per cent of respondents said it impacted their productivity at work. Sixty-five per cent cited lower self-esteem; 60 per cent said they downplayed or didn’t share their achievements; and 46 per cent had negative self-talk.

“If you’re spending eight, nine, 10 hours a day at your job, ostensibly it’s because you want to do a good job. And when there’s no acknowledgement or recognition for that, you start to second-guess yourself. And that’s sort of how the poppies can, I guess, cut themselves down,” said van den Berg.

“It also had a very isolating effect.”

It got to a point where Petryshen wondered if she just had a problem with women.

“It does really lead you to question yourself,” she said. “And I couldn’t pin it on anything else. You know, I got along with everybody else. It was unusual for me, all of a sudden, to find a group of people I couldn’t get along with, but it ended up really being demoralizing,” she said. “It just sort of sucks the joy out of the workplace… you start having the Sunday night dreads and ‘Oh my God, I have to go back there.’”

Most often, tall poppies who had been cut down at work came to feel a lack of trust of co-workers (70 per cent), or were either disengaged from their work or looked for a new job (both 59 per cent), while 57 per cent were disengaged from their organization or experienced imposter syndrome (meaning they felt inadequate and filled with self-doubt despite being successful).

Fifty-three per cent said they felt disconnected from their peers or co-workers, while 46 per cent actually left a previous job because of the behaviour. Thirty-six per cent were disengaged from meetings while 20 per cent were absent from work and 19 per cent gave others credit for work they had done.

“It got to the point where you couldn’t do anything without being criticized for it. And I ended up switching and transferring to another hospital in town,” said Petryshen.

“Management didn’t want to touch it with a 10-foot pole, the union didn’t want to touch it, and there was really no resolution to it, except somebody had to leave the workplace for it to get better.”

It can be difficult raising the issue, she said.

“Any of these things taken individually are so tiny that you either feel silly complaining about them, or you do complain, and they’re like, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous, suck it up, buttercup.’ And so, though it’s really subtle, it’s sort of this death by 1,000 cuts.”

By doing a great job, Petryshen said she faced interpersonal conflict around whether to go the extra mile.

“If you see the opportunity to take care of something in the department, do you do it? Because, you know if that person sees it done, it’s just going to make your life worse… you feel sort of like there’s just no way you can win in that situation, after a while, and the best solution is just to remove yourself, if no one else is going to do anything about it.”

Fifty-seven per cent of respondents said they felt pressured to downplay or not share their achievements at work. Almost half (49 per cent) said the behaviour impacted their desire to apply for a promotion while another 49 per cent said they felt they would be penalized if they were perceived as ambitious at work.

“It contributes a great deal to what makes a toxic work environment toxic, because if your best people don’t feel engaged or recognized or appreciated, they’re not going to be your best people for very long, and all you’ll have left is the middling back-end of the pack. And the organization as a whole will suffer — deliverables, outputs will suffer, members and clients will suffer — but so will the industry, reputations, brand, all the good work that has been done will be sort of brain-drained,” said van den Berg.

“As much as it made me angry and motivated me to do better, it also was like, ‘Well, why the hell am I giving you my best effort when I’m not getting anything in return, if I’m not benefiting in some way, whether it be through promotion or recognition, or a pay raise or title or... quality of life and work-life balance?’ So you vote with your feet.”

Motivated to succeed

However, 42 per cent said TPS also made them want to achieve more.

There’s often no greater motivator than being angry, and using that constructively, said van den Berg — “using it to motivate yourself, to push yourself, to prove yourself that much more. Because we’re doing that already, most of the time, as women in a workforce dominated by men… it spurns you on to go further.”

“It made me want to push harder and do that much better to make sure that no one could find fault with whatever it was I was doing with my work ethic, with my output, with my deliverables.”

While the bullying could be a blow to self-esteem, said Cordeiro, she is also someone “who would fight harder to earn that respect.”

In one situation, for example, where her peers were trying to sabotage her work and take credit for it, she worked hard to get along with those individuals.

“I was able to be very straightforward, provide feedback,
express my feelings and my objectives and long-term goals. And I was able to turn that relationship around and manage it,” she said.

“But it is stressful — when you go home at the end of the day, you’re like ‘Oh, my gosh, why are people doing this and trying to sabotage my successes? Either I take it, or I try and find something else to make a difference.’”

What’s behind the behaviour?

As to why people choose to cut down others because of their success, most respondents cited jealousy or envy (83 per cent), followed by sexism or gender stereotypes (68 per cent), the culture of an organization (61 per cent), lack of confidence (60 per cent) or lack of awareness (29 per cent).

“It’s always been old white men who know other old white men; it’s done by Rolodexes rather than by merit,” said van den Berg.

“It’s been such an old-school environment — a lot of those sort of institutional memories linger.”

For women, modesty and humility are vaunted over success, and many people who feel inadequate cut down the ambitious folk rather than developing ambition and drive to succeed on their own, she said.

“It’s those challenges that, in turn, are reinforced by how women are expected to behave in the workplace, and how we’re penalized for any number of ‘masculine qualities’ that would otherwise be celebrated.”

It feels cliché to say someone is jealous, said Petryshen, but there was an element of jealousy with one of her bullies, who disparaged her house and husband.

“It really just spoiled the work environment, which was otherwise technically a very interesting job and the other people were lovely. But it’s that one person who just sort of poisons the well.”

Sometimes, it’s a person’s lack of education or self-awareness that makes them want to cut others down, said Ramsden.

“You go back to emotional intelligence… some of these things are so obvious that if we took the time to have the discussion, people would realize the impact of their words, or those subtle ways of phrasing things. And, I think it would go a long way in improving,” she said.

“It’s just the courage to have the conversation and the courage to confront someone because, I think, nine times out of 10, they don’t even realize (what they’re doing) because it is so ingrained in our culture or it is such a part of the culture where they work,” said Ramsden.

“And sometimes I think they’re worried about their own expertise being questioned, so a lot of it stems from ego and pride. But if you’re just brave enough to have a conversation, we’re all pretty reasonable individuals at the end of the day.”

And the thing about poppies is “there’s plenty of space for all of us,” said van den Berg.

“It’s not a zero-sum game and one tall poppy doesn’t make it impossible for another poppy to grow taller, too.”


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