The Tallest Poppy data made me angry: Opinion

Emotional resilience is being destroyed in the place it should be nurtured, developed – but there is reason for hope

The Tallest Poppy data made me angry: Opinion
Rumeet Billan (above) was the co-author of The Tallest Poppy survey, a partnership between Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters, Viewpoint Leadership and Women of Influence.

Depressed. Rejected. Alone. Unsafe. Anxious. Broken.

That's how some of the women responding to The Tallest Poppy survey said they felt.

When developing the survey, we knew Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) was an issue, but didn’t truly understand exactly how deep of an issue it was effecting women in the workplace. After the survey closed on June 30, 2018, I spent the rest of the summer analyzing the 268 pages of data collected.

Reading the responses to each question and hundreds of stories and experiences that were submitted, I was left angry and with a pit in my stomach. Especially when 69 per cent of respondents reported that TPS impacted their self-esteem and contributed to negative self-talk.

“My recent experience has been a complete nightmare, the worst experience I've ever had and worse than I could have ever imagined,” said one respondent.

“Seeing my answers to some of these questions increased my own awareness around exactly how deeply my toxic workplace has affected and continues to affect me. I have needed to seek both medical and psychological services to endure my workplace,” said another.

“I feel I have nowhere to turn that will get me help without getting me a pile of grief. I’m scared to say anything,” said another woman.

I felt anger reading these responses because lives are literally being torn apart in the workplace. I was angry because we put so much value on the opinions of others that it impacts our opinion of ourselves. I was angry because we allow others' insecurities to change the language that we use with ourselves to that of constant self-criticism. It left a pit in my stomach because people's emotional resilience is being destroyed in the very place it should be nurtured and developed.

Respondents reported that one of the contributing factors to TPS is envy. It's no surprise that when jealousy is at play we bring others down to make ourselves feel better. But, why is it that we have to dim the light of others in order for ours to shine brighter or at least feel as though it is shining brighter? If we are hurting for whatever reason – whether it's that we didn’t receive a promotion or aren’t where we personally want to be – why is it that we use this to hurt others and bring them down?

More than 40 per cent of respondents say they had witnessed co-workers being attacked and undermined and had done nothing to help. Ten per cent admitted to doing the same thing to colleagues themselves.

“I was scared to speak up and offer suggestions or opinions for fear of being denigrated. I've observed this behaviour towards others and I didn't step in to defend them, I chose to sit silent rather than being confronted myself,” said one respondent.

The survey received similar replies from across the country, from all sectors and industries, from all ages, from all levels of power. It's not just one company, not just one profession. This is the corporate system we've built, one where cutthroat competition is key and empathy takes a backseat to personal success.

“I have hated myself when I sensed I may have fallen victim to participating in this deplorable behaviour and realize I have done it because it's prevalent in organizational culture,” said one respondent.

We've built a corporate culture that has worn down employees' psychological capital so much that they no longer have the strength or empathy to stand up for others. In fact, they begin to cut down colleagues themselves. They begin to engage in the very acts that have tormented them.

“Accept without question that it is real,” said one respondent. “That people are suffering. That an organization is less than it should be for allowing it to occur or ignoring its existence. That if leadership (at all levels) does not accept it as real, does not examine the roots and processes that allow it to flourish and grow, then they are the ones empowering this widespread, debilitating ‘disease’ to spread.”

Does it have to be this way?

I recently heard someone say, “collaboration is the new competition.” If we can begin to let our guard down, begin to celebrate others instead of tearing them down, if we can work together instead of against each other, we can begin to shift the culture – to one where everything isn’t a zero sum game. If we learn that we are not lessened because someone else succeeds, we can start to open doors for others, and we can start to focus on developing self-worth, self-confidence and self-esteem.

This is the kind of workplace I hope for current and future generations to participate in, one that allows us to flourish, to not only reach our potential but go beyond the limits we set for ourselves. In the end, everyone will win. Right now, no-one is winning.

Rumeet Billan is the chief learning architect at Viewpoint Leadership and lead researcher and can be reached at or (416) 566-7478. Join Rumeet at a special event, hosted by Canadian HR Reporter and Thomson Reuters, on Oct. 9. You can attend by webinar or in-person in downtown Toronto. Visit for more information.

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