Tall poppy syndrome refers to a phenomenon in which people criticize, attack, or resent someone due to their success. This often occurs in the workplace and can harm the well-being of those who experience it.

People who achieve high levels of success or occupy high-status positions are vulnerable to tall poppy syndrome.

Jealousy, sexism, competitiveness, and other factors can motivate some people to react negatively to others’ accomplishments.

This article examines the origins of the term, who tall poppy syndrome primarily affects, and its causes. It also looks at the phenomenon’s effects, how to deal with tall poppy syndrome, and whether therapy could help someone manage its effects.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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People may devalue, criticize, attack, or dislike someone because they have achieved success.

Tall poppy syndrome refers to people wanting to “cut down” a person who stands out as a high achiever. The term references the image of a poppy that grows taller than the rest of the flowers in a field or garden.

The term originated in ancient Rome when the tyrannical king, Tarquin the Proud, instructed his son to kill or remove all the most powerful men in an area that resisted his rule. The king demonstrated his wishes by cutting the heads off the tallest poppies in his garden.

Tall poppy syndrome can occur in various forms and across different settings. It can involve others trying to undermine or devalue a person’s success and could include people aiming negative behaviors at high-achieving individuals, such as:

  • ignoring, excluding, or silencing them
  • mocking them
  • bullying or cyberbullying them
  • undermining them or their work
  • taking credit for their work
  • unfairly criticizing, berating, or disciplining them
  • dismissing or downplaying their accomplishments
  • gossiping about them
  • being openly hostile toward them

In a 2018 survey, people responded with examples of others targeting them in the workplace in specific ways, which included people:

  • labeling them as an impossible perfectionist
  • barring them from promotions
  • accusing them of being aggressive for speaking up
  • accusing them of being overpaid
  • labeling them as overly emotional
  • sabotaging their work
  • insinuating they did not achieve their success through hard work or legitimate means

A 2020 article notes that people in Australia and New Zealand are especially familiar with the term tall poppy syndrome.

Similar expressions exist in Japan, “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” and in China, “tall trees catch much wind,” suggesting that standing out or seeming to be above others invites trouble.

Tall poppy syndrome also regularly occurs in the United States and Canada, although people are typically less familiar with the term in these and other areas of the world.

Tall poppy syndrome may disproportionally affect women. According to 2018 research, women report receiving higher levels of uncivil treatment at work, which amplifies as they achieve higher levels of success.

In a 2023 survey of 4,710 women workers across 103 countries, 86.8% responded that they felt others had undermined their achievements in the workplace. These included instances of sexism, such as being held to a higher standard than male colleagues.

In the survey, 32.2% of the women reported that racism was also a contributing factor to tall poppy syndrome. Therefore, this phenomenon may disproportionally affect people of color.

Tall poppy syndrome typically affects people in the workplace. Research suggests that men may be more likely than women to undermine women for their success in the workplace.

Factors that may contribute to people attempting to cut down those they deem successful may include:

  • jealousy
  • sexism and gender stereotypes
  • racism
  • competitiveness
  • the culture of an organization
  • a person’s lack of confidence
  • a person’s lack of awareness

People may also experience tall poppy syndrome in their personal lives. People have also reported receiving hostile treatment due to their achievements from:

  • friends
  • partners and spouses
  • parents
  • siblings
  • in-laws
  • people on social networks

Tall poppy syndrome can lead to various negative effects on the person who is the target. These include:

Tall poppy syndrome often involves bullies targeting high-achievers in the workplace. The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) advises addressing workplace bullying by:

  • keeping a record of instances of bullying
  • calmly explaining the effects of their behavior to the perpetrator
  • recognizing that the criticism, hostility, or other bullying tactics are a reflection of the perpetrators of the behavior, not the person they target
  • seeking advice from an employee representative, HR professional, manager, or supervisor
  • sharing experiences with other employees
  • making a formal complaint according to an organization’s grievance procedures

Can therapy help deal with the effects of tall poppy syndrome?

The effects of tall poppy syndrome can include depression, anxiety, stress, low self-esteem, and burnout.

Researchers have found that psychotherapy can help a person manage these and other conditions and symptoms relating to tall poppy syndrome.

A mental health professional can also advise a person on subsequent treatments if necessary. These may include:

Mental health resources

Visit our dedicated hub for more research-backed information and resources on mental health and well-being.

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Tall poppy syndrome refers to people criticizing, resenting, or attacking someone due to that person’s success. Women and people of color in the workplace are often the targets of tall poppy syndrome, often due to the jealousy of colleagues, sexism, racism, and gender stereotypes.

Tall poppy syndrome may negatively affect a high-achieving person who is the target of the bullying behavior. These can include negative mental health effects, low self-esteem, and lower work productivity.

Therapy can help someone deal with the effects of tall poppy syndrome. It may also be helpful to take official steps to combat tall poppy syndrome in the workplace. These may include seeking advice from an HR professional, keeping a record of incidents, and filing a formal complaint.