Can vulnerability cure the Tall Poppy Syndrome?

By nature, we humans are constantly comparing ourselves to others, and when it appears we are less than or not matching up, it creates discomfort. In this article, leadership coach John Williams explores why humans react in this way, how we can overcome it and why we should celebrate success in others, not tear them down.


Jul 07, 2022


4 mins read

If you are trying to make a difference, you’ve probably experienced the Tall Poppy Syndrome. That’s because if you stick your head up by excelling at something, there will always be someone attempting to cut you down to size. Sadly, it’s all too common to hear people tearing down others who have gained success, or even just dared to try, when the complainant has not. This behaviour can be particularly destabilising in businesses and to individuals' careers as it undermines success and creates an illusionary barrier for those hearing the complaints and the complainant themselves. It’s as though the complainant believes something other than hard work and talent, something out of their control but within the successful person’s, has resulted in this outcome. In reality, it’s an inability to accept they are not in the limelight, fueled by a fear of failure, which is the basis for their complaint. In this article, we explore why humans react in this way and how we can overcome it.

The Tall Poppy Syndrome is a known problem throughout Australia and New Zealand. However, if we reframe the syndrome as jealousy in action, it’s clear this problem occurs around the globe. So why do people act in this way? The Tall Poppy Syndrome is a spectacularly useless demonstration of people putting others down in an attempt to feel better about themselves. It’s human nature to be constantly comparing ourselves to others, and when it appears we are less than or not matching up, it creates discomfort.

Consequently, we feel the need to reconcile the dissonance, telling ourselves there must be a reason. Perhaps the other person has a particular advantage. Maybe they are not telling the truth about their success, or they’re exaggerating the truth. It may be a timing issue. Whatever the reason, it is often very challenging to sit back and say, "Fair play, well done," and accept the real reason they are where they are, which is probably hard work and talent. Of course, there can be other genuinely valid reasons why one person could have an advantage over another. They may have come from wealth, been educated in private schools, and been provided with the resources or capital to get their lives started. So, what!  

What does it serve anyone by comparing yourself to another person, particularly someone who may have enjoyed some of these advantages, let alone when you attack them for their success? Even if you are believed, what have you achieved? Are you any better off because you’ve torn someone else down? As humans, it is our nature to feel disappointed and the weight of disadvantage. But attacking or casting a dark light on the humans you choose to compare yourself to is the definition of pointless. Unfortunately, many people cannot bear the discomfort and/or disappointment of not being the one who got the promotion or the house or the romantic partner.

Vulnerability cuts off denial 

Being vulnerable does indeed offer a cure to the Tall Poppy Syndrome.  By learning to be with vulnerability, to sit in the discomfort and accept the implied self-criticism, we give ourselves the ability to become better adapted to those feelings and recognise them as a signal it’s time to grow. Being willing to accept what is, and be grateful for it, instead of being bitter and fuming over our losses opens the door to taking responsibility. Instead of tearing someone down, you could use your vulnerability to be humble and interrogate the situation to discover the real reason why they are in the spotlight, and you are not. For instance, you could ask yourself, “Who and how do I have to BE in order to be the one in the spotlight? What does that mean in relation to the way I am currently living my life? What do I have to change?”

The willingness to take responsibility for outcomes regardless of the circumstances is key to empowering yourself to change your circumstances. But you cannot take responsibility for anything when you are blaming someone or something or some set of circumstances for whatever has occurred; you are but a cork in the surf of life. Just as crabs and other crustaceans are forced to shed their hardened armour to enable them to grow, leaving them open to attack, you must be prepared to lower your shield and consciously decide to be vulnerable to grow as a person. A perfect person cannot improve, yet if you do not have what you want, you cannot be perfect, so pretending to be perfect makes no sense whatsoever! Crabs have been around for more than 450 million years; growth has been associated with vulnerability since the beginning of time. 

Next time you feel that urge to criticise a colleague, friend or teammate who has excelled because you’re feeling ‘less than’ or ‘not good enough’, switch the focus onto yourself.  Be vulnerable, do the homework, work out the real reason you're really feeling the need to attack them and drag them down. If you can’t figure it out, dig deeper and become even more vulnerable, or seek support from someone (like a coach). Then get to work so the next time around, you’ve earned the podium and the applause because you won’t get there any other way.


John Williams

About The Author

John's skills lay in ensuring you are operating at your peak so you can honour the commitment you’ve made to yourself and Be the leader you were born to be. Leaving school at 17, he went straight into the workforce. By 23, he was a General Manager. He climbed to the top of his profession as a senior manager in a billion dollar, multinational trading company where he simultaneously led projects in Europe, Asia, America and back in his home in Australia. In his 40’s, he earned an EMBA, studied negotiation at Harvard Business School, and gained a Professional Certificate in Arbitration. He is a son, husband, father, step father and grandfather who for over 30 years has been studying what makes some people successful while others are stuck in ever decreasing loops. What he has discovered is that we need to go beyond what we’re ‘doing’ and look at who we are ‘Being’.

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