Over the years, I have come to notice that the individualistic nature of American society fosters a very competitive environment, especially in school and the workplace. Consequently, many people fall victim to “tall poppy syndrome.” During high school, I worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken, where I observed tall poppy syndrome regularly. One specific instance I witnessed was motivated by the promotion of one of the restaurant’s cooks to assistant manager. Chris was the restaurant’s best and most efficient cook, he worked diligently at KFC for a long time and had finally earned his way into a manager position. However, my coworkers who had also put in multiple years working at KFC were unhappy with Chris’s promotion and instead of maintaining their friendly relationship with him, they let their jealousy cause them to resent him and treat him with disrespect. When Chris would manage, my coworkers would refuse to do some of the menial tasks that he would ask them to, like restock the biscuit trays or scoop cole slaw. Their envious retaliation turned out to be the demise of Chris’s role as a manager. When the corporate officials came to the restaurant for a surprise inspection, Chris was the manager on duty. I witnessed my coworkers ignore his orders to maintain constant fresh food and follow company rules meticulously, merely because they resented his position as their superior and wanted to see him fail at it. Due to this lack of control, my restaurant failed the inspection and Chris was demoted back to being the cook.
Tall poppy syndrome can be catalyzed by the traits that the observers witness from the ‘tall poppy’ themselves. In Chris’s case, he portrayed boastful and pompous traits. Rather than being humble about accepting his manager position, Chris would brag to my coworkers and I and often make remarks such as, “well, I’m the boss now so you have to do what I say.” His arrogance angered the employees, causing them to lash out at him. Chris’s lack of modesty and abuse of newfound power ultimately added to the observers’ initial jealousy, giving them even more of a reason to sabotage his promotion. Chris took pride in the hard work he put in to achieve the job as manager, however, his pride quickly turned into hubris. While one has the right to take pride in their own success in being the high performer, that pride should not be excessive to the point where it taunts the observers. These pretentious traits ultimately triggered more anger within the observers because they reduced their tolerance to deal with a situation that they already found personally upsetting.
In order to refrain from the manifestation of tall poppy syndrome, the high performers of a group can take measures to alleviate feelings of resentment and envy in their observers. The first thing a high performer can do is be humble when being recognized for their success. For example, Chris was boastful about his promotion. Rather than relentlessly reminding others of his promotion and using it as leverage with the employees, Chris should have quietly taken over as the new assistant manager and assumed that role while maintaining respect for his employees. If he were to take this route, my coworkers would have felt more inclined to be happy for him and his achievement. Furthermore, without Chris’s taunting, my coworkers wouldn’t have been as disposed to belittle his role as their superior. As a matter of fact, if Chris acted with kindness and modesty, I believe my coworkers would have felt too guilty to denounce his position. Another way ‘tall poppies’ can prevent resentment from their peers is to treat everyone as an equal and level the playing field. When everyone truly feels like they are treated as an equal, the tension between each individual tends to subside because equality helps create a less competitive environment. For instance, my coworker Kayla was hoping for a management position around the time that Chris obtained his. When he boasted about his achievement and acted haughtily, he created a competitive work environment which invigorated Kayla’s resentment toward him receiving the position that she wanted. This illusory competition caused Kayla to act out against Chris and gave her a justification to tear down his accomplishments. While bitterness and spite among peers is almost inevitable, with the right precautions, they are not impossible to alleviate. Ultimately, high performers should be conscientious about the negative feelings their observers may experience in regards to their success and act accordingly so that they do not act in a way that heightens the intensity of those feelings.