Women of Influence has released new findings on the experiences of women in the workplace. In partnership with Thomson Reuters, Canadian HR Reporter and Viewpoint Leadership, Women of Influence conducted research with more than 1,500 respondents to release The Tallest Poppy: High-performing women pay a steep price for success, a report that delves deep into Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS). Among other findings, the report reveals that nearly nine in 10 women (87.3 per cent) feel their successes have been undermined by others in the workplace.

TPS refers to a person (the poppy) who is cut down due to their success or recent achievement. The poppy may be torn down by any number of colleagues within the workplace and even their family and friends, causing a deep impact on the individual as well as the organization’s culture and performance.

“Despite many advancements for women in the workplace, we routinely hear first-hand accounts of the challenges many bright, talented women face each day,” said Stephania Varalli, Co-CEO, Women of Influence. “Through our courses, events and content, Women of Influence works to break down barriers for women in the workplace, so taking a closer look at Tall Poppy Syndrome was an eye-opening study. It shows just how much work remains.”

Men and women are almost equally to blame

According to respondents, men and women were nearly even in being identified as the culprit of cutting down others’ successes at 27.6 per cent and 31 per cent respectively. The remainder of those surveyed (41.2 per cent) stated that they felt penalized for their accomplishments by both genders. Victims of this phenomenon also indicated that their discriminators came from many areas of the workplace. Respondents listed males in the C-Suite (including CEOs), female peers/colleagues and managers as the leading offenders in cutting down their successes. Nearly half of those surveyed (43.9 per cent) had even felt cut down by their friends. Further perpetuating the problem, more than four in 10 respondents witnessed a coworker being cut down and didn’t step in, and approximately one in 10 admitted to participating.

Cutting down the Poppy comes in many different forms

While there are a number of ways in which women have felt undermined in the workplace, the most common responses included downplayed or dismissed achievements, being excluded and silenced, and others taking credit for their achievements. The majority of participants (70.3 per cent) indicated that penalties for their achievements were both verbal and non-verbal and a mix of direct and indirect punishments. Many also felt that they had been blocked from opportunities and promotions within the workplace as a form of punishment. At the root of TPS, most felt that jealousy (83.2 per cent), sexism/gender stereotypes (68.6 per cent) and lack of confidence (59.8 per cent) were the key drivers in causing offenders to lash out against tall poppies.

TPS can have lasting effects

With consistent penalization from peers, managers and execs within the workplace, 64.7 per cent reported issues with self confidence and self esteem and 46.2 per cent developed negative self talk. More than half (60.3 per cent) even felt the need to downplay their own achievements to avoid judgement and punishment from others. Respondents also listed anxiety and depression as side effects of the treatment they had experienced within their career. In fact, nearly half (48.9 per cent) of tall poppies felt that their experiences impacted their desire to apply for a promotion.

Impacting more than just individuals, TPS can have many negative effects on workplaces at the organizational level. Stemming from a toxic work environment, 69.5 per cent reported that being cut down impacted their productivity. Furthermore, those surveyed reported a lack of trust among coworkers (69.2 per cent), disengagement from work (59.2 per cent) and imposter syndrome (56.7 per cent). This culture of distrust leads many high achievers to look for opportunities elsewhere (59.1 per cent), causing many organizations to lose top talent.

How do we move forward?

While it’s clear that there is a systemic issue plaguing women in the workplace, respondents were open about their desires for positive change.

“Women identified training and development and leading by example as the top strategies to enable high achieving women to flourish in their careers,” said Varalli. “Sponsorship and mentorship programs were indicated as a way to combat TPS and help women navigate the workplace, so we are hopeful that organizations like ours will continue to help women reach their full potential unopposed.”

Although experiencing TPS themselves, 96.7 per cent of women still reported being supportive of other women and 98.7 per cent reacted positively when a colleague shares a recent achievement. The data suggests that there is hope to shift the competitive attitude away from tall poppies; however, education, training and mentoring will be crucial to ensure everyone from the ground floor to the C-suite is on board.