Extraordinary Team Blog

Tall Poppies and Team Work

Posted by Kristin Arnold on July 13, 2011

You know how random thoughts converge into a new idea?  Just a few days ago, my husband, Joseph Sherren, was explaining the “tall poppy syndrome” to a friend.  The metaphor comes from Australia where tall poppies are not tolerated because they take the sunlight from other poppies.  So tall poppies get beheaded – chopped down so the field is even.  I see the tall poppy syndrome in dysfunctional teams where no one is allowed to let their talents shine.

I am reading the Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (No, I haven’t seen the HBO series– I like to read the books first!), and one of the characters, Jon Snow, is afflicted with the tall poppy syndrome when he first gets to the Wall.   Because he has had more training than the other boys, Jon takes great pride in defeating all the other boys during the training and sparring sessions. What happens?  The humiliated and frustrated boys attack him one night until one of the adults intervenes.  The armorer, Donal Noye, has a heart-to-heart talk about how Jon’s behaviors are being seen by the rest of the boys.  “Suddenly, [Jon] felt ashamed and guilty.  ‘I never….I didn’t think….’ [said Jon].   ‘Best you start thinking,’ Noye warned him.  “That, or sleep with a dagger by your bed.  Now go.'”

Here’s my random thought generator:  Teams NEED people with diverse talents and skills.  You just can’t show them too quickly.  Every team goes through a typical pattern of development – (Tuckman’s forming, storming, norming, and performing) – and tall poppies don’t do well during the forming phase when teams are initially come together.

While it is helpful to share your abilities with your team mates, there is a fine line between sharing and shining.  Only when you have moved into the norming phase where team members are more comfortable with each other will they be able to agree on how to “share” the limelight.  At different times, each team member can be a tall poppy!