Blog first published as a guest blog on Medium by Perry Timms on May 14th 2020: https://medium.com/@PerryTimms/takeover-f9c504b7004e
If you’re anything like me, when you go to work, you do so with the very best intentions: you want to work for a caring organisation, in a role that will enable you to live out your purpose, make a difference, make some money and allow you to leverage your strengths in order to help people and/or help the organisation to achieve greater success.
Performing a role with passion, dedication, energy and a bit of sparkle is paramount. Passionate people just can’t do things in half measures. We set ourselves high standards and always give 100% to everything we do. In other words
It is an ethos that I live by.
On the face of it, you would think that individuals with such passion and high standards are the type of employees that every organisation wants and that every manager would love to have on their team. However, counterintuitively, this is not necessarily always the case. In some organisations and teams it actually doesn’t pay to be fully engaged, enthusiastic and passionate. Individuals who give 100% and stand out in some way are often met with suspicion, envy and disquiet, triggering behaviours such as undermining, bullying and even sabotage, sometimes by peers and sometimes by leaders themselves.
But how can we make sense of that?
Research has been undertaken which demonstrates that being a high performer can actually come with heavy social costs and that it can make the individual’s colleagues resent them and even actively undermine or sabotage their work. Gino (2017) says that:
“Decades of research on social comparisons show that when we size ourselves up relative to people who are better than we are (or as good as we are) on a particular dimension, we are likely to experience discomfort, envy, or fear. These emotions, in turn, affect our decisions and our interactions with others.” 
I’ve recently been taking a ‘Science of Wellbeing’ online course with Yale University and the idea of drawing social comparisons is something that is discussed by the instructor, Laurie Santos. She asserts that our minds will automatically make judgements about others, using things that we deem to be important as reference points, for example performance levels or salary. The comparisons that we draw can make us feel that another individual is more successful than we are in some way and that might lead us to treat someone unfairly/unkindly simply due to our own perceptions or our fragile ego. 
The Tall Poppy
A term that I’ve only recently come across is ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’  and, even though the term is new to me, I have definitely seen the scenario played out within organisations during my 30 year career. Essentially, ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ asserts that someone who stands out from the crowd, or is deemed to be above average in some way in the workplace (perhaps having higher qualifications, more experience, higher performance levels, or perceived by others as having experienced more success) may be targeted and intentionally ‘cut down to size’ - the analogy being that the tall poppy needs to be brought down to the same height as the other poppies in the field.
The high achiever (tall poppy) invariably doesn’t personally feel, or behave in a way to suggest, that they are better than anyone else and just carries out their role to the best of their ability. Envy that is displayed by others towards this type of individual is based purely on judgements, comparisons, perceptions and insecurities, it has nothing at all to do with the actions of the person that is being targeted and everything to do with the way that the envious individual, or group, feels about themselves.
Exacerbating the situation, tall poppies may be given opportunities to take part in high profile activities outside of their immediate role, simply because they are so passionate – something that only adds fuel to the fire, or in this case, vigour to the cutting!
Individuals may feel threatened by what they perceive as ‘success’ and so may feel the need to cut the ‘tall poppy’ down to size so that they feel better about themselves, or so that they are closer to the same level, becoming what’s known as a ‘poppy cutter’. A way that this ‘cutting down’ may be put into action might be by subtly beginning to undermine the good work that the high achiever is doing, making comments to others with malicious intentions, saying one thing to the individual and then a completely different thing to others and creating doubt amongst others, intentionally sabotaging work and character.
It sounds pretty unbelievable, that someone’s jealousy can lead them to behave in such a seemingly calculated way, doesn’t it? However, I’m sure that many of you have either seen this in action, or experienced this type of behaviour with you as the target – it is a very real problem that can poison teams and, if not addressed quickly, can have a knock on impact on entire workplaces.
Sowing the Seeds (Isn’t it supposed to be seeds of love?
At a very simplistic level, if one person were to sow the seed of “He thinks he’s better than everyone else.”, or “ He said X, Y and Z”, this might then grow to become a strongly held perception within the group, even if there is absolutely no truth to the assertion or the rumour. The ease in which others might accept the information that has been introduced can be somewhat explained by the concepts of ‘Groupthink’  and ‘Conformity Bias’ . Both concepts rationalise how individuals may prioritise a sense of belonging within the group over anything else and, as a result, team members may go along with what other people have said just so that they can fit in and not become excluded themselves. Much like the situation in the school playground where children might join the side of the bully so that they aren’t so likely to be in danger of becoming a victim themselves.
Both ‘Groupthink’ and ‘Conformity Bias’ can be hugely problematic in this type of workplace scenario because judgements are invariably not actually based on fact and may be driven purely by the initial roots of envy of one person, or group of people, wanting to cut an individual down to size. What may begin as initial pangs of envy can go on to really damage an individual’s reputation, relationships and their well-being.
If leaders are the initiator, or also part of the wider group, the workplace situation can become impossible and it can lead to unfair judgements being made in a variety of areas, for example: at appraisals or reviews; when distributing workloads; when choosing to give or withhold support; when choosing to give or withhold praise; being overly critical of the individual’s work; giving negative feedback that is subjective or not based on fact; excluding the individual from decision-making in day-to-day matters that impact them; allocating heavy workloads and setting the individual up to fail. There are of course so many more ways that both leaders and other employees can create an impossibly toxic environment for individuals if they are that way inclined, the net result of such behaviour being that it can leave the individual feeling isolated, unsupported, stressed and at risk of becoming severely burnt out.