How to Handle Tall Poppy Syndrome and Madras Crabs in the workplace

tall poppy syndrome

“True heroism is remarkably sober,  very undramatic.  It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever the cost, but the urge to serve others whatever the cost.”Arthur Ashe

I've been working with a client this past week who's something of a maverick. A rebel. A person who has a different opinion and ideas about the way forward. It's a joy for me to work with someone so intent on making a real difference and not content to follow the way things have been done in that particular organisation for years. Because the organisation is in a bit of a rut. They're not growing, they're stagnating. And before long, they could easily simply die out.

This leader has passion and believes that, with a few changes, things could be different. That there is life in the old dog yet.


But no-one wants to change. Whispering and worry abound in the company, everyone knows that there's problems. That margins have been squeezed, that the market is drying up and they could easily become obsolete. They know this. They understand this. Yet, this leader, my client, is struggling to be heard. Anytime he rises to offer a possible solution, it is rejected out of hand as being too new, too risky, too dangerous. After all, that is not the way we do things around here.

cartoon_more_than_sheep_cHe faces tension from all directions, the company leadership, his peers and the staff: but in different ways that I refer to as Tall Poppy Syndrome and the Madras Crabs.

The old guard resent his new fangled ideas. They see this upstart as a tall poppy in the management team. The younger staff keep their heads down and seem fearful of supporting any proposal that wins such disfavour.

There's a tall poppy in every workplace . They're the people who seem to have it all. Whether it's looks, talent, success or simply they got what you deserve.

Resentment can soon build and, left unchecked, turn into abject misery.

What would you do in the same position? You are certain that you know how to turn things around. Do you push back or do you back off?

When should you push back?

  • Are you telling them what they NEED to know rather than what they WANT to hear? Then you should push back.
  • If you know that time is running out, you should push back (heck, if you’re right, then maybe the business won’t exist so you’d lose your job anyway!) I love this phrase about time running out: The broken glass on the ground is from the window of opportunity that was slammed shut.

The broken glass on the ground is from the window of opportunity that was slammed shut.

  • If you have been entrusted with a responsibility and are having difficulty, it is better that your boss knows about it and has the opportunity to help you rather than fail miserably alone. Push back

Or should you back off

  • If you’re promoting your own agenda. Doing your own thing. If you’ve said it a couple of times and they don’t seem to catch on… they probably don’t want to catch on…. Back off.
  • Have I already made my point?

“You do not lead people by hitting them over the head – that’s assault not leadership.” – Dwight Eisenhower

  • Does my request exceed my relationship?

I was working with a Malaysian company and the Chairman’s son and daughter were in the ‘high-potential’ group I was coaching. And as is quite common when such situations occur, they had an air of superiority because of their relationship with the big boss. Quite often they would both step beyond normal boundaries in their relationship with their direct bosses, which was inappropriate. Not only is it inappropriate in that they were trying to abuse a family relationship, but by stepping beyond the relationship level with their direct boss, they were actually antagonizing their own direct bosses who would often respond by deliberately undermining their power whenever they could. They were not making friends and influencing people, rather they were building a culture of nepotistic favour and would become reliant on positional power in the future.

Now I pushed the matter with them both and the chairman (their father)… why, because my responsibilities were at risk. This time they listened, but on other occasions in similar situations in Malaysia, in Indonesia and in Singapore, after stating the case I backed off without the right result. Why? because I had already made my point and to push more would have been MY agenda which is that I don’t like nepotism… and especially when it is rampant whilst spouting that they are upholding the values of meritocracy. Yes it riles me, but that's my agenda and exceeded the relationship I had.

In the case of my client, he came to the conclusion that this was something worth pushing back because he had been hired to reenergize the business, that time was running out and they needed to hear it, they just didn’t like what they were hearing.

But that still left the issues with his peers and staff…

Perhaps you have heard about Madras Crabs?

When caught, Madras Crabs are put in an open basket. They are free to escape anytime.But they don't manage to do so. But they don't manage to do so.

Every time one of the crabs tries to climb out of the basket, his fellow crabs will grab a leg and pull him back down. Another attempts a break for freedom, and the rest gang up to pull him back into the basket.

None escape because none of the others will let him.

I shared this story with my client and we discussed why change fails and how, as a leader, we need to be clear what the purpose of any change is and how that purpose aligns with what matters for our peers and our staff. It's seldom enough to tell everyone how great it will be for profit margins and your own bonus, or that without change, then job security (of their jobs) is under threat. No, they need to know that there is a benefit for them, personally. Increased job security might be more critical than a cash component. Pride might be more important than greater efficiency. As a leader, it's your job to know what is important to your staff and peers (and bosses) and to make sure that the purpose of change aligns with them.

It helps too, to connect the past, present and future. People don’t like change. Well, change is often something feared. Keeping in touch with the past enables many to dare reach for the future. Unifying past, present and future brings power and continuity to changing the future. We are integrating the Knew (with a K) with the New.

When you lead from the middle you are faced with the tensions of leading downwards and sideways – and maybe you too are surrounded by Madras Crabs.

Are you one of those trying to ‘escape' but everyone else just pulls you down? Whether they make snide comments or spread malicious gossip. They just don't want you to succeed.

Or perhaps you are one of those in the basket, pulling down anyone else who tries to move on in their life?

And leading upwards has its own special challenges. In this case, when do you push back and when do you back off? There will be times when you are seen as a tall poppy in your workplace. It's a dangerous place to be of course because you get noticed as the tall poppy standing above the crowd. And some in the crowd, well they want to chop your head off, others want to pull you down to their level.

So, take a big dose of courage and choose to lead with purpose and make a real difference.

Professional Leadership Caddy

I help people unlock their talent, unstuck their potential and unleash their own (and their team's) performance through behavioural neuroscience based coaching and mentoring.

Most whip smart independent contributors, technical specialists and managers get frustrated trying to be heard and understood by their business leaders and they lack enough time and inclination to develop the skills they need to move into management and leadership positions.

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