SHORT POPPY SYNDROME

Swoosh. A scythe swings into view and a tall poppy, easily standing proud of the rest in the field, is cut down.

A brilliant image for a disheartening habit: that of ‘bringing down’ anyone who appears to outperform or overachieve: tall poppy syndrome.  So vivid is the image that it’s hard to drag our attention to the rest of the field.

Isn’t the expanse of ‘short’ poppies worth thinking about? If the analogy illustrates performance, why aren’t they all – tall?

Herbert Simon, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1978, developed a powerful theory early in his career about human decision-making: ‘bounded rationality’.

Choices, economic decisions, and behaviours are driven by instinctive notions of ‘good enough’. The pursuit of the best doesn’t happen in real life, as there is never enough information (or skill) available for such a complex computation.

The now familiar word ‘satisfice’ was coined- a cross between ‘satisfy’ and ‘suffice’.

And this may be where short poppies need our attention.

A ‘good enough’ option is also a ‘not terrible’ option.

From behavioural science we know that within organisations across the spectrum there is huge agreement on what constitutes a terrible option. It is one that invites humiliation, or blame.

The short poppies have satisficed.

They have actively sought to avoid having blame rain down on them.

The cutting down of the taller outlier is simply a way of rationalising what has been a strongly instinctive choice to stay low.

How do we help all the poppies grow tall?

Rather than concentrate on that cutting down drama, we could concentrate on reducing blame within the culture.

If the fear of humiliation or blame is reduced, then ‘good enough’ could become very good indeed.

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