Tall Poppy Syndrome in Healthcare


Published: 20 August 2018

" 'Tall poppy' is an Australian cultural term that refers to people who stand out for their high abilities, enviable qualities, and/or visible success. But standing out, in this case, isn’t viewed positively. In a society that prides itself on egalitarian principles, rising above the pack is considered antisocial and countercultural. Tall poppies generate hostility and elicit a host of undermining behaviours to bring them down a peg. This compelling desire to cut high achievers down to size is called the ‘tall poppy syndrome'."

(Mitchell 2016)

When I was younger, I wanted to become a doctor, but, thinking that I wouldn’t get the grades, I chose to nurse instead as I saw it as a caring, calming healthcare career path that would still allow me to help people.

Throughout my university studies, I never personally experienced any bullying, despite reading numerous scholarly articles claiming that nursing students are often the victims of bullying.

Yes, there were the odd comments made about university-trained nurses being less qualified than their hospital-trained counterparts, but there was nothing vindictive in the comments, and I always enjoyed learning from the more experienced staff I was placed with.

As a beginner nurse, I kept my head down, obeyed the senior staff and followed in the footsteps of the hundreds of new nurses who had gone before me. There were the usual cliques that occur everywhere, with everyone naturally becoming part of one group and not another, but it wasn’t until I started studying higher education degrees that I began to notice a change in attitude towards me.

Concept of tall poppy syndrome using eggs in a basket with faces drawn on them

With no consistent definition of bullying, it can be difficult to identify what is bullying and what is harassment (Allen 2015). Although it may be important to understand the difference, neither behaviour should be tolerated in healthcare - or any workplace.

Bullying causes have been attributed to seniority, job stability and internal dynamics, to name a few (Ariza-Montes et al. 2013).

The hardest time for me, however, has been over the last few years when the bullying has come from those in higher management - from people who I thought would have appreciated experience and knowledge, but who instead pushed it, and me, aside.

What I also noticed was the length of time the process of filing a complaint took until action was taken. It took a period of approximately two years from start to finish and required evidence of behaviour towards other staff members to come to light before any action could be taken.

Staff retention and job satisfaction are already at an all-time low, especially within regional and rural areas, without adding bullying as another reason for staff shortages.

As an ex-defence wife, I travelled with my career frequently and was used to being autonomous and not needing a group to gel with. However, the increased lack of regard for my clinical experience and the stigma of having a higher education began to shut me down.

I ended up leaving that area of nursing care - not because I didn’t like the patients or the role - but because of the treatment I received.

I had developed myself in the unit as a senior nurse and educator with a passion for the patients I worked with. Sadly, I've never gone back.

I am now in a position where I can still develop my skills and education, although in a much broader manner, and where the experience both matters and is appreciated, and teamwork is forefront.

Nurses should be willing to work together towards a common goal, inspire each other and accept all types of experience and knowledge, instead of 'eating our young', as the saying goes.



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Sandra Dash View profile
Sandra Dash began her nursing career in 1993 in New South Wales working in trauma, orthopaedics and ICU. Sandra then spent the next 9 years working in the Northern Territory, NSW and Victoria with the Australian Defence Force. During this time she found her beginning in Nursing Education, teaching at both University and TAFE levels earning a Master’s of Health Science (Nursing Education). In 2010, Sandra moved to Queensland and began the most rewarding career in palliative care, through which she has not only cared for people at a distressing time in their life, but has also been able to continue her passion for education.