Is "tall poppy syndrome" a term you’ve heard of before?
def. a perceived tendency to discredit or disparage those who have achieved notable wealth or prominence in public life
To say it’s rife in Australia is probably an understatement. But as I saw Mark Bouris talk about this the other day on LinkedIn, it's totally different in America. As he pointed out that if someone does well, especially in business, they’re praised and pumped up to greatness because of their success.
Whereas here in Australia, whether it’s in business, sports, arts, entertainment or the average Joe doing better than the rest, many of us have the tendency to tear our fellow compatriots down a peg. And I can’t work out why when there is little to no benefit for us in return?
To give you a good example of this, after working in TV production for 7 years (producing TV shows…not making TVs), I’ve noticed how the Australian public is so quick to shut down a brand new show that goes to air. What results for many original concepts is that they don’t even make it past their 3rd episode before being bumped to a networks secondary channel or canned entirely. That’s crazy!
My educated guess says this is due mainly to online/social media and the ‘influence’ we now perceive we have. We've essentially been given the greater power of choice in determining the fate of something like a TV show. However 15-20 years ago, a show was scrapped simply because of ratings. Back then if an audience didn't like it, they switched off. If people switch off, they’re not seeing the ads that advertisers are paying for, which means advertisers pull their money from that shows time slot and the show loses money for every second it stays on air.
But now advertisers and networks can see the mass of keyboard warriors out there that feel the need to take time out of their day to engage in social media posts and in many cases, peddle negativity instead of simply not watching it and moving on like we used to.
It’s like we have a compulsion to say something only if we don’t like it, rather than if we do like it and offer praise which is few and far between. So you could say this is the digital form of tall poppy syndrome.
A case in point is the change.org petition that now has over 1.5 million people (at the time of publishing this) that are calling for a remake of a $90million season of Game of Thrones just because they weren’t happy with how the final season was made/ended.
1.5m people....common, it's a TV show.
But here's where I'm going with this topic.
The thing that gets me the most about tall poppy syndrome is competition in business. I've even seen it myself first hand in television, between production companies and especially between networks. Where the success of another is torn down and discredited. WHY?! To make themselves feel better because it's not them in the spotlight?
This mindset of thinking we can only win by competing against and out manoeuvring our rivals because they are doing better than us is ludicrous. We revel in the plight of our competition or we may even go so far as to discredit their success, "because, well, we wouldn't do it that way" *tossing our hair over our shoulder*.
To give you a prime example of it, at least in the western world, this practice is taken to an extreme level in politics when scare campaigns are used against an opposing party during an election campaign. Australia has just gone through a national election and the amount of ads that feature the most unflattering photo of the opposing candidate are slapped alongside policies that are ‘bad’ for the country, while being read by a demeaning male voice over. This would totally be defamatory in any other context, but welcome to Australia...
However, let's compare this with the Obama administration's winning bid in 2008. Their campaign was centred around HOPE. The power of positivity and the focus on their vision for success was what won Barack Obama the Presidency. His message was relatable for the majority of Americans and it was about them, not him. No smear or scare campaigns against John McCain and it was certainly far removed from what Sarah Palin was peddling.
Advertising on the other hand takes a more light hearted approach with cheeky digs that may or may not explicitly name their competitor. But my guess is that Coca-Cola and McDonald's aren’t thinking about how to out-do Pepsi or Burger King. I'd be quietly confident in thinking they’re more likely focused on themselves and how they can do better for their customer rather than playing catchup. Have you ever seen an ad from Coke or McDonald's taking a stab at Pepsi or Burger King? Because I’ve personally only seen it happen in reverse.
What’s interesting in campaigns for the Coke’s and McDonald's of the world, is that they are focused on positivity and happiness for the end user. Much the same as the Obama administration. Their competition on the other hand, has resorted in the past to spelling out why they are better than the other in their campaigns.
So my question is, why wouldn’t you simply want to be able to serve a customer YOUR way? Rather than have to copy someone else’s style of business? Or play on the offensive just to compete with them? Or even cut them down for doing better than you?
After all, your way of doing things is why a customer is likely to pick you in the first place, right? Your own way of doing things is the thing that appeals to that customers needs or tastes.
For me, I just can’t see a just reason for tearing down someone or another designer. Even competing with them for that matter.
I’ve come to see other designers not as my competition, rivals or adversaries. Quite the opposite - they are my equal opposites. If another designer was to land a great client job, I’ll be the first to cheer for them from the sidelines. Additionally, if an acquaintance (a non-designer) chooses to work with another designer for their business, I’m just as happy for that acquaintance to see them take a great step forward to improving their business with the help of a designer.
Because here’s the thing, I’m more interested in the greater good of my industry. If those like me are doing well themselves, it means there is a greater need for designers and a profitable need at that.
So to even consider worrying about how I’m going to land a job over someone else, that mindset is a complete waste of my time. I've come to understand that I'm better off focusing more on my own business to be successful and that all relies upon my own doing, not my competition.
And you’re probably thinking, oh sure Frank. You’re not a teeny bit envious of another designer?
Of course I am. There ARE designers, for one reason or another, that I’m envious of. However, do I need to see them as my competition? To distract myself in the pursuit of being better than them or tear them down for doing great themselves. How would that improve my business or me as a person? To be totally frank, I’d be considered a total dick if this was the case. But the scary thing is there are businesses out there that do this.
And look, I totally get that when you’re in a two horse race, the thought of the other one not doing as good as you will make you feel that little more smug to know you’re doing a better job.
But what if you were more focused on what you’re NOT doing right for your customer rather than what your competition is doing right. You'll start thinking more about how you can do better for your customer. Because a customer is going to chose you for doing what best serves them. If you don’t, they go elsewhere, right?
A flower does not think of competing to the flower next to it. It just blooms.
I was watching a Simon Sinek talk a couple of days ago on YouTube and he recalled a story about who he saw as his equal rival. They had books, they did speaking events, they were on the same playing field… and he hated this guy. Simon saw this man as so much better than himself. But it wasn’t until they were put on a stage together to introduce one another, that Simon discovered the reason why he hated this guy so much.
As he introduced his rival, Simon flat out said that he hated him and it was because he realised this man was everything that Simon was not. Interestingly the man said the exact same thing in reply. He was the Ying to the others Yang and today they are good friends. Simon no longer looks to see if his book sales are doing better than the other guy’s sales and he moved on from that hate.
So for me in reflecting on this topic, I draw a similarity from Simon’s example in identifying why I’m envious of another designer. It’s not because they are better at what I do. It’s because they do it differently. They have a different style, skillset or process to achieve what they achieve. But I know what I do, can serve the type of customer I hope to help.
To recognise that difference in a positive light and add self-reflection as the counter weight, we can identify what we are great at. It’s what I believe might just overcome the notion of tall poppy syndrome and help us to be happy to see another succeed.
So why can’t this be applied to all businesses?
A healthy form of competition does drive us to do better, don't get me wrong. However if we were to better use our energy to cheer on our fellow businesses and focus more on the end user than the bottles of beer that sit next to ours on the shelf, we're surely going to produce better results.
Whether you’re a coffee shop on a street of 5 other cafes or online store selling similar styles of apparel as 10 others, my take on it is to do what you do best. Reverse engineer what works for others if you have to, but do it your own way that doesn’t feel the same as the business next door.
Be happy for your those you compete with in business and focus your attention more towards how you can do better for your business and your customers. Life’s too short to compete with others, compete with yourself instead to become better.
Cutting down the tallest poppy in a field won’t help us grow any taller. It’s up to us to to focus on what will make us grow to reach that same height of success.