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A Gendered View of Tall Poppies


Emotional ambivalence explains our love-hate feelings towards a high-achieving colleague. How can we use these emotions constructively?

Rose umbrella among white ones

If you feel a confusing mix of envy, jealousy and admiration towards a star employee in your workplace, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s normal: you’re experiencing emotional ambivalence. 

“Emotional ambivalence exists more commonly than we think,” says Jana Raver, the E. Marie Shantz Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Smith School of Business. “If you think about the mechanism that’s driving this, it’s that successful people can threaten our egos. We feel envy, the sense that this person is better than me and I feel bad about myself.” 

While such feelings are common, research by Raver and former Smith PhD student Xiaoxi Chang reveals that men and women experience and act on emotional ambivalence in the workplace in different ways—and that it’s the organization’s high performers who often pay the price. 

As part of their research, Chang and Raver conducted two studies—one behavioural lab experiment with business students and the other an online experiment with working adults.  

In the behavioural lab, 144 participants were randomly divided into conditions and asked to perform a team task. In teams where there was no high performer, there was less hostility among team members. In teams where there was a high performer, members acted with more hostility towards that person—but only within the all-female teams. 

The students were then surveyed on their feelings towards their team members. The researchers found that female participants felt more emotionally ambivalent to the high performers in their groups, while male participants felt emotional ambivalence towards all their team members regardless of performance level. 

Reaction to tall poppies

In their study with working adults, Chang and Raver asked 400 working adults to either describe a work experience where a co-worker outperformed the rest of their team or an experience where everyone performed at the same level. Once the participants described their experiences with high- or average-performing co-workers, their emotional ambivalence and behaviours towards them were assessed.

This study found the same results: women were more likely to feel emotionally ambivalent towards a high-performing colleague while men were more likely to feel emotionally ambivalent towards their colleagues, regardless of their performance level.

Both studies also found that those who felt emotionally ambivalent towards a team member were more likely to distance themselves from them. “When you feel ambivalent towards somebody,” says Raver, “it’s natural to feel uncomfortable and want to avoid that feeling, so you start to avoid them and withdraw.”

Roots in childhood

Raver says the research was informed by role congruity theory, which holds that girls are socialized to play and interact in ways that promote harmony, agreement, kindness and support.

“If you look at girls’ play groups, for example, it’s all about equal play and having a turn,” she says. “It’s not a hierarchal system.”

In contrast, Raver says boys play and interact within a more hierarchal system that tends to be more assertive and focused on dominance.

“Men eventually get used to the idea of having mixed feelings towards the people they’re working with,” she says. “They can be buddies and go out for a drink but they can also be competitors. Women aren’t as comfortable with that jockeying and status differentials as part of the peer relationship.”

She adds that it was surprising to find that men are more likely to be emotionally ambivalent to “pretty much anyone.”

“Men constantly have to prove their worth and status. Masculinity is precarious and must be maintained,” Raver says. “It does make sense that they must constantly evaluate everybody. There’s an insecurity there that girls aren’t socialized into.”

High performers are targets

In their research, Chang and Raver refer to a high performer as a “tall poppy”—a term originating in Australia that refers to someone who performs better than their peers and stands out. Because tall poppies stand out, they risk being cut down.

Raver, who has done previous research on high performers, says she has found that tall poppies are more likely to feel excluded, experience workplace harassment and be a target for hostile behaviours.

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Previous research has revealed the positive emotions workers feel when faced with a tall poppy, including pride, admiration and respect towards their high-achieving co-worker. Other research points to negative emotions towards tall poppies, including envy and threat that could lead to attempts to undermine them.

The research by Chang and Raver, however, is the first to examine the consequences of employees’ mixed feelings towards their high-performing peer, as well as the differences in how men and women view the tall poppy in their workplace.

“It's good to have a high performer as a teammate because it helps to bring the whole team up,” Raver explains. “But there’s an ego threat there as well. If someone is outshining us, we might start to feel that we’re not that good. We admire them but also feel self-doubt and inferiority. And that’s the source of the mixed emotions.”

What to do with emotional ambivalence

Raver says that emotional ambivalence can have both negative and positive consequences in the workplace.

“It can be beneficial for actually making you think about people in a more holistic, nuanced way,” she says. “But what we see with emotional ambivalence in particular is when you’re feeling ambivalent towards somebody, you want to avoid that feeling so you start to avoid them.”

Instead of dodging the tall poppy—and suppressing conflicted feelings—Raver says employees should acknowledge how they feel and get closer to their high-achieving colleagues. This might also help tall poppies feel more included and respected.

“It will open a door, and you’ll probably get tremendous mentoring and benefits from making that alliance,” Raver says.

She adds that tall poppies themselves can help by acting in more benevolent ways at work, for example by “bringing people up to their level as opposed to acting superior towards others.”

Raver says that she doesn’t want managers and workers to conclude from the research that they shouldn’t be a tall poppy in their workplace, but rather that they should acknowledge these biased tendencies exist.

“What we need to do,” she says, “is normalize it and recognize it.”