Real Work: Too much of a good thing

Doing well at work? Better watch your back. HESTER LACEY on Tall Poppy Syndrome
Prince Edward recently dared to suggest that the British react to success by trying to knock it down. He told the New York Times that his reception in Hollywood had been a breath of fresh air, that the British press "hates anyone who succeeds". In response British commentators, from newspapers to Labour MPs to entrepreneurs, snarled that his television company was ailing, that he relied too much on his mum's name, that he had too much money.

But some people agreed with what Prince Deadwood (as the Mirror subbed him) had said. "I think he's right," said Luke Johnson, who made his fortune through businesses like Pizza Express. "There's a lot of envy in this country - too much talk about fat cats and the culture of greed, and not enough credit given to wealth creation."

These two are not alone in identifying themselves as victims of "tall poppy syndrome" - the notion that anyone who rises above the others will be ruthlessly scythed down. It has been suggested that Ruud Gullit's fall from grace wasn't helped by outside criticism, and neither was Alan Shearer's. Natalie Imbruglia is scared of being a tall poppy: she claimed recently that some pictures in Australian Vogue made her look like a gremlin. "Maybe it's the start of the tall poppy syndrome," she said.

Ned Sherrin has said that Cilla Black is another victim. Comedian Steve Coogan has complained of TPS, and after a run of favourable press, Caroline Quentin waited resignedly for the sniping to start. "The backlash is bound to happen. I've had a good couple of months, so I deserve a slap."

You don't have to be a household name to fall victim to TPS, according to Judi James, co-author of forthcoming book The Tall Poppies. "You can see it in most offices," she claims. And, she adds, TPS isn't just perpetrated by jealous outsiders. Tall poppies, in a split-personality display of nerves, are as likely to uproot themselves or swallow weedkiller as let others do the job for them. Gazza, she says, is a typical example of this behaviour: someone with every apparent advantage, continually shooting himself in the foot.

Melanie Barker, 26, fell foul of TPS when she was taken on as one of three graduate trainees by a large company. A few months down the line, Melanie's work was noticeably better than her colleagues and she was given more responsibility. "At first the other two were really nice about it, at least to my face," she says. "Then they started saying things like `Oh, Melanie is flavour of the month' and acting quite resentfully. It was very noticeable."

At first Melanie wasn't too worried, but then the manager assigned to look after all three graduates also began to act strangely. "She started giving me photocopying jobs to do, saying that the others ought to have a chance," says Melanie. "It wasn't that I didn't want us all to have an equal chance, but I'd already moved on to other things and it was ridiculous to drag me back just for the sake of some notion of fairness. I felt they all resented me - my peers because I was doing well and the manager because I didn't make the same mistakes they did and she didn't have to help me so much and show off how superior and experienced she was." Melanie moved shortly afterwards to a new job.

Paul, 32, believes that self-destructive TPS is a plausible notion. "I landed this fantastic job in an advertising agency and it was all going brilliantly," he says. "Then a really important presentation came up. I had done most of the preparation but I wanted to do some final checks the night before and get an early night." Instead, Paul was inveigled out for a drink and ended up staggering home at 3am. "I had about four hours sleep. I felt terrible. As soon as I got to the office I poured a huge cup of coffee into my lap. The presentation didn't go well." This, he says, did not go unnoticed. "Confidence in me has been noticeably dented. People are checking my work in a way that they didn't bother with before. I couldn't believe I had sabotaged my own opportunity to shine."

According to Judi James, people will encourage success in others to a certain level - maybe even help them out - but once a certain point is reached, support will vanish. Typical TPS in the office, she says, involves people attributing the success of others to the fact that the boss fancies them, or luck, or one good piece of work that was a total fluke - anything but innate talent. "This is especially likely to happen to the smug or self-confident," she says. "When people do it to themselves, it is things like turning up late at an important job interview, or saying the wrong thing to the boss at the office party. We may think it's an accident, but in fact it is another form of tall poppy syndrome."

So why this vicious weeding-out? Unsurprisingly, it's partly down to feelings of jealousy or inadequacy. "Seeing others succeed makes us feel we should have had a go ourselves," says James. "And when it's self-inflicted, maybe we realise in the back of our minds that success doesn't bring happiness, in fact it can mean the reverse. People get this last-minute warning that they don't want the isolation or the pressure."

Not everyone, she says, will suffer. "Some people have gone through the system and it just hasn't happened to them. Richard Branson is a big success and still hugely popular. But one of the things that we learn from our earliest schooldays is that it is very difficult to combine success and popularity. Doing well in your exams doesn't win you friends."

There is not a lot that can be done to ward off the jealousy of others, she says. The important thing is to decide whether you are prepared to risk it. "You have to ignore external pressures, visualise what success will be like, and see if you really want to go for it," she says. "If you are bent on going up the promotion trail, you may not be able to hang on to your old mates. To avoid the conflict, you may have to decide whether you want success or whether your family and friends are more important."

The British, supreme gardeners, are popularly supposed to be the top weeders-out of the too-big-for-their-boots, but, says Judi James, it is by no means a trait unique to this country. "The actual term comes from New Zealand," she says. "The Japanese have a similar phrase, about nails sticking up only to be hammered down. In fact the only country where they don't seem to have a similar saying is the US." Perhaps Prince Deadwood's whinges aren't entirely unfounded.

"The Tall Poppies", by Mike Edden and Judi James, pounds 10.99, is published next month by the Industrial Society.