This is a follow-up from an article in our May 2015 issue which discussed results of interviews with high profile entrepreneurs and their experience of Tall Poppy Syndrome. Jodyanne Kirkwood & Tarja Viitanen from Otago University have now surveyed 217 business owners about Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) and how it affects them in their decision making in their businesses. Check out their findings and potential solutions below.

AROUND THREE-QUARTERS of business owners believed that Tall Poppy Syndrome exists in New Zealand. Forty-two percent of respondents believed that they had experienced TPS in their position as a business owner.

Of those who have experienced it, around half believe it to be a mostly New Zealand phenomenon, while half have seen it in other countries as well. Friends, competitors and anonymous commentators on social media were the main sources of negativity.

We were primarily interested to find out how business owners were affected by TPS. These business owners were affected emotionally by it (57%). This is rather concerning, but there is also quite a significant amount of financial (36%) and reputational damage (34%) that business owners have experienced due to Tall Poppy Syndrome.

We also asked whether TPS was considered when making business decisions. The good news is that only quarter of business owners considered TPS when making business decisions. Their visibility as a business owner is the key factor that they considered in relation to TPS (78%). This may be important as few business owners may be willing to step out from the radar and tell others about their success. Other factors were how much to grow the business (31%), where to locate the business (29%) and how much charity/ pro bono work they do (29%).

The more pressing question is what (if anything) can be done about TPS to make it easier for business owners? We asked the business owners to explain in their own words what they believed could be done about TPS in New Zealand. Seventyone percent of the people in who had experienced TPS thought there was something that could be done to improve or resolve TPS for business owners.

The three main things that could be done were:

1) Celebrating business success more and being proud of business achievements, and in a broader sense, being proud of being a New Zealander.

This may be of more need in provincial towns and small cities as larger cities such as Auckland and Wellington often host small business/entrepreneurship awards events.

2) More education on what it means to be a business owner.

Some business owners felt that those who did not own businesses had little idea of what owning a business involved. These are other adults who could be viewed as the main detractors (friends, those commenting on social media for example). The current primary and secondary school system was described as being an issue where some believed children are not taught extensively about real-life business. More generally, students should be taught that they can be anything they want to be and to be aspirational.

These first two suggestions are relatively achievable, and small steps can easily be made in this area by business owners themselves. However, it is a double-edged sword – as the results showed that business owners respond to TPS by limiting their visibility as a business owner. To celebrate success and educate people about business ownership, some business owners will have to step into the limelight and share their experiences. This was something that the high-profile entrepreneurs who were previously studied did well, yet by doing so it opened them up to a greater amount of criticism.

3) Cultural/values shift within New Zealand.

This may be very difficult to change. Some business owners just accept TPS as part of life. Responses such as “it’s a sad fact of life”, “Its part of the New Zealand culture”,” change the culture? It’s a hard one” were common here. This shift in values may be able to make very small improvements over time if the first two suggestions are taken.

Jodyanne Kirkwood & Tarja Viitanen from Otago University.

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