Repairing Your Professional Reputation: Tall Poppy Syndrome

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 2nd February 2016

In many organisations, your career trajectory rests on your professional reputation. More specifically, it relies on the perceptions of others, and especially on what your boss thinks of you.

So what happens when you stop being the rising star? Many people who have experienced a high profile, or a rapid rise through the ranks, will at some point find that they’ve suddenly lost their attraction, and will need to repair their professional reputation.

Tall poppy syndrome

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Australians, among others, might call this ‘tall poppy syndrome’, where it is human nature to cut down those who grow tall, due to resentment or unfulfillable expectations. It is in our nature to elevate people beyond their true worth to stand as ‘heroes’ (one of the drivers of celebrity culture), building them up to a point that they can’t sustain, and then becoming disillusioned with them when they don’t meet our unrealistic expectations. Perhaps the fall from grace is then inevitable. This is just as true in a work situation as in any other walk of life.

Equally, it is possible to crash and burn in a way that is largely self-inflicted. Being held up as a paragon can lead inevitably to hubris, as the person in question begins to believe their own public profile and so attempts the impossible.

Repairing your professional reputation

Your professional standing is important; hard to build up, but easy to lose or undermine.  So, if you are the high achiever who has become the problem child, what do you do? It depends on the reasons why. Here are some things to focus on.

1. Professional relationships

Especially the one with your line manager. If you have a healthy relationship based on mutual respect, openness and honesty (and if you do then this problem is less likely to arise in the first place), then have a sensible discussion about what happened and what to do to repair the damage.

2. Your intentions

Fall from grace due to an honest attempt to do something for the greater good, and it should be possible to recover quite quickly. Fall because of your own narcissism, self-interest or attempts to climb over others, and things might be a little harder to fix. And rightly so.

3. The accuracy of the criticism

It’s hard to be objective about one’s own behavior or capability. However, practice is helpful. Be honest with yourself: are you the innocent party here? Did you contribute to your own downfall? If so, how and why? You might want to consider more broadly whether you behave ethically as a leader or manager.

4. Your immediate response to the situation

A contrite, positive response that acknowledges any wrongdoing or failure, and contains actions to redress the situation, will generally be viewed as worthy of support. Your response to crises like these is a true test of your mettle. Respond well and it will do you more good than never having had the problem in the first place. Throw a hissy fit and deny everything in the face of the evidence, and you may never recover.

5. Keeping your head down

If your fall has been widely publicised, everyone will be watching to see how you react. Some might even be enjoying your misfortune. The best thing you can do is to be humble and hard-working and to keep a low profile. People will most likely come to accept that everyone makes mistakes and will give you another chance.

6. Authenticity

My grandfather used to say, “never say anything that you wouldn’t be prepared to write down and sign”. I haven’t always lived by that statement, but I’ve tried to keep it in mind and so avoided many an embarrassing faux pas when I was tempted to be rude or defamatory about someone, usually for humorous effect. In the 21st century, perhaps it should be updated: “never do anything you wouldn’t want someone to post on YouTube”. Did being deceitful or two-faced contribute to your fall? If so, make sure you start saying only what you can stand behind, and only make comments that you can justify if you need to.

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