Tall poppy syndrome …. Still rearing its ugly head in nursing

Tall poppy syndrome …. Still rearing its ugly head in nursing

Nearly 3000 years ago Heroditus told the story of how King Thrasybulus was asked by a fellow monarch about the best way to govern his kingdom. In response the King went to a nearby field and, walking through the rows, whacked the heads off the tallest, brightest ears of corn. The Romans continued the analogy in their literature, but changed the corn to poppies, and the term ‘tall poppy syndrome’ was coined (The Histories, 440 BC).



A few weeks ago my friend and colleague, Dr Lorna MacLellan, graduated with a PhD. Professor Isabel Higgins and I had the honour of supervising her throughout her candidature. Lorna explored the transition experiences of ten Nurse Practitioners (NPs), interviewing them each 3-4 times during their first 12 months of practice.


The findings from this study revealed a pervasive problem in the upper echelons of the nursing profession. Although the metaphor of ‘nurses eating their young’ has become an a recognised part of the nursing vernacular, Lorna’s study identified that bullying also pervades senior levels of the nursing profession and manifests as ‘tall poppy syndrome’.

Tall Poppy Syndrome describes a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down or criticised because their abilities or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers  ~ Segen’s Medical Dictionary (2012).

NPs were first endorsed in Australia in 2000 as a result of more than ten years of political lobbying by the nursing profession. However, their numbers have been slow to increase and in 2016 there were only 1380 endorsed NPs. The multiple challenges associated with transition and, in particular, recurring episodes of tall poppy syndrome, may be partly responsible this problem.

In Lorna’s study the experiences of the ten NPs varied, and although a few experienced a relatively smooth transition, many encountered such a difficult and turbulent beginning that they resigned without completing their first year of practice. Many of the NPs were plagued by self-doubt, insecurity and feelings of isolation as a result of horizontal violence and the lack of support they received.

The NPs were victims of professional jealousy and they described how their nursing colleagues frequently conveyed disrespect and contempt for the NP role.  At a time when the NPs needed support and camaraderie, they were often the victims of bullying, hostility, sabotage and tall poppy syndrome. The comments  below illustrate their concerns: Read more