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

“I worked really hard to get here.  I wouldn’t want to go back.”  Exploring the narrative of one first-in-family nursing student during their university transition.

“I worked really hard to get here. I wouldn’t want to go back.” Exploring the narrative of one first-in-family nursing student during their university transition.

Our guest Blogger this week is Associate Professor Sarah O’Shea from the University of Wollongong. I have known Sarah for nearly ten years and for much of the time we lived next door to each other. Sarah and I have much in common … we were both the first in our families to attend university, both immigrants to Australia, both mums who struggled with ‘imposter syndrome’ as we juggled PhD candidature and full time work.  Perhaps most important though is our shared commitment to student success and the incredible joy we experience when we watch our former students cross the stage at graduation, particularly when they have struggled with challenging life experiences. 

Since moving to Wollongong Sarah’s academic journey has flourished and I have watched with admiration her inspirational First in the Family research. In this post Sarah shares Marlee’s story of transition to university, what it means to her and her family, and how it illustrates the types of hurdles that many first in family nursing students encounter.

Nursing programs are the third most popular choice of study area in Australia [1]. In 2014 over 17,000 students started a nursing degree; 2,316 of these were men [2]. Over a third of nursing students are in the lowest socio-economic band and many are returning to education after a significant gap in learning [1]. There is a tendency for many universities to operate within a discourse of deficit focusing on what students lack instead of welcoming and celebrating the cultural wealth or strength they bring with them [3]. Working within a mass university system characterised by increased student diversity also means that it can be very difficult to remain mindful of the student as an individual.

My research with students has focused on foregrounding individuals’ subjective experience of attending university with an emphasis on the narratives of learners who are defined as disadvantaged or belonging to equity categories. This work has highlighted the transformative potential of attending university [4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9], the identity work that students (particularly women) undertake [10, 11], as well as approaches to retaining and supporting diverse student populations [12, 13].

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Listening to and telling stories fulfils a very basic need in people. As an educator hearing students’ stories has provided entry into the lived experience of attending university, offering rich insights into both the unique trajectories of learners and also providing a means to recognise common patterns or experiences across populations.

I would like to share one such student story that whilst unique also reflects common themes echoed across our First-in-Family (FiF) project. Marlee (pseudonym) participated in a study that focused on students who were first in their families to attend university [12]. FiF students are a significant proportion of the student population globally and while not recognised as a equity group in Australia are commonly regarded as being “at-risk” of attrition due to financial, cultural and academic issues [5, 6, 14,]. The FiF category can also be regarded as a ‘supra equity’ category [13] which traverses existing equity categorisations.

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