Eldred's Power Strategies

Avoiding "Tall Poppy Syndrome"

Eldred's Power Strategies - Avoiding "Tall Poppy Syndrome"

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How to avoid tall poppy syndrome.

Career success takes courage. Why? Because it also takes cooperation.

You won't usually be able to reach worthwhile career goals without the help and support of others. However, reaching these goals can sometimes put you in conflict – real or perceived – with others with similar goals.

Let's look at an example. Susan and John are both middle managers. Susan's goal is to be promoted to VP in the next five years. John wants a VP position as well. They both need to perform excellently and prove their value, if they're to reach their goals.

However, if Susan starts outperforming John, he might feel threatened, and if she gets the job, this may stop him getting it. As a result, whether maliciously, through jealousy, or with Machiavellian intent, he could drop his support for Susan's projects as a way to slow her rise. At the extreme, he might even try to sabotage her efforts to advance his own cause.

Everyone loses in a situation like this. Susan and John lower their chances of individual success. What's more, the organization loses because it never gets the great things that could have been achieved if both had been able to do their best.

You may believe that no one would behave in such a dishonest way, however it happens, with tedious regularity. What's more, it happens in all sorts of situations; not least with "tall poppy syndrome", where people take malicious pleasure in seeing "tall poppies" cut down to size.

John Eldred – a professor at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania – developed a model to explain what happens in these situations. By being alert to these situations, you can navigate through them and reach your goals with integrity and honesty.

The Power Strategies Model

Eldred's model suggests four different sets of strategies that you can use to manage these situations.

These are represented on the grid shown in figure 1. Here, the vertical axis represents the power difference between two individuals (where they are equally powerful, the power difference is low, and where one is weak and the other strong, the difference is high.) The horizontal axis represents the extent to which people's goals conflict (low alignment) or complement one another (high alignment).

Eldred's Power Strategies Diagram

Here's a brief summary of the four strategies, or quadrants, shown in the above model:

  • Collaboration – The playing field is equal, and you're playing for the same team. This is the ideal power strategy, where it's easy to cooperate and support each other in success.
  • Negotiation – The playing field is equal, but you're not sure which team you're on. There's an opportunity to find common ground and work toward a collaborative, cooperative environment. However, you'll need to keep a sharp eye on what the other person is doing!
  • Influence – You're playing for the same team, however one person is on the starting line (one of the major players) and the other might be on the bench (a minor player waiting to enter the game). Since you both want to win, you can help each other by finding ways to positively influence the performance of the other person.
  • Domination – You're on opposing teams, and one of you is outmatched, clearly a weaker player! You can squash the other person, or let yourself be squashed, which can lead to resentment and stress. Or you can witness the results of deceptive, dishonest tactics; with the less powerful person sometimes becoming destructive and causing conflict and sabotage. You don't want to find yourself – or anyone on your team – in this lose-lose position.


"Goal alignment" doesn't mean that both people have the same goal. The idea is that both people's goals are moving in the same general direction. If one person reaches his goal, that doesn't affect the other person's ability to also reach her goal – in fact, it may well help.

Making Good Power Choices

This is where it helps to have an understanding of this idea. It's a very natural thing, as you start pulling ahead in your career, to get a bit self-involved – after all your successes are your successes, brought about by your own hard work!

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The trouble is that this can easily come over as arrogance, which can trigger negative and damaging behaviors that you want to avoid. This is where it makes sense to be sensitive to these situations:

  • When dealing with people in the Domination quadrant, ask yourself these questions:
    • If there is conflict and distrust, why is it happening?
    • What am I doing to contribute to the negative feelings? Am I, for example, acting without considering the impact on other, less powerful, people? And am I behaving in a way that is insensitive to their feelings?
    • Have I given in to dominant people in the past, and does that influence my behavior today?
    • If I feel threatened, am I genuinely threatened, or should I learn from the situation and put it behind me?
    • Are there areas where someone could potentially harm my work?
    • What can I do to move beyond conflict and resistance, and bring my goals into closer alignment with those of ßother people?
    • What can I do to resolve conflict?
  • When dealing with people in the Influence quadrant, consider these options:
    • Ask yourself how you can help each other.
    • Look for ways to support the other person publicly.
    • Consider a mentoring relationship.
  • When dealing with people in the Negotiation quadrant, consider these options:
    • Try to establish common ground, and find out if there are areas where you can work to common advantage.
    • Call a truce (establish "peace") if you've been in a power struggle.
    • Keep the lines of communication open.
    • Try to see beyond your own goals and look at the big picture.
  • When dealing with people in the Collaboration quadrant, consider these options:
    • Work on maintaining your relationships.
    • Promote the outcome of your collaboration, and use it as a model for goal-achieving behavior in others.

Tip 1:

Many conflicts can be resolved with simple, clear communication. See our article on conflict resolution for more on this.

Tip 2:

If you're leading a team, it's a good idea to keep these power dynamics in mind when you see tension or conflict between others. Help them to understand other people and their goals. Look for ways to make communication easier. As part of your team building efforts, include regular discussions of individual goals – and help everyone see how they can work together to create a more effective team and a better company.

Tip 3:

Remember that human relationships are incredibly complex, and that this model may only represent one small part of what's going on between two people.

Key Points

Conflicting goals and unbalanced power can create an environment that's full of tension and distrust. When you get too focused on your own direction, you may forget to consider how others see your determination and hard work.

Rather than try to shine and succeed all on your own, a wise strategy is to bring others along with you. When you find ways to work with your colleagues to reach your individual goals, everyone wins.

Be aware of how power and goals interact, and take proactive steps to communicate what you want clearly. Then show how you're prepared to help others achieve what they want, as well.

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Comments (3)
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hello sforsugar,

    Organizations are often rife with power struggles. The higher the stakes for resources and positional power, the greater the opportunity for conflict. Having worked for a large corporation, I've witnessed more than a few situations where two people were engaging in sabotage to prevent the other from advancing. As the article points out, there's a lot to lose, including the organization which fails to realize the full benefit had the two parties worked collaboratively to achieve goals. In which quadrant do you think the dynamics between you and your former manager placed you?

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago sforsugar wrote
    Very thought provoking. I had some very strange, some would say nasty, reactions from my manager in my last role. Reading this, I wonder if she was trying to cut me down to size because I'm on a talent scheme.
  • Over a month ago MaxZero wrote
    What a fascinating idea - I'm sure we've all seen instances of this in the past.