posted 26 May 2010 in Volume 13 Issue 8
Chris Collison on ‘tall poppy’ and ‘shrinking violet’ syndromes, which can prevent the flow of knowledge within our organisations
As I write this column, spring is very much in the air – as evidenced by the tissues and anti-histamine tablets dispersed around the Collison household. However, as the only member of the family unaffected by pollen allergies, I can safely offer up a suitably floral theme for this edition: tall poppies and shrinking violets.
I’d like to touch upon two syndromes which have the power to prevent the flow of knowledge, good practices, lessons and ideas in organisation.
The first of these is ‘tall poppy syndrome’, for which I had to revert to Wikipedia to find the provenance of the term:
“In Livy’s account, the tyrannical Roman King, Tarquin the Proud, received a messenger from his son Sextus Tarquinius asking what he should do next in Gabii, since he had become all-powerful there. Rather than answering the messenger verbally, Tarquin went into his garden, took a stick, and symbolically swept it across his garden, thus cutting off the heads of the tallest poppies that were growing there. The messenger, tired of waiting for an answer, returned to Gabii and told Sextus what he had seen. Sextus realised that his father wished him to put to death all of the most eminent people of Gabii, which he then did.”1
Ouch! I don’t think there are many organisations where eminent knowledge sharers face quite such a dire threat to raising their heads above the parapet.
However, we do see this syndrome at play when people are reluctant to offer up lessons or good practice for fear that they will be cut down to size by others.
Why take the risk? Why should I run the gauntlet of others picking my ideas apart? Why should I have to defend my good practice? Or, perhaps my good practice successfully withstands the scrutiny of my peers – what will my reward be? A string of requests for further information and multiple calls on my time to go and share more details… I think I’ll just keep my head down.
Shrinking violet syndrome is more subtle – a kind of misplaced corporate humility: oh, I don’t think we have anything distinctive to share. Or, there’s nothing particularly special about what we do in this department. And actually, I’m not really sure that I would know what special looked like.
Nobody would be interested in the way we do things in this part of the company; let’s leave it to the experts to declare what good practice is. I think we’ll just keep our heads down.
Whether it’s out of self-defence, or because a lack of self-awareness, how much knowledge-sharing value have we lost in our organisations because our people are keeping their heads down?
When we view knowledge management through the lens of change management and leadership, it’s vital that we recognise and address how people actually feel about sharing knowledge. Will the leadership team commit to nurturing an environment where people feel safe to offer up lessons and insights? Are we generating a transparency and desire for improvement, which will encourage our shrinking violets into the daylight so that others can learn from them?
As knowledge professionals, we have a host of tools and approaches which can help including peer assists, communities of practice, offers and requests, self-assessment and internal benchmarking, river diagrams and knowledge cafés. Many of these are supported by the increased participation and flattening of traditional structures that social media brings to the party. While all of these can be fruitful techniques in their own right, it is visible leadership commitment which will make the difference.
Perhaps we need to help our leaders to develop green fingers.
Chris Collison is the director of Knowledgeable Ltd and a member of the Inside Knowledge editorial board. He can be contacted via his website at www.chriscollison.com. To view the video that Chris recently produced on tall poppies and shrinking violets, go to http://chriscollison.wordpress.com/2010/05/15/flower-power/