By contrast with our distant American ‘cousins’, who tend to major on positivity, we Brits – together with our nearer Australian and New Zealander cousins – tend to be critical of the achievements of others.
One expression of this critical approach to others is the so-called ‘tall poppy syndrome’, in which we put down other people who in one way or another have done well. We as it were cut down the tallest poppies in the field so that they are the same size of others.
To my surprise I discovered that this expression has its roots in classical antiquity. Livy, for instance, refers to the tyrannical Roman king, Tarquin, who received a message from his son, Sextus, asking what he should do next to the people of the city of Gabii. Rather than answering the messenger directly, Tarquin went into his garden and cut off the heads of the tallest poppies. When the messenger returned and told what he had seen, Sextus realised that his father was advising him to put to death all the most eminent people in the city, and promptly did so.
Cutting down the tall poppies today, however, is about putting down the achievements of others. It is about trying to bring everyone down to a common denominator. It is related to what some call ‘the politics of envy’. By contrast Margaret Thatcher, prior to becoming Prime Minister, explained her political philosophy to an American audience as ‘let your poppies grow tall’. That is a much more positive approach to life. On reflection, perhaps we should not just talk about letting our poppies grow tall – in view of the diversity of people’s gifts, maybe we should recognise that not just the poppies, but the roses and tulips and other beautiful flowers too. Whatever, we need to recognise the talents and achievements of others.
Yet recognition is not enough. If we want to get the best from people, then appreciation is what is required. According to William James, ‘The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated’. Similarly in a ground-breaking paper entitled ’The theory of human motivation’, the psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that esteem is one of five basic human needs:
All people in our society (with a few pathological exceptions) have a need or desire for a stable, firmly based, (usually) high evaluation of themselves, for self-respect, or self-esteem, and for the esteem of others. By firmly based self-esteem, we mean that which is soundly based upon real capacity, achievement and respect from others. Satisfaction of the self-esteem need leads to feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, capability and adequacy of being useful and necessary in the world.
In other words, it is not enough to write a thank-you note to people who helped out at a church event – good leaders will also say how much they appreciated the help that was given and what a difference that help has made. Even better, good leaders will express their appreciation publicly. What a difference it makes when ministers publicly praise members of their congregation for their achievements, rather than themselves take the credit for what has happened. This ensures that in a church there is always a large base of willing volunteers.
It is not only members of a church who need appreciation – so too do the ministers themselves. The fact is that ministry can be tough: there are good times, but there can also be challenging times too. What a difference it makes when after a minister has given his or her all, a member of the congregation comes up and expresses a word of appreciation. It provides encouragement to make the most of what we have to offer and so serve God even more effectively.
As a former college principal who was responsible for a weekly sermon class, I know how easy it is to be critical of some sermons I hear. However, I make it one of my disciplines as a retired minister to look for what was good in the sermon and to express my appreciation accordingly. I find it significant that the Greek verb which is normally translated by our English word ‘encourage ‘ (parakaleo) literally means to ‘come alongside’. It can have the sense of to ‘instil someone with courage or cheer’, and the cognate noun (‘Paraclete’) is used by John in the farewell discourses of Jesus (John 14-16). I like to think that when I draw alongside a minister with a word of encouragement I am actually sharing in the ministry of God himself.
Whatever, instead of cutting people down to size, we should be in the business of building up people up. So let’s find ways of appreciating the achievements of others.