“Suck it up, buttercup. I went through it too, so you have to go through it.”
The “crabs in a barrel” or “crab theory” is a metaphor to describe the tendency of whenever someone gets ahead, others from their community try to pull them right back down again (tall poppy syndrome). There is no need for a lid on the barrel because if one crab attempts to escape the barrel by climbing out of it, the others reach up and pull it back down. The result, of course, is that no crab escapes. This metaphor is used in minority groups to describe negativity, envy and within their own communities. The detrimental impact of crab mentality on performance was quantified by a New Zealand study in 2015. When students scored an average of 18% higher on exams authorities took steps to ensure their anonymity in published rankings. Why? Because these high achievers were often victims of peer bullying. Rather than be happy for someone from our community/peer group, we undermine those who demonstrate better performance than us. (If we are truly honest with ourselves we have all felt this to some degree, even as children with a sibling or friend – “I am so happy for you (through gritted teeth)”.
Crab mentality is prevalent in organisations too. Many of us have experienced the pinch of other colleagues. And here’s the rub, it usually comes from the very people whom we expect to propel us forward. Surprisingly, they are the very ones who hamper our success. Our guest on the Innovation Show this week, Joan C. Williams, tells us crab mentality is particularly acute with socially similar members of an organisation: people from the same town, alma mater, ethnic background and gender.
As a leader, if your people are more concerned with internal battles than with external challenges your organisation is leaking valuable energy. In such cases, you must look at systems of reward, recognition and patterns of unconscious bias. Joan tells us “Problems arise when women and people of colour are tokens—one of the few members of their own group, alone in a sea of white men. “There is a definite white boys’ club here. And even some of the women that were able to make it, they have the attitude of ‘Suck it up, buttercup. I went through it too, so you have to go through it.’” Studies show this happens for both women and people of colour.
For leaders it is useful to be aware of the systemic phenomena that foster crab mentality:
Tug of War: Sometimes bias creates conflict within historically excluded groups. This can further undercut group dynamics in meetings.
Tokenism: If people feel there’s only one slot per group for a prized position, group members may be pitted against each other to get it.
Strategic distancing and the loyalty tax: People from historically excluded groups may feel that to get ahead, they need to distance themselves from others of their group, or align with the majority against their own group.
Passthroughs. PIA: People from historically excluded groups may hold members of their own groups to higher standards because “That’s what it takes to succeed here.” Tightrope: Women or LGBTQIA+ employees may fault each other for being too masculine or feminine. People of colour may fault each other for being “too white”—or not “white” enough. Parental wall: Parents may criticise each other for handling parenthood the wrong way—for taking too much time off or too little.
While such phenomena are systemic and became structurally embedded as organisational habits slowly over time, equally it will take time to unravel the gordian knot of systemic bias. From the perspective of change management, changemakers carry similar burdens both structural and emotional. They too are a minority group in your organisation and they pay a toll for going against the grain. Breaking the rules of any social group puts us at risk of exclusion. However, leaders need a certain cohort to go against the grain and to break psychological and habitual rules for the good of the organisation.
This is tough work, there is a lot on a leader’s plate, and bias is unconscious and invisible to those in positions of privilege, that is why I highly recommend this accessible 2-part episode with Joan C. Williams and a deep dive into her book “Bias Interrupted: Creating Inclusion for Real and for Good”. I hope it helps.
Link to episodes here: