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  • Aubrey Patterson

Crabs in a Bucket

The Analogy

There’s quite an interesting phenomenon that plays out when a number of live crabs find themselves in a bucket. If alone, most of these crabs could easily escape by finding a way to pull themselves up and out of their current situation, but once in a group, their natural inclination is thwarted by other crabs who pull them down.


This certainly can seem cruel and it might well be. A slightly more optimistic perspective is that the crabs act in this manner out of ignorance, and they are pulling on anything that might help them escape. Crabs in a bucket syndrome is analogous to toxic staff culture, and it takes little thought to tie the analogy to the jealousies, thoughtless actions, and harsh words that can infect mindsets and pull down individuals and organizations.


There is nothing healthy in workplaces that operate as a crab bucket and seem set on a course of communal destruction. Eventually, everyone loses in a culture that insists upon operating from the lowest common denominator.


Change the Story

It’s probably naive to attempt to enlighten a crab or change its natural inclination. There are certainly ways to work with people, but what if you’re just stuck with petty peers?


  1. Leave. If you aren’t bound by financial and personal needs, you can choose to get out.

  2. It’s better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness. (Confucius) If you are rooted in your circumstances, fight the urge to pull others down. There may others like you in the bucket and you might be able to win the day together or find ways to help each other out of the negativity at least some of the time.

  3. Whenever possible, whether in a staffroom or a common space, surround yourself with growth mindset people. Seek selfless and motivated peers and keep away from crab buckets.


Crabs don’t know their fate, but their instinct to escape immediately is warranted. We aren’t crabs. We can think and reason our way out of toxic environments. We can outthink those who quickly act out of spite or ignorance. We can vote with our feet or gather our thoughts, encourage others, and play the long game.


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