The Lovely Christy and I have had the great fortune of walking many piers in our time together. One of our favorites is in Huntington Beach, California. The energy of a pier is great, with many different types of people, all doing what they came for. For some, it’s the first date, some it’s a contemplative stroll, others it’s the smell of the sea breeze. One of the staples is the fishermen that are always present trying to get the catch of the day.

On some piers, fishermen have the ability to drop and retrieve crab pots. The first time I ever went “crabbing” was with an old Army buddy north of Seattle. I learned a leadership lesson that day that I wouldn’t truly understand until many decades later. The concept of Crab Bucket Culture.

Upon retrieving a basket from the sea, the crabs are then placed in a bucket and the process of throwing the pod back into the water is repeated time and time again throughout the day until you have accomplished your crab goal. These ugly, yet delicious creatures stir around and climb on top of each other constantly while in the bucket.

The leadership lesson begins with the fact that there is no lid on the bucket. One would think these innovative crabs would simply climb out of the bucket and head to safety as soon as they had a chance. Seemingly one at a time, they take turns seeing who can climb high enough and attempt to hook a claw over the top to break free once and for all. However, every time one crab gets close to the ultimate freedom of escape, the other crabs in the bucket will immediately grab ahold and pull the freedom seeker right back down in the bucket with the rest of them. 

Now, let’s think about your business culture for a moment. How and when does this process show up within your own company? If someone appears to be getting ahead with individual accomplishment, education, or experience, are they immediately “pulled” back down to where they belong? Does your leadership support individual growth and support everything that each person wants to become as they grow their skill and ability while working for you? Be completely honest with yourself here. 

Fear and scarcity mindset are the drivers of dangerous thought patterns which manifest as beliefs, and ultimately, culture in the workplace. When someone wins at your company, it does not mean that someone else had to lose, does it? However, helping people see this as a reality can be challenging.

Human nature is to fit in. We often don’t like to stand out in the crowd or be different than those around us. People seem to be the most comfortable, or they at least tell themselves the story that they are the most comfortable, when looking like, talking like and performing like the masses. This is dangerous when it comes to progressive company culture. You need people that want to break free from the status quo. You also need a team of leaders as well as peers that support each other when there is personal growth taking place in the workplace.

Like most things in life, business interaction and performance are strongly driven by emotional motivation. People want to feel good about themselves. If someone struggles with envy or jealousy, they will invariably (even unconsciously), try to hold someone back or bring them down as a coping mechanism to feel better about their own status. Since this is common human behavior, as leaders, we must be incredibly aware of this mentality, how and when it shows up as well as its presence in ourselves.

Fear is one of the biggest drivers in human interactions today. In the contracting business, we’ve been witnessing fear of market shifting, private equity presence, supply chain issues, inflation, lack of skilled labor and so on. How much is fear driving your own thought process regarding any of the categories I just mentioned? If you have a lot of fear in yourself, you will unconsciously project fear in your leadership interactions. This will not help the crab bucket mentality in your front-line team members.

This business is not a zero-sum game. This life is not a zero-sum life. Fear and scarcity mindset are the drivers of dangerous thought patterns which manifest as beliefs, and ultimately, culture in the workplace. When someone wins at your company, it does not mean that someone else had to lose, does it? However, helping people see this as a reality can be challenging.

When one technician gets a “no heat” or “no water” call on a 20-year-old system, and another technician gets a free inspection call on a 2-year-old system, the perception of winning and losing can quickly become a negative conversation in your culture. It’s your job as the leader to constantly communicate the way you run the business from the time a call is booked all the way through the installation completion. If you can’t “defend” why each tech got the call they did, then you have some additional work to do.

However, if there is a system in place for how dispatch runs the call board, then it’s a simple coaching opportunity to keep top of mind that there is a reason for everything that is done in the business throughout the day. Do your very best to communicate for clarity, but also keep in mind that most of the time, crab bucket mentality and zero-sum thinking is not really about you or the company, it’s a long-held belief or pattern a team member may have carried for many years.

An additional concept to keep at the forefront of your mind as you navigate culture, in general, is maintaining empathy for people’s perception of change. We’ve already discussed fear here, but an overall change of just about any kind can be very difficult for people. Even when it’s not them that is changing. This is the key reason for crab bucket culture. I may not be the one that is making a change, but someone else changing who they are or the way they do things can challenge my own status quo mindset. This takes a lot of awareness and desire to change to avoid slipping into a crab bucket mentality.

The very best thing you can do to avoid the dangers of crab bucket culture is to focus on your own abundance mindset and thinking. The more you avoid scarcity and fear in your own thought patterns, the easier you will be able to communicate all the great opportunities your company provides and how everyone can remain focused on supporting the individual as well as team growth. This will keep your company at the forefront of innovation, fun and a great place to work. This supportive and growth-oriented culture not only helps profitability, but also the ever-changing game of recruiting, hiring and retention.