The Corporate Crabpot

I did quite a lot of work for an urban school district some years ago.  One day I was talking with the superintendent about how to improve student achievement.  There are, of course, many theories and facts about this, but he really caught my attention that day when he referred to what he called “The Crab Pot”.  The superintendent (an African-American) said it illustrates a cultural norm among young African-American males.  I think it illustrates a cultural norm among white executives.  Here’s what it is:

People who search for crabs along the seashore usually have a bucket, or pot, that they put crabs into.  After a while, when many crabs are in the pot, they are slowly moving about, climbing over one another.  Eventually the crabs will create a pile that reaches up to the top rim of the pail, such that a crab crawling up on top of the others has the opportunity to drop out of the pot and escape.  Invariably at that moment, other crabs reach up and pull the crab down, so that no crab is ever allowed to escape.

An environment where people act like the crabs is one where innovation is shunned and “not invented here” syndrome takes firm hold.  It is an environment in which administrators and bureaucrats thrive, because nothing is threatening them or their secure place.  But it is also a place where high performers, creative types, and doers get frustrated, beaten-down and coopted.  They are very competitive environments, where nothing much ever gets accomplished.

Are you in a crab pot?  Are certain parts of your company crab pots?

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