How To Avoid Crabs-in-a-Bucket Mentality In The Workplace

Chances are that you already know exactly what the crabs-in-a-bucket mentality is, but maybe you didn’t know the exact name for it. You might know people with crabs-in-a-bucket mentality better as “haters” – people who spend a lot of time and energy bringing others down in order to feel better about themselves. A popular phrase used amongst Filipinos, the crabs-in-a-bucket mentality often rears its ugly head within the workplace and within certain communities, and the effects it has can be extremely damaging. Here’s a breakdown of what the crabs-in-a-bucket mentality really is, how it can appear in the workplace, and what you can do to make sure that it never gets in the way of your personal progress.

What is crabs-in-a-bucket mentality? 

The crabs-in-a-bucket mentality is more metaphoric than it is scientific – there isn’t much research to support the claim that the crabs-in-a-bucket mentality is a psychological condition, rather than an aspect of human behaviour. The metaphor is based on how crabs behave when placed in a barrel: as individuals or as a group, the crabs could escape from the barrel quite easily. However, the crabs instead grab at each other to stop each other from escaping – ensuring that none of them will survive.

This behaviour very much informs how the crabs-in-a-bucket mentality works in people, based on the “If I can’t have it, neither can you” sentiment. Members of a group will try to undermine, or negate any members’ achievements if they seem to be achieving a higher level of success beyond others. There are any number of reasons why someone might want to stop someone from achieving more than them, such as envy, conspiracy or competitiveness. Some believe that they only way they can feasibly get ahead is by holding others back – but by doing so, they are only holding themselves back.

The crabs-in-a-bucket mentality can be damaging to our progress.

For example, there is a perception amongst women that the higher you rise up the ranks, the fewer opportunities there are for women. Thus, there is a tendency for women in the workplace to view other women as competition, rather than allies. And while it can be tempting to go for self-preservation over helping others, especially within a cut-throat environment, that is the exact trap of the crabs-in-a-bucket mentality. Rather than seeing the bigger picture, the crabs only see the bucket.

When we work hard to pull each other down rather than work to help deserving people gain success, we are guaranteeing that women as a whole will never reach positions with true decision-making power. While there are a number of reasons why women are still under-represented at top levels, the prevalence of the crabs-in-a-bucket mentality within the workplace could be a major contributor.

Being able to identify when someone has fallen victim to the “crabs-in-a-bucket” mentality is a useful way to avoid unhealthy workplace competition. Image via Rawpixel/Unsplash.

How to identify when someone you work with has a crabs-in-a-bucket mentality.

A person with a crabs-in-a-bucket mentality is pretty easy to spot: they’ll be the last person to offer praise, even when it’s deserved. This person prefers to criticise, often past the point of being constructive. They will work to undermine your self-confidence, and your self-pride regarding your achievements under the guise of offering “advice”. While some people can simply be misguided in the advice that they offer, a person with the crabs-in-a-bucket mentality will offer advice that seems to only work to make you doubt yourself. They will actively try to sabotage any chances you may have to grow, or excel.

What you can do to avoid the crabs-in-a-bucket mentality in your workplace. 

Some people can be critical and competitive, but do want to see others thrive and succeed too. Be aware of those who seem to do more to bring people down than they do to lift them up. If you feel like someone is going overboard to undermine you, the best thing to do is to keep your head high and carry on. However, if their criticism is getting in the way of your work or is undermining your career progression, speak to the person first about their behaviour as they may not realise their actions are undermining you.

If their behaviour isn’t directed to you, try to be aware that they may still be doing it to others. While it may feel tempting to turn a blind eye, standing up for others when you see they’re being undermined is a great way to avoid the crabs-in-a-bucket mentality from becoming prevalent in your workplace. In the long run, looking out for others will build you a reputation for being fair, and will show those people looking to bring you down that their tactics will not work on you – nor will they be allowed to work on others.

To sum it all up, keep on keeping on. Let your success speak for itself, don’t ever give in to self-doubt, set a good example, nurture good friendships by being an ally rather than a competitor, practice forgiveness, and above all: self-care!


We’ll be talking more about collaboration over competition and other topics at our MissMafia Real Talk event, presented by DOJO KL. Join us on the 7th of July for an inclusive and honest discussion with some kick-ass ladies about Women Who Work It, and Werk It. More details to be announced on our Instagram!

About Sunita Soh

Hello! I’m Sunita, a proud “dan lain-lain” Malaysian with a passion for feminism and really good char kuey teow. When I’m not rescuing cats or making endless playlists on Spotify, you can find me with my nose buried in a book or glued to my laptop watching cooking tutorials.

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