The World of Work Project

Tall Poppies and Crabs in Buckets

Tall poppy syndrome describes a cultural trait where successful individuals are resented, undermined or attacked to bring them back down. Crabs in buckets is a phrase that describes individuals undermining others who try to succeed. These negative cultural traits undermine performance and engagement.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Tall poppy syndrome

Tall poppy syndrome is a cultural trait that leads to the undermining, attacking or otherwise cutting down of successful individuals. The phrase comes from the fact that tall poppies stick up above others in their field and are thus easy to spot and cut down.

Poppies that stand out may not last that long.

In the world of work, tall poppy syndrome manifests through resentment and underhand behaviors directed towards successful people. For example, if one member of a group starts to be highly recognized and celebrated, then others in that group may attack them to cut them back down to size.

Tall poppy syndrome is unhelpful in work cultures as it prevents success and, to some extent, acts as a disincentive for achievement. It’s also, unfortunately, a common side effect of certain performance management and incentive structures.

If you have a performance management approach that forces the distribution of ratings for your population into a normal distribution, then you have created a “zero-sum” performance game. In these environments the better my peers do, the worse I do. And the converse is true. Under these rules, everyone has an incentive to undermine their higher flying peers.

Crabs in a bucket

Crabs never let each other out of a bucket.

Similar cultural traits are sometimes described with the phrase “crabs in a bucket”. This rather less appealing image is apt.

Crabs in a bucket basically never manage to climb to the top of the bucket to escape. Whenever one crab makes progress and nears the top, another crab will grab onto it and try to climb up it. The result is inevitably that both crabs fall back into the bottom of the bucket.

The same outcomes can been seen to happen in teams where individuals pull each other down as opposed to helping each other up.

The World of Work Project View

The cultures and behavioral traits that exist in organizations hugely shape their ability to perform and attract and retain individuals. The tall poppy / crabs in a bucket trait reduces the ability of an organization and is deeply unappealing for the types of employees that most organizations wish to employ.

If you find that you’re in a culture that’s like this, it’s probably worth looking to change it, or failing that, looking to leave. It’s particularly worth looking to change the culture or leave if you wish to be a tall poppy yourself, but it’s also worth doing so if you’re not.

Being in an environment that normalizes undermining others is draining and unhealthy. In the long run spending too much time in an environment like this will damage your wellbeing and confidence.

If you’re a leader, it’s worth knowing that cultures like this make it hard for people to be their best in the workplace. Those that thrive in this type of culture are not often the type of people who you generally want to have many of in your place of work.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

This post is based on some general reading and conversations and there are no specific references for it.


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