Exploring the Crabs in the Barrel Syndrome in Organizations

[Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to welcome author Carliss D. Miller of Sam Houston State University. Dr. Miller recently published an article in the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies entitled “Exploring the Crabs in the Barrel Syndrome in Organizations,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, Dr. Miller recounts the motivations and challenges of this research.]

What motivated you to pursue this research?

As a first-year doctoral student, I had my first experience analyzing data with my professor and interpreting results. We noticed in a sample of supervisor-subordinate dyads, African American employees reported higher loyalty when reporting to a White supervisor versus when African American employees reported to an African American supervisor. My professor asked my interpretation of the findings, and I casually suggested that it could be a case of crabs in the barrel. That initial conversation sparked my interest in the use of conceptual metaphors in organizations.

What has been the most challenging aspect of conducting your research? Were there any surprising findings?

The most challenging aspects of conducting this research was carefully crafting a story and narrative that didn’t mischaracterize the participants’ stories and experiences. It was challenging to provide balance so that the reader could understand the behaviors and observations of the participants’ experiences with the crabs in a barrel syndrome (CBS), understand the implications, and more importantly understand the context (i.e. the barrel) driving some competitive and conflictual interactions in the workplace.

I did not expect some of the intense emotional reactions I observed during the pilot interviews and the interviews analyzed for this article. Some people shed tears when they recounted their experiences, and some were upset that the topic was being discussed.

What did not make it into your published manuscript that you would like to share with us?

The admission and prescriptions of CBS did not make into the published manuscript—admission to being an instigator of CBS and prescription of how to counter CBS.

Two bloggers in the sample were willing to admit their role as instigators, but none of the interview participants admitted to being CBS instigators. One participant admitted to treating other African American employees differently and holding them to a higher standard. He argued that “you have to have higher expectations” because others have low expectations of African Americans. He discussed the importance of performance as “one person’s success is the success for all, and if one isn’t working twice as hard, we would fall victim to the same stereotypes.” It is possible that the target could interpret his actions as CBS.

Several bloggers offered ideas for eradicating CBS. Most stated bringing awareness is the first step. Another stated it is important to “express admiration instead of envy.”

All interview participants offered suggestions for possible solutions. One theme of prescription focused on a mental “reprogramming” of the individual, individual actions, and organizational actions. Several participants suggested that mental reprogramming should begin with the belief that invisible barriers still exist, and recognize the “collective accomplishments” of others, and recognize “there’s still more to do.” Some participants also recommended group members should ‘resist finding pleasure in being the ‘only one’ and “take responsibility for helping others.” One participant summed the behavioral expectation of group members as such:

“There is no hope for the next person unless they find other people inside of the barrel that’s willing to help.”

Suggestions for organizations included: fostering mentor-mentee relationships, reducing organizational politics and barriers to advancement for women and minorities, and promoting a climate supportive of equity and inclusion.

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