Renowned neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart has revealed her top strategy for surviving a stressful work environment during an interview on Yahoo Finance Presents: It’s A Jungle Out There.
The Jungle podcast is a new 10-part series that unpacks productivity lessons from nature, with Dr Swart explaining crab mentality in episode one.
“This isn’t just all about leadership and business, it’s about primal human behaviours and the crab is a really good analogy for not being able to let go and getting locked into a certain behaviour or way of thinking and once you’re on that path it’s sort of like a failure to admit to behave that way and you should go and behave differently,” said Dr Swart, who is also a medical doctor, faculty at MIT Sloan, and award-winning author of Neuroscience for Leadership and The Source: Open Your Mind, Change Your Life.
Crab mentality is a term derived from a pattern of behaviour that has been observed in crabs when they’re trapped in a bucket. Even though any crab would be able to escape in that situation, the group of crabs work to pull that would-be successful crab down. In other words, the group would rather all share a collective demise than let one crab be successful.
The analogy for the workplace is best described as “if I can’t have it, neither can you.” Humans will enact this by trying to reduce the self-confidence of any colleague who achieves success beyond the others, out of spite, envy or resentment — even if it means threatening their own survival.
“Also if there’s one person who’s in a really senior position or a group of people that have allowed a certain culture to flourish, if someone new comes in and tries to change it there’s a lot of resistance to that so that person can be easily be ostracised or moved out of the group,” said Dr Swart. “But it really takes one of the people who have the power and the status or is longstanding in the culture to make it better for all of us to change the status quo.”
Dr Swart explained that while this type of group behaviour is “deep-wired” into our brains – even though mutual self-destruction seems against survival instincts – there is neuroscience to show that making sure you eat enough to nourish your brain and not hit a level where you are too hungry, can have a huge effect on decision-making and can even combat the toxic culture that will stress you out.
“Food is huge because our brains only weigh 2-3 kilograms and they are a tiny proportion to our bodyweight but our brain uses up 25-30% of what we eat and if you’re under stress and you’re feeling ostracised, which to our brains which were wired a millennia ago that’s a threat to survival, you will be using up more and more of that sugar as soon as you eat it,” she said.
Dr Swart outlined that recent studies, including a prominent one involving Israeli judges, showed that the “further they got away from eating something, the more likely they’d make racist decisions about who should go on parole”.
She says that making sure you have a snack before an important meeting and not skipping a meal before you confront someone about bias can make a huge difference.
If you want to hear the full conversation and how you can combat crab mentality at work, you’ll find it on Apple, ACast, and Google podcasts. More articles on the subject are on the dedicated Work & Management hub at Yahoo Finance UK.