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A lesson in collaboration from hermit crabs

If you live near (or you’ve visited) tropical beaches, you’ve no doubt seen hermit crabs.  Usually in groups of at least 50 or more, these small crustaceans often look quite unlike each other, owing to the differences in their shells.  This is because hermit crabs are only temporary tenants in their homes, in shells that originally belonged to other ocean creatures.  Hermit crabs, unlike other crustaceans, have soft abdomens, which makes them vulnerable to predators.  So they carry a salvaged empty seashell on their backs, a mobile home of sorts, into which the whole body can retract when faced with a predatory threat. But as the crab grows, not surprisingly, it needs to vacate one mobile home and find a larger one.

This biological phenomenon is certainly noteworthy, but what is even more interesting is the way in which this happens. When it’s time to “move”, hermit crabs form a “vacancy chain”. When an individual crab finds a new available shell, it leaves its own shell and inspects the vacant one for size. If it’s too large, the crab goes back to its own shell and then waits by the empty one for up to eight hours. As new crabs arrive, they also inspect the shell and, if it is too big, wait with the others, forming a group of up to 20 individuals, each holding on to one another in a line from the largest to the smallest crab. Eventually, a crab arrives that is the right size to claim the unoccupied shell, and so its old home now becomes available. Swiftly, all the crabs in the queue exchange shells in sequence, each one moving up to the next size.

This hermit crab behaviour presents an interesting metaphor for the workplace. Instinctively, the crabs have realized that collaboration with others will lead to their eventual success. The largest crab knows that if there is a line of crabs on the sand, there is a likely a new home waiting. It's nature’s equivalent of word-of-mouth advertising for the largest house on the block. And the remaining crabs in the queue have realized that by working with the other crabs, they’ll not only get their needs met, but help the others be successful as well.

Clearly, collaboration works in the world of hermit crabs. But what about in your workplace? Have your team members recognized the value of collaboration? Have you created an environment in which your team members willingly help others, fully trusting that when they in turn need assistance, another team member will step up to help them? Creating such a workplace climate is your responsibility as the leader, so have you done your part?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this hermit crab vacancy chain metaphor. Does it apply in your workplace? Or is your workplace fiercely competitive, to the point of dysfunction? Or are you somewhere in between the two extremes. Please share your perspectives directly on the blog at

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