It’s us versus them: Here’s what happens when leaders have an underdog mentality

TAMPA, Fla. — From David and Goliath to the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, the story of an underdog upsetting the heavy favorite is a tale as old as time. It’s easy to root for the little guy, and leaders on playing fields and board rooms alike often adopt an underdog mentality in hopes of rallying their employees or players. Now, for the first time ever, researchers at the University of South Florida are explaining how these underdog stories actually influence the actions and attitudes of others.

The results offer a road map of sorts for any leader or organization considering taking on an underdog identity. For example, an underdog story inherently creates an “us-versus-them mentality” which could lead team members to believe they are being treated unfairly and thus, pushing them to take more risks or cut corners. Alternatively, buying into the underdog identity could provide people with a greater purpose or goal and promote a greater sense of overall well-being.

“All groups have an identity, and usually, it is up to the leader to shape it,” says Logan Steele, an assistant professor in the School of Information Systems and Management at the USF Muma College of Business, in a university release. “A powerful way leaders shape a group’s identity is through the stories they tell. What we don’t know is, what is it pushing you to do when you see yourself in that underdog image?”

“The purpose of this paper was to lay a foundation for future research to understand what those consequences might be,” Steele adds.

Study authors provide numerous examples across the sports, telecommunications, apparel, and automotive industries illustrating how leaders use underdog stories to motivate others and achieve their organization’s aspirations.

“While there are many potential upsides to utilizing this story — such as increased motivation, engagement, and well-being — this paper also highlights some of the potential drawbacks and how these drawbacks may be mitigated,” Prof. Steele explains. “One consequence of adopting a collective underdog identity is increased risk-taking by members of the organization.”

Some of the biggest companies today took the underdog approach

Researchers cite Apple in 2001 prior to launching the iconic iPod. It’s hard to imagine now, but back then Apple was in poor shape. At the time, competitor Michael Dell even famously proclaimed that Apple should shut down and return money to its shareholders. Fast forward to today and study authors explain Apple’s collective underdog identity and the company’s dedication to innovation changed how society interacts with technology.

Meanwhile, Uber represents a different kind of underdog example. The research team notes that Uber was frequently cited for morally questionable forms of risk-taking behavior during its meteoric rise from underdog disruptor to app store staple over the past decade. When the company was just starting out, it reportedly skirted regulations around the world, allegedly stealing technology from competitors and even stalking a reporter to advance its agenda, according to the team.

Prof. Steele believes one effective way to curb the potential drawbacks in risk-taking behaviors is to stop underdog narratives from creating an “us-versus-them” scenario.

“When you frame success as a zero-sum game, you motivate members of an organization to sabotage their competition. The message is that we’re being treated unfairly and are at a disadvantage, so people may try to level the playing field by cutting corners,” Steele continues.

Researchers add that when people buy into a collective underdog status, it can help improve overall well-being. To support this conclusion, they cite New Balance. The footwear company has often framed itself as an underdog in the athletic shoe industry by breaking from industry outsourcing norms and producing a significant portion of its footwear in the United States.

“Members of the organization take pride in seeing themselves as working against industry giants as the little guy who promotes the social good by supporting local communities,” Prof. Steele concludes.

The study is published in Academy of Management Review.

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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