Why it’s good to be an underdog

If you want to win, you must be dominant, all-powerful and able to effortlessly crush your opponent, right? Well, not always. It turns out that there's a very special place in our hearts for winners who don't have those qualities, and who struggle valiantly against the odds. 

"The dam is broken.....the 62-year drought is over….". So declared the television commentator two minutes before the siren sounded on the 2016 Grand Final last Saturday, when the Western Bulldogs kicked the final goal that gave them an unbeatable lead over match favourites, the Sydney Swans. 

Dogs by name, and underdogs by nature, the Western Bulldogs hadn't won a premiership since 1954. They had already pulled of a coup just by making it to the Grand Final.

Though widely considered unlikely to win, the Bulldogs fought their way to a 22-point victory.

With it came the cheers and tears of thousands of people – including many, like me, who aren't even football fans. Why were we so affected by their win?

Some of the most famous movies of all time tell the real-life stories of underdogs who triumphed over adversity, including Rocky (inspired by the story of Chuck Wepner), 8 Mile, Erin Brockovich and my personal favourite, Eddie the Eagle. We see our own hopes and dreams reflected in their epic struggles.

Seeing others at a disadvantage also tends to ignite our sense of fairness and justice. This means that supporting the underdog is one way that we can confront and reduce inequality.

In fact, even suggesting that a team or person is the underdog makes us more likely to support them. In study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers asked 71 participants to imagine that two teams — one ranked higher than the other — were going to compete in an Olympic swimming event. In all scenarios, the participants said they would prefer to see the lower-ranked team prevail over the higher-ranked one, even if that higher-ranked team had been the underdog in a previous scenario.

We also relate better to underdogs, seeing them as more “real”, or more authentic. In another study, psychology professor Joseph Vandello from the University of Florida asked students to watch a basketball game in which they were told that one team was the favorite. After watching the footage, the viewers characterised the underdog team as having less “intelligence” and “talent,” but more “hustle” and “heart”. Again, this pattern was consistent even when the scenario was flipped so that the other team was framed as the underdog. The viewers simply liked the people who were losing more than they liked the winners.

What does this mean for you and your team?

If you’re already the underdogs, take heart.

In his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell says that bigger is only better up to a point.

Gladwell identifies 7 characteristics of the "winning little guy", including an honourable reputation; doing everything in in person; determination; empathy; teamwork; and being both passionate and likeable.

To me, this also provides an excellent summary of the qualities of every winning bid team I have ever worked with, no matter how large or small.

But if you’re not the underdogs, take this as a warning.  

If your team already feels like they are the sure-fire winners, and they are in any way arrogant or entitled about this, you may have a problem on your hands.

Just like a Grand Final, one thing is for sure in a competitive pitch - it isn't over until it's over.

The culture you want for your pitch team is one where the prevailing conversation is about what we can do for the customer, not what's in it for us.

So how can you get your team to think and behave like underdogs, and harness the extra energy and empathy that comes along with it? Here are five values and behaviours to encourage. 

  1. Ask more questions. Underdogs assume less, read the briefing thoroughly, and carefully flag any issues and concerns.
  2. Speak with humility. Underdogs don't assume they already know everything, and they treat the opportunity (and the customer) with respect.
  3. Work harder. Underdogs are in early, stay late, and put in the hard yards when they need to. They don’t leave the work to someone else. 
  4. Work as a team. Underdogs don't blame each other when things get difficult, and adversity will bring them even closer together, rather than pulling them apart.
  5. Express thanks and gratitude. Underdogs are excited just to be on the journey, and aren't solely focused on the destination or the win.