Why Underdogs Win (More Often Than They Should)

Why Underdogs Win

I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the city known throughout the world for two things:

Throwing snowballs at Santa Claus.
And its embrace of underdogs.

When you think about Philadelphians, you should start from this simple fact: our most celebrated sports hero is a fictional character who loses a boxing match to the heavyweight champion of the world. That’s right, I’m talking about Rocky Balboa. I’m talking about the Italian Stallion. Rocky is the story of a bum fighter who gets picked by sheer luck (and his name Italian heritage) and matched against the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world in a fight no one thinks he can win. But midway through the movie, however, we get a peek at the real motivation that drives Rocky to train so hard to fight Apollo Creed.

Rocky tells Adrian he doesn’t want to win. Rocky tells Adrian he wants to go the distance. He wants to prove to the world that he’s not a bum. If he wins, that’d be great. And if he loses, he’ll live with it. But if he goes the distance, that’s what he believes will prove all the critics wrong. That’s what will prove to himself and others that he is not a bum. I don’t know if Sylvester Stallone knew something about the human psyche, but it turns out that psychologists are finding out a lot about the power of the underdog narrative. And it matches Stallone’s script quite nicely.

Recently, there’s been a wealth of attempts to study that underdog narrative and its motivating effect on individuals and teams. Most of the studies have been led by the psychologist Samir Nurmohamed at the University of Pennsylvania. Nurmohamed devised several different scenarios where people were encouraged to adopt an underdog narrative and then compared in various tasks against a control group. And he’s found that the underdogs are consistently more motivated to perform and often arrive at drastically better outcomes.

One study, for example, recruited people who had been unexpectedly forced to look for new work. Nurmohamed encouraged one group of participants to see themselves as underdogs, as underrated, as if the companies that rejected them just didn’t understanding the true value they could provide to the organization. That made their future acts of job seeking into a Rocky-like attempt to prove the doubters wrong. And to a control group he just asked them questions about their past work history and what have you.

When he followed up with everyone a few weeks later. The underdog group was much more likely to be getting interviews and much more likely to be getting job offers than the control group. Something about that desire to prove past rejections wrong motivated and inspired this group far more than the control. And they experienced the results to prove it.

In another study, Nurmohamed took participants through a paired negotiation process, but before he did that, he primed everyone into three groups and gave them some prework. One group was told that, based on their education levels and their past performance on the pretests, they were expected to do really well in the negotiation even before they met their partner. One group was told that they got a pretty good shot, but really they only had even chances of winning against their partner. And another group was told that they were the underdogs, that the researchers weren’t expecting much from them, that they were probably going lose in the negotiation they were heading into.

When everyone had finished their rounds of negotiations, Nurmohamed and his team found that the underdog group came up winning solutions much more often. The group that was told wouldn’t win, won far more often than expected (or attributable to chance). Moreover, the underdog group won so much because they were able to think of more creative solutions than participants from the other two groups.

And the underdog effect isn’t just something we find in the lab. Other researchers have found that the underdog narrative has a powerful effect on how we see ourselves, our organizations, and whether or not were satisfied and engaged in the work that we do.

One study from researcher Thomas Roulet examined 3,000 French full-time employees who said they were satisfied or dissatisfied with their job in a national survey of work and life statistics run by the French government. Roulet dove deep into the survey results and what he found was that one of the big factors in being satisfied with their job was whether or not the general public had a positive opinion of the company that they worked for.

If the public had a positive opinion of the company that they worked for, then they were more likely to be satisfied. That part is kind of obvious. But where it got interesting was that, if the public had a negative opinion of their company, it didn’t automatically mean they were dissatisfied. Whether or not they were satisfied in their job depended on one crucial factor: whether or not they agreed with the criticism.

If they worked for a company that was seen by the public as less than admirable, and they felt like the public was wrong—bad media coverage, not understanding the industry, or any of a variety of reasons—then they were more likely to be satisfied with the job and proud of the company. Just like underdogs, when workers believe they have been on the receiving end of unjustified criticism, they end up wanting to prove the haters wrong. That’s the core of what drives underdogs. Something about unjustified criticism not only leads to greater motivation and innovation, but leads to greater satisfaction with the organization that you are working for.

I’ve spent over a decade examining the motivating power that organizations can have over individuals. And one of the things I’ve found is that people don’t want to just join a company; they want to join a crusade. Perhaps better said, the way to motivate people is to give them a clear and concise answer to the question “What are we fighting for?”

And one of the ways you can answer that question is the Underdog Fight. The fight to prove doubters and haters wrong and show the world what you’re truly capable of is a powerful force—and a potent way to motivate your team.

And there are so many examples throughout history of leaders embracing that underdog status.

Even in business history there are countless examples of leaders saying, “You know what? The establishment, the industry, they don’t believe that we’re a significant player. Our competitors don’t actually believe that we’re a threat, and we’re going to show they’re wrong.”

My favorite example, and a relatively recent one, is the story of how Netflix bounced back from a rejection by Blockbuster and defeated basically the entire movie rental industry.

If you’re older than 30, then you probably remember that Netflix started not as an Oscar- and Emmy-winning streaming video service, but as a DVD-by-mail service. The company was started because founder Reed Hastings was tired of late fees from established players like Blockbuster for not returning his DVDs on time. Because DVDs were so light and flexible, it was easy to ship them around the country and give customers a prepaid mailer to ship them back whenever they wanted. No late fees, but no new DVD until you returned the old one.

We look back on it as a genius idea, but the market at the time wasn’t so sure. Netflix had some early investors, but couldn’t get customers on board fast enough. And so it was losing money too fast. Hastings and the other senior leaders began courting Blockbuster as a potential savior for the company. The idea was that if they could sell themselves to Blockbuster, they could keep everyone employed. But it would also allow Blockbuster to offer this new, DVD-by-mail service.

Blockbuster, however, ignored their courtship attempts for a long-time. Finally, they decided they would entertain Netflix’s offer, but they weren’t exactly welcoming. One random day, the CFO’s office in Dallas reached out and told Hastings and company (based in Silicon Valley) that they could meet tomorrow morning. Despite the offensive nature of a short-notice meeting offer made to a company halfway across the country, Hastings and the senior leadership team took them up on the meeting. They chartered a plane that left at five in the morning from California to get to that meeting in Dallas with Blockbuster on time. And in that meeting they presented their case for why Netflix was a beautiful acquisition.

And then, they listened as the CFO of Blockbuster arrogantly explained to them how every dot com company was about to implode, how the internet was overrated, and how brick and mortar retail was going to survive for a very long time. But when the time came to talk about purchasing the company, the CFO still asked Hastings for a number.

Reed Hastings quoted him $50 million. It was a non-starter for the CFO. No deal. Blockbuster, a company who would be bankrupt a decade later at the hand of Netflix, had the opportunity to purchase Netflix for $50 million and turned it down. In their arrogance as the established players, they believed that brick and mortar would be there forever and that tech companies like Netflix were overrated.

Reed Hastings didn’t get $50 million, but I’m willing to bet on that plane ride back
from that meeting he realized he had something far more valuable: He now had a true underdog story.

And the way Netflix has been led ever since seems to be leveraging that underdog story in new markets. Once they had proven themselves against movie rentals, they went after the cable television industry. Once they had proven themselves there, they went after Hollywood and established television studios. And you can bet that once they win there, they’ll find a new industry to target and leverage the underdog story to victory.

The story of Rocky Balboa, and the lesson of Netflix, is that leaders capture a powerful motivational force when they can tell an underdog story. If you can point to how your team has been discounted or underrated and you can point to how those critics are wrong, then you can tap into that same motivational force.

That is how underdogs win, or at least why they win more often than they should.

Thanks for reading. You can get more actionable ideas in my popular email newsletter. Each week, I share educational (and entertaining) videos, articles, and podcasts that will help you and your team do your best work ever. Over 40,000 leaders just like you have subscribed. Enter your email now and join us.


About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

Recommended Reading

5 Simple Ways To Become A Great Leader

When you start out your career, you’re most often an individual contributor. And in that role your knowledge and skills are most important. But if you do that role well, you’ll likely be asked to consider becoming a leader. And in leadership, the methods you relied on to be a great employee don’t often help […]

Servant Leadership Theory [Easy & Quick Explanation]

The magnum opus of Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership is a recent theory of leadership that argues that the most effective leaders are servants of their people. Servant leaders get results for their organization through whole-hearted attention to their followers and followers’ needs. Unlike many approaches to leadership, which offer suggestions on how top-level leaders can influence and motivate those […]

Scroll to Top