The upside of under: Engaging the underdog edge for persuasion success
Think of a problem you’re trying to solve. Maybe you want to get raises for your team members or abate traffic congestion in a new housing development next door. Perhaps you have a dispute with the IRS. Maybe you are the CEO who needs a legislator to vote for a bill that enables your company to expand into new markets. Maybe you want that “plum” job.
In these situations, no matter what your title or reputation, you’re not involved in an equal partnership. You’re the underdog. If you’re the team leader, you’re the underdog to your boss. If you’re the neighborhood association leader, you’re the underdog to the zoning board. If you’re the taxpayer, you’re the underdog to the IRS. Even if you’re the CEO, you’re the underdog to the elected official. If you’re the interview candidate, you’re the underdog to the potential employer.
As an underdog, you have no power or advantage. You hold none of the “cards” while the person you want to persuade holds all of them. You are engaged in upward influence, one of the most challenging influence encounters you’ll face. Rest assured that you’ll have to influence up the food chain many times to get what you want in your work and personal lives.
The Powerful Have a Psychological Need to Help Underdogs
Research shows that people tend to see individuals of high status as more influential, competent, and worthy than low-status (underdog) individuals or groups. The low-status individuals and groups are more likely to be targets of prejudice and negative stereotyping, and they’re more likely to be seen as unworthy and incompetent.
However, there is an upside to being the underdog. Do you remember cheering for any of the following people or teams? Reality show singing sensation Susan Boyle. The Butler University men’s basketball team playing against Duke in the 2010 men’s NCAA championship game. The Chicago Cubs. Many of us have or continue to root for these individuals or teams. We love the underdog; it’s in our DNA.
This love of the underdog is intriguing because it violates classic social psychology theory that suggests an important part of our self-worth derives from identifying with successful, high-status organizations and groups. A core tenet of social identity theory asserts that the accomplishments of the groups with which we affiliate are a crucial source of our self-esteem. We are better people (or at least we think we are) when we’re aligned with winners.