Why an underdog mindset can be a good thing

BELIEF: Whether in the pool or out, Australian culture has long demonstrated an appreciation of the underdog. Picture: Shutterstock
BELIEF: Whether in the pool or out, Australian culture has long demonstrated an appreciation of the underdog. Picture: Shutterstock

THERE'S something rather special about an underdog coming from behind to win, don't you think?

Watching Tunisian swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui win the 400m freestyle race in the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday was reminiscent of Kieren Perkins' epic 1500m win back in 1996.

Ahmed made the final by 0.17 seconds. He was in Lane 8. No one thought he was going to win.

But in the last lap, he powered forward and pipped our own Jack McLaughlin, who had been leading the race, by just 0.16 seconds.

I can't even be upset about Australia being pipped at the post because it's just incredible to see a relatively unknown swimmer come from behind, in lane 8, and take the gold.

Australia tends to love an underdog. Sandra Muller said: "The underdog is a story trope that pervades Australian culture.

"It goes in hand with our belief that everyone deserves a fair go. We'll stand up for the little guy, cheering him on as he takes on the system."

She reminds us about "Eric the Eel" (Eric Moussambani) in the Sydney 2000 Olympics - an Equatorial Guinea athlete who "swam like he was not much past the floatie stage". Australians just loved him for having a go.

But when the underdog wins? That's a feel-good moment that brings the warm and fuzzies to the fore.

This inherent belief in the underdog is not conditional on winning, which defies the American pop culture trope.

In the US, the stories of the underdog (usually) end in victory, whereas in Australia, we don't need to be victorious to perpetuate the sense of intrinsic worthiness.

The point, in Australia, is to have a go: it's about attitude, not ability or outcome.

This perplexes social psychological theory, as most social theories support the idea of people supporting winners from within their own social group - it's connected to the glory of winning.

Subsequently, losers are usually demeaned or pushed into another social group to distance themselves.

Nadav Goldschmied from the University of South Florida conducted a study on "The Underdog Effect" in 2005.

He explored whether this support of the underdog is "an emotional alignment with the disadvantaged side, or is driven more by opposition to the top dog" (termed schadenfreude in philosophy and literature).

His research led him to draw the conclusion that most people's support for the underdog was "driven by sympathy for the disadvantaged, rather than disdain for the advantaged," although he acknowledged that the respondents may have felt social pressure not to admit to demonstrating opposition to a team rather than support.

While supporting the underdog can be a great thing, it can also be a liability. In the workforce, supporting the underdog can result in the underdog being promoted over someone more experienced or qualified for the position.

It can also be damaging through giving the underdog exposure and opportunities when they don't have the required skills or talent to fulfil the associated obligations.

So how do we temper this in the workplace?

Encouraging an "underdog mindset" in staff and executives can be a positive thing.

Many of the most successful people in the world don't always win. In fact, it's not about always winning; it's about not being afraid of losing. It's about knowing what to do when you do lose, to pick yourself up and keep going, keep improving, keep evolving, keep moving forward.

Underdogs also have the benefit of setting their own expectations, rather than others setting expectations of them, for them. This puts them in the driver's seat of their own success (and failures).

As a manager, nurture your underdogs. Encourage their development, their training, their confidence. Give them the opportunity to keep going, improving, evolving and moving forward. Applaud their successes and help them analyse their failures so they can continue on their path of growth.

Michael Jordan is one of the most successful basketball players in the world (and my childhood hero). However, despite his legendary success, he worked with an underdog mindset.

Jordan famously said: "I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

Zoë Wundenberg is a careers consultant and un/employment advocateat impressability.com.au. Twitter: @ZoeWundenberg

This story Why an underdog mindset can be a good thing | Zoë Wundenberg first appeared on The Canberra Times.