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When It’s Us Against Them: Jeff Lovelace on Organizational Underdog Narratives

Lovelace and his co-author’s paper provides a novel framework for identifying important factors that influence the success of a leader’s use of an underdog narrative.

Jeffrey Lovelace

Jeffrey Lovelace

“Everyone loves to root for an underdog, but we were curious about what would make people want to be part of an underdog organization,” says McIntire Professor Jeff Lovelace.

His paper, “Organizational Underdog Narratives: The Cultivation and Consequences of a Collective Underdog Identity,” co-written with Logan Steele of the University of South Florida, offers some classic underdog examples to contextualize their research. David-versus-Goliath references include T-Mobile going up against its larger, better established competitors and football’s Philadelphia Eagles, who were beset with injuries but rallied to reach and win the Super Bowl.

What is it about underdog narratives that can help organizations to reach favorable outcomes?

“We know a lot about why we as customers or observers root for and support underdogs, and we also know a bit about how an individual responds to being seen as an underdog,” says Lovelace, noting the lack of information about what happens inside organizations that see themselves that way.

Driven by a desire to discover what makes a firm envision its own identity as an underdog, Lovelace and Steele sought to uncover how leaders frame underdog stories for organizations and the implications of this approach for those who are part of those organizations.

From the Top Down
Throughout Lovelace’s research, there’s an examination of the idea that leaders who emphasize a combination of the group’s shared disadvantages, aspirations, and collective efficacy can lead its members to identify as underdogs.

Lovelace says that the theory developed in the paper focuses on the person in charge establishing a collective underdog identity by creating a narrative balancing that communal feeling of difficulty, while clearly defining desirable goals, and giving members the confidence that they can achieve their aims together. By using an underdog narrative, leaders inspire members of their organizations to bond over what Lovelace calls a collective underdog identity.

“We see our conceptualization of collective underdog identity applying across contexts, whether it is sports or fintech or any type of entrepreneurial endeavor. The principles remain the same in different settings,” he says.

What that may amount to can come in ways that show it’s not about being the biggest fish in the pond, but rather being positioned to best respond to customer needs regardless of the size of an organization—which, Lovelace admits–already sounds like an underdog story.

Using fintech startups as an example of a firm starting small (shared underdog disadvantage), he notes that “they can set clear objectives related to helping customers through innovation and the use of technology (aspirations).” They can also promote the idea that the technological knowledge and skills its people possess (collective efficacy) position their companies to compete with or even outmatch more traditional well-established firms, Lovelace adds. “It is the combination and balance of these three key factors that are essential to promoting the underdog identity we discuss in our paper.”

No less important to the success of the underdog organization is how its leader is both perceived and believed by employees. Leaders have to be credible, something that’s not always easy to maintain; failure has harmed a few narratives from being developed as planned.

Lovelace says that while we usually only hear about the stories with happy endings, some, such as the meandering path Steve Jobs took with Apple, provide a counter to the typical tale. In the early 1980s, when the tech visionary and the giant he worked for were still underdogs in the personal PC market, he explains, once their McIntosh became a hit product and Apple a household name, Jobs famously fell out of favor at the company before returning to the company in the late 1990s.

“Apple floundered a bit in his absence, and it was Jobs’ leadership that guided the company to monumental success with the iPhone and additional products in the late 2000s. Once again Apple added to its lore of being an underdog that beat the odds to be successful. Perhaps the only thing we love as much as an underdog story is a comeback story that also defies the odds,” he says.

In another example, Lovelace recalls the high-risk activity of entrepreneurs, like Elon Musk, who often embody the underdog identity as they attempt to introduce a new product, transform a market, or create a wholly novel market for what they’re promoting.

“Over the years, Musk established himself as a serial entrepreneur, and people were likely to have a higher level of confidence in endeavors that had his name attached to them. However, in September 2018, he created a crisis when he used marijuana on a podcast with Joe Rogan. The reaction was swift,” Lovelace says, detailing how shareholders, board members, and partners like NASA were extremely upset with his behavior.

As the situation drew a large amount of criticism, Musk’s competence and decision-making as an executive were questioned.

“Musk apologized, his board established more controls, and NASA even did an additional safety investigation of the SpaceX rocket. As a result, Musk has been much more subdued in the last several years while he aimed to rehabilitate his image, focusing more on his businesses efforts in the public eye—minus a stint on ‘Saturday Night Live,’” Lovelace says. “As such, he has been able to recover much of his credibility, though the marijuana incident will most definitely be brought up if Musk missteps again.”

Powerful Influencers
Lovelace and his co-author’s paper provides a novel framework for identifying important factors that influence the success of a leader’s use of an underdog narrative.

“We really set the stage for future efforts to investigate these relationships further,” he says, observing that they have never been systematically researched before.

One such factor is the power of external influences, such as business media and third-party “infomediaries,” since they can also play a role in maintaining a healthy underdog narrative by reinforcing the organization’s possibility of success. At other times, however, they can negatively assess the firm and cause cognitive dissonance among team members. 

The more aligned an external infomediaries’ assessment is with the story a leader is telling, Lovelace’s paper explains, the higher the chances for reinforcing belief in a leader’s underdog story among members of the organization. The result is buy-in to “embrace the underdog mantle and help the organization defy the odds.” He notes that infomediaries need only endorse key parts of the leader’s message in order for a leader to use it as a way to strengthen the main message.

“So, while it is useful for the leader’s underdog narrative to resonate externally, it is most important that leaders understand the potential for these external evaluations to impact their message and look for opportunities to point out alignments—even small ones!” says Lovelace.

Risky Business
Underdogs who are fully committed to the cause might also be readily willing to assume what Lovelace and Steele call “nonnormative risk-taking,” in which organization members put the onus on themselves to do whatever it takes, even if it means violating rules and norms.

“We highlight a number of more general examples, including lying in a negotiation, falsifying reports, sabotaging an opponent, or aggressively engaging with a competitor. For example, we talk about Uber’s skirting the rules or laws of different regions when it sought to establish itself in the marketplace, giving the company the opportunity to compete with more traditional transportation companies (e.g., taxi services),” Lovelace says. “They simply ignored these laws or took the perspective that the laws did not apply to their type of e-commerce business.”

In another Uber example provided, executives used the company’s app to “track the movements of journalists who had engaged in negative reporting about the firm,” says Lovelace, pointing out that while all underdogs won’t engage in those dubious types of behaviors, both leaders and the organizations they lead must be mindful of the potential risks involved in promoting an underdog mentality.

“Our paper provides some warnings for how leaders frame the disadvantage their firms may face. The more they frame the disadvantage as a longstanding or long-term disadvantage, the more likely it is that members will engage in nonnormative risk-taking,” he says, explaining how leaders who may fixate on a specific source for the organization’s disadvantage—like a competitor or legislative entity—can increase the odds that members will act out with nonnormative actions directed at the entity the leader chooses to play scapegoat.

On the flip side, Lovelace says, leaders have to be cognizant of how they promote their collective underdog mentality to inspire the proliferation of a healthy, high-performing collaborative work culture.

“After all, risk-taking is not necessarily good or bad, but leaders should consider how they may want their organization’s members to approach taking risks. While some nonnormative risks, like unethical actions, may benefit the underdog organization in the short term, they have the potential to be highly detrimental to the firm in the long run.”

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