The Underdog Edge: How Ordinary People Change the Minds of the Powerful and Live to Tell About It

The Underdog Edge: How Ordinary People Change the Minds of the Powerful and Live to Tell About It

by Amy Showalter
The Underdog Edge: How Ordinary People Change the Minds of the Powerful and Live to Tell About It

The Underdog Edge: How Ordinary People Change the Minds of the Powerful and Live to Tell About It

by Amy Showalter


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In "The Underdog Edge", you’ll learn why being the underdog is an advantage when influencing up, and how to engage the edge for influence success.
There will come a time when you will be the underdog, and you’ll have to change the mind of someone more powerful than yourself. The typical influence tactics for general influence situations don’t often work with powerful people. These situations call for extreme influence tactics.
Find out:
* Why powerful people have an inherent need to help underdogs
* The five characteristics of underdog “street cred” (and how to obtain it)
* Why showing passion for your cause can actually doom your request
* The one underdog influence move that distinguishes the achievers from the “yaktivists”
* The three qualities your pack members must have for maximum influence
* Why giving the “gift of heroics” is incredibly persuasive

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781600379987
Publisher: Morgan James Publishing
Publication date: 10/01/2011
Pages: 300
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Amy Showalter is founder and principal in The Showalter Group, Inc. Her clients include Southwest Airlines, the American Heart Association, Pfizer, International Paper, Buffalo Wild Wings, the U.S. Green Building Council, and Hospital Corporation of America. Amy has drawn on over twenty years of experience teaching organizations how to get powerful people on their side. Her research with thousands of underdog influencers and the high-powered people whose minds they changed reveal the behaviors that work.

Read an Excerpt


The Upside of Under: Why Underdogs Have Power

"Think and act like an underdog."

From Google's Core Values Statement posted in Google's German offices

"What was compelling was that they were the ordinary people, not the medical experts."

Montana Lt. Governor John Bohlinger

"... the little guy no one has ever heard of before, the guy who is with his truck, driving around and shaking hands and really has new vision and energy. People look at that and say, 'We've got to help the little guy.'"

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (Referring to campaign of U.S. Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts)

In late 2001, my husband was in the process of buying a dog boarding facility. As we toured one of the operations for sale, we noticed a large truck and about 20 dogs being unloaded and prepped for display to potential adoptive families.

This was the facility owner's second dog adoption event following the success of a similar event several weeks earlier. At the first event, people had quickly adopted 30 dogs or more, so the owner thought he'd find additional demand for adoptions.

However, almost half of the dogs at the second adopt-a-thon didn't get adopted. Both groups of dogs were true underdogs, having lived in a shelter for months. But why did one group win and the other didn't? The dogs from the first adopt-a-thon came from New York City, and they weren't just any New York City dogs; they were "9/11 dogs." These dogs had lost their owners on September 11, 2001, or people had been forced to give up the dogs because their homes had been destroyed or vacated due to proximity to the World Trade Center. The "9/11 dogs" were considered the ultimate losers! Not only were they shelter dogs, but they were orphaned due to an unfair, tragic, and horrific event.

The people who quickly adopted the "9/11 dogs" acted in alignment with our love of the underdog. Adopting those dogs made them feel like compassionate people — even more compassionate than if they had adopted a "regular" shelter dog. Whether dogs or people, we want to help the underdog — but not all underdogs are created equal.

Do you remember cheering for any of the following people or teams? Singer Susan Boyle. The Butler University men's basketball team playing against Duke in the 2010 men's NCAA championship game. The Chicago Cubs.

Author Steven Kotler wrote "The Playing Field," a blog about the science of sports and culture for (Coincidentally, he is cofounder of the Rancho de Chihuahua dog sanctuary.) In his article "Why We Love Losers", he noted that we are inexplicably drawn to cheering for the underdog in sporting events and virtually all contests. It's in our DNA, at least in the United States; anyone can rise to greatness.

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, highstatus 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. Author Isaac Asimov put it this way: "All things being equal, you root for your own sex, your own culture, your own locality ... and what you want to prove is that you are better than the other person. Whomever you root for represents you; and when he or she wins, you win."

This explains the insufferable superiority that New York Yankees baseball and SEC (South Eastern Conference) football fans display; they're obviously burdened with low self-esteem and need to affiliate with winners to feel good about themselves.

All kidding aside, the literature on this topic is clear: when our team wins, we win. Have you ever noticed how people talk about their favorite team differently after a victory than after a defeat? Tune in and you'll see them identify with winners in all its selfish glory. According to a small experiment by Dr. Robert Cialdini, the fan of a winning team will exclaim, "We beat Oregon" or "We crushed Michigan." But if the fan's team loses, the pronouns change. "They lost to Ohio State" or "Ohio State won." (Hate me if you must, but I am unabashedly identified with the Ohio State Buckeyes — and yes, some of my self-esteem derives from their accomplishments.)

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.

This makes our support for the underdog all the more curious. Why doesn't affiliating with underdogs hurt our self-esteem? In one study, sports fans whose favorite teams repeatedly suffer defeat show temporary decreases in mood and testosterone, and they even lose faith in their own mental and social abilities.

This should cause us to sympathize more with Chicago Cubs fans. (The Cubs pro baseball team holds the record for the longest championship drought of any major North American professional sports team.) If you know and love any Cubs fans, I'll let you draw your own conclusions.


If you're a believer in the accepted "wisdom" that powerful people only listen to other powerful people, or that they don't have any affinity for the "common man," think again. In fact, the scientific literature reveals that high achievers, the "tall poppies," often elicit envy and resentment from others, especially if their achievements are seen as undeserved.

Now, our tall poppy friends might not care that others resent them. However, if they're ever in a persuasion encounter pitted against "more deserving" tall poppies, they may lose. What makes certain tall poppies more deserving? Because the influence target presumes they worked harder for their success. For example, in the case of a boot-strapping business owner vs. a business owner who inherited a business, the boot strapper has an advantage. (Note to all tall poppies: Make sure your achievements are merited — that you worked like a crazed weasel to achieve them! People notice the difference.)

I interviewed University of South Florida psychologist Dr. Joe Vandello who recently began studying the reasons people cheer for underdogs. (Once you understand why they do it, you'll realize how being the underdog is a persuasion asset rather than a persuasion liability.)

Studying the appeal of the underdog had not been on Dr. Vandello's academic bucket list. "This research is kind of a sidetrack to what I normally study," he explained. "Most of my research deals with conflict-related themes. But one of my students who was collaborating with me on other projects would often meet me in my office after class. We'd find ourselves talking about sports. We started wondering why people always root for the underdog. After all, it does violate accepted social science theory. I thought there would be a lot of research about it, but interestingly, there's not. So while it's not my main course of study, I'm looking at the phenomena of the underdog."

In one of Dr. Vandello's research projects, he asked students to watch a video clip of a basketball game. The game was from a European championship, so his American viewers had no knowledge of which team was favored to win. The researchers manipulated the background story so that half the viewers were told the team in red didn't have a lot of resources and were not expected to win. The other viewers were told the exact opposite — that the team in yellow was the underdog. Both groups watched the same game.

Dr. Vandello's team then asked those in the two viewing groups which team they wanted to win the game. Not surprisingly, the group that was told of the red team's struggles wanted the red team to win, and those who believed the yellow team was the underdog rooted for the yellow team. Then they were asked to cite characteristics of each team.

"We found that they believed the team with fewer resources and less past success had more persistence, guts, and heart than the other team," reported Dr. Vandello. "They thought that the underdog team, regardless of which team they believed it to be, displayed more effort. So, whoever the underdog is," he summarized, "it changes how differently one views events."

Trying hard, as an underdog does, invokes positive characteristics. Other research has shown that people give more positive evaluations to others when their performance is attributed to effort rather than ability.

People love those who try hard more than those who have superior abilities. Plus the underdogs must be good and moral (we might surmise), or they wouldn't try so hard, right?


So how does this impact you as an individual underdog in extreme influence situations? It gives you an enormous advantage. As Dr. Vandello said, most people view the world with the "just world theory," as it's called in social psychology. That is, most people have an innate desire to live in a just world. They want equality and justice; they want the playing field to be level. And some people may want that more than others.

If you follow geopolitics, this explains why the United States will always be the object of disdain as the lone superpower. Many in the world are biochemically incapable of supporting any country with more resources than theirs, especially during times of international conflicts. Attempts to win over world public opinion will always be a "tension convention" because of our resources, so until America becomes a third world country, it won't have many cheerleaders on the world stage. (Knowing that's partially what's required for world love and adoration, I'll forego an international cheering section, thank you.)

"People who are powerful and wealthy probably have an even better sense of this than those who aren't in high-level positions," stated Dr. Vandello. "It gives them the opportunity to say, 'Look, we help others too; we aren't the bad guys.' Social science indicates that people have a general aversion to inequality; they want to correct it. Helping the underdog is one way to correct it. Further, because underdogs have a lot of heart and grit, we see them as good and moral people. Therefore, it makes us feel more moral to help other moral people."

New research to be published in Psychological Science supports Dr. Vandello's assertion that the powerful have a pressing need to help the underdog. It's because they may be aware of their own possibly nefarious nature; after all, the research supports the old notion that power corrupts. Specifically, power breeds hypocrisy because the powerful can feel entitled not to obey the moral rules of the underdog and the rules they ask others to follow.

In five experiments, researchers assigned 172 subjects high-power roles (e.g., prime minister) and low-power roles (e.g., civil servant). The subjects had to consider a series of moral dilemmas involving stolen bikes, broken traffic rules, and tax fraud. In each of the five experiments, the more high-power characters repeatedly showed moral hypocrisy. They disapproved of immoral behavior (for example, padding expense reports) and yet behaved badly themselves. For instance, when powerful characters were given an opportunity to self-report their success in a dice game, they cheated, reporting that they won more times than they actually did.

The researchers made note of a sense of entitlement — that is, those who believed they were entitled to a high-status position tended to be more hypocritical than those who felt they were not deserving of power.

Current research even shows that CEOs who are highly paid are "meaner than their peers." Researchers from Harvard, Rice, and the University of Utah found that raising executive compensation packages "results in executives behaving meanly toward those lower down the hierarchy."

Maybe some (not all!) of the high-power people who exhibit hypocrisy and an attitude of entitlement are aware of their sense of entitlement and are motivated to help the underdog to assuage their guilt. Maybe they know they should treat others more respectfully and find opportunities to help the underdog as a way to counteract their transgressions.

As an underdog, be aware that people in high positions often want to help — for whatever reasons that aren't always based on good morals.


Recent research has found that underdog positioning also influences consumer behavior. Harvard University researcher Neeru Paharia, Harvard Business School professor Anat Keinan, Simmons School of Management professor Jill Avery, and Boston College professor Juliet Schor conducted a study of consumer products to determine whether underdog positioning works in the consumer goods marketplace. I interviewed researcher Jill Avery to find out if a kind of underdog branding product has the same characteristics as underdogs experience in sports and politics.

Avery noted that an increase in underdog branding as a marketing strategy is happening. "We see brands across a wide variety of product categories (food, juice, beer, car rental, technology, etc.) using underdog brand biographies in today's marketplace," she explained.

"Underdogs are winning at the polls, at the Oscars (example: the movie Slumdog Millionaire), and on grocery shelves across America. This is because underdog stories about overcoming great odds through passion and determination resonate during difficult times. They inspire us and give us hope when the outlook is bleak. They provide the promise that success is still possible, a much-needed message in challenging social, political, and economic times.

"During recessionary periods such as these, people feel increasingly disadvantaged, making them even more likely to identify with the struggles of underdogs. Firms appear to be capitalizing on this; today's brands are seeding underdog stories for consumers to use during a cultural moment in history when consumers feel the American Dream slipping from their grasp," Avery concluded.

THE VALUE OF UNDERDOG INSIGHTS Former Iowa Congressman Jim Ross Lightfoot, who served for 11 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, told me why he liked listening to everyday people — to underdogs. "They knew their subject matter far better than any of the paid representatives, like lobbyists. They had built their business, their farm, or whatever, and knew firsthand all the challenges they'd faced as well as the consequences of actions the government had taken or was proposing to take against them.

"And their enthusiasm was one-hundred percent genuine. In contrast, the lobbyists' enthusiasm was in proportion to the amount they were charging. Farmers have their own language. Some guy in wing-tip loafers charging $700 an hour usually just doesn't get what the regular person wants to convey."

Congressman Lightfoot craved the information that the "regulars" provided. His tactics employed a combination of persistence and stealth follow-up. "More than once, I asked these ordinary people to call back as soon as they were out of the earshot of the lobbyist, then talk to my scheduler and set up an appointment to come back by themselves. Sometimes I would conduct meetings in the late evening. If a flight schedule was tight, I offered to meet them at the airport and did meet with a couple there one time. Many times, a meeting took place the following weekend back in the district because I went home every weekend."

Former Congressman Toby Moffett represented Connecticut in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1975 to 1983. During that time, he was Chairman of the House Sub-Committee on Energy, Environment, and Natural Resources.

Said Moffett, "I came into Congress as a left wing citizen activist; I entered politics through Ralph Nader's Citizen Action. So I had no permanent business supporters. I went to the local chamber of commerce meetings and those guys would annihilate me — blame me for macroeconomic issues and conditions. I did four or five of those, then said, 'I am just not doing this anymore.' But I knew I needed their support.

"Rufus Stilman was a successful industrialist," continued Moffett. "He had some left-wing leanings as well and gave me a great tip. He told me to start meeting with individual company owners, their employees, and their management. He advised me to start helping them individually and relating to them as individuals rather than as members of a larger business organization.

"So I started helping them individually on various casework and technical issues. I became a champion for individual companies, for the little guys, rather than the business community as a whole. For example, the Dexter Corporation was in my district. It's the biggest maker of tea bags in the world. Its leaders were concerned about a tariff issue so I helped with that. By becoming of champion of individual companies more than the business community as a whole, I was able to broaden my base of support."


Excerpted from "The Underdog Edge"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Amy Showalter.
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The Upside of Under: Why Underdogs Have Power
Chapter 2: Extreme Influence Tactic #1: Build Your Street Cred
Chapter 3: Extreme Influence Tactic #2: Be Vivid
Chapter 4: Extreme Influence Tactic #3: Get Grit
Chapter 5: Extreme Influence Tactic #4: Eyes Up into the Top Dog’s World
Chapter 6: Extreme Influence Tactic #5: Build Your Pack
Chapter 7: Extreme Influence Tactic #6: Ask Not What the Top Dog Can Do for You, But What You Can Do for the Top Dog
Chapter 8: Extreme Influence Tactic #7: Don’t Bark, Don’t Bite, Be Nice
Conclusion: The Dogs Unleashed

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