Q: What is the “underdog edge?”
A: It’s the advantage that those without power actually have to persuade more powerful people—when deployed correctly. If you or your organization possess authentic underdog “street cred,” you can accomplish a lot, because powerful people have a psychological need to help those less fortunate.
Rooting for the underdog is about transference – the transference of what’s possible. We root the underdog because of what it means for us.
A: Underdogs have always fascinated me because of my upbringing. I grew up on a farm in Greenville, Ohio and we didn’t have a ton of money. Even so, my mom was always looking for ways to help those who had less than we did. She was buying toys, making food, etc., for those who had less. And many times I resented it when I reached into the fridge for a delicious dessert and was told to walk away slowly because it was made for someone else. Plus, she was always reminding me not to think of myself as better than others, as “everyone is equal in God’s eyes.”
I caught my mom’s values. I choose a profession where I could work for the powerful (elected officials) or work to influence them. I did a brief stint in the Ohio state legislature as an aid to a state senator, but I preferred working with those outside the system. I just did not gravitate to powerful people, and this played out in my professional life. I certainly do not disdain the powerful, because we all need them to move initiatives forward, and I admire their achievements and sacrifices. But, as you’ll read in the book, their success foists upon them an innate need to help others, and that’s where the underdog has the advantage.
My second job out of college was as a lobbyist for small business members of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, where I was a lousy lobbyist. As I look back, I was lousy because I did not enjoy schmoozing with powerful legislators. What I did enjoy, and when I was experiencing “flow,” as they say, was when I was working with the small business owners I represented in the legislature. I loved being around them, and I saw that elected officials listened more intently to them than we paid lobbyists.
I then was hired by Nationwide Insurance to make sure elected officials did not make decisions on insurance issues without hearing from those affected by them – the employees and policy holders. I had to get insurance employees excited about legislative issues that dealt with “combined rations” and “verbal thresholds” – not exactly exciting issues, but important to their jobs. Again, my inspiration came from the rank and file employees who took the time to champion the company’s issues before their legislators. So, I’ve seen lots of “ordinary” people successfully influence up the food chain.
Now, I’m hired by large corporations and state and national trade associations to teach them how to get powerful people on their side. One of the ways I do this is to help them engage their “ordinary” people to champion their issues.
I found that some organizations are better at this than others; specifically, they had members of their organization who were able to achieve results while others, even in the same organization, would have negligible results. I wanted to find out why some were successful and others were not.
No matter what your station in life, sometime you will be the underdog. You will need something from someone more powerful than you. That person will have all the cards, all the advantages, and you have nothing to offer. That is when you need to use extreme influence tactics, which is the essence of the underdog edge.
I believe the best examples of successful underdog influence come from the political realm because the person you are attempting to influence was elected by thousands of people—he or she has instant power and a mandate. The politician was not (usually) appointed to the job – he or she was elected in a competitive popularity contest, which imbues him or her with a sense, legitimately or not, of mandate and destiny (and egregious behavior as we have seen from some recently).
The “story behind the story” is that being an underdog is an asset. Corporations wonder why popular culture picks on them (which also frustrates me) and yet they tout how big and powerful they are. It’s ok to be big and powerful, but as the research in my book reveals, the more you tout your power, the less underdog “street cred” you have.
Makes sense, right? But the nuance is that even if you are the underdog or have an underdog biography (think Apple and Oprah Winfrey), you can’t tell everyone that you are the underdog –it’s only believable when others give you the title.
I think Wal-Mart has a fantastic underdog biography, but it seems to tout its power and constant presence on every street corner. They need to get back to that “Sam Walton, driving the pick-up truck” biography. And then behave like a humble underdog.
Companies that are big need to find ways to be small. They need to unearth their underdog biographies and ethically bang that drum to show people that they have grit that they earned their status through suffering and hard work, instead of talking about how big and great they are.
As we saw from the problems with Wall Street, the banking industry, and big auto companies, big is not necessarily better. Big companies make big mistakes. The bigger the company, the bigger the mistake, and the bigger pool of people impacted.
And according to the people I interviewed for the book, underdog biographies resonate even more now in recessionary times than in the good times.
A: I had no preconceived notions, no “checklist” of the behaviors that I thought would make an ordinary person change a powerful person’s mind. I simply listened to the stories of the underdogs and the big dogs. I then examined the behaviors for patterns of success, and they emerged—the extreme influence tactics were born.
A: I’ve conducted five national surveys with “regular” grassroots influencers and those who lead these organizations. In addition, before every workshop, about 90% of my clients request a pre-training customization questionnaire where I ask them about their most successful influence encounter and their least successful influence encounter.
I set a very high bar—I wanted to interview the “ordinary people” who changed the mind of a more powerful person, and the person whose mind was changed. That yields the real insights versus just talking to the underdogs. Because what we found is that what the underdogs think is effective isn’t always what the powerful person thinks is effective. Breakthrough insights come when we combine the input of the two people in the influence situation.
A: A ubiquitous piece of advice in the influence literature is to “be passionate” about your request. Well, I found quite convincingly that powerful people don’t like the “Passionistas.” It’s because being overly passionate causes you to be unpredictable which they really, really don’t like.
We have to remember that powerful people are probably busier than the average “busy person.” Therefore, they are using much more intuition, snap judgments and internal biases to determine whether they are going allow you entry into their psychological and emotional space.
We tend to think they’re very reflective, deliberative, and smart, and they may be all those things, but they are human beings first and foremost, and research clearly shows that the busier you are, the more you will use snap judgments to make decisions.
Another misconception is that if you just make enough noise, you’ll win. There are a lot of people talking about the importance of “advocacy,” and I agree with the importance of advocacy. But really, the bottom line is, are you persuading that powerful person to support your views? Can you change their mind? I refer to those who make a lot of noise without consideration for other tactics as “yaktivists.”
You can advocate all you want, but it’s not the same as persuading someone. Advocacy is the activity, persuasion is the result. You know, spending a lot of time in your doctor’s office doesn’t make you a neurosurgeon, and doing a lot of advocating doesn’t make you persuasive.
A: No, I am interested in results, excellence and success, not “right” or “left” causes. So we have examples from all sides of the political spectrum.
Some of the underdog’s causes featured in the book I vehemently disagree with, but I acknowledge their skill and underdog street cred. I’m about unearthing the best practices and giving credit where it’s due, not promoting a certain point of view.
A: Most influence books focus on negotiation tactics, or provide influence tips absent of the influence context. There are nuances to upward influence that make it different from trying to convince a peer to support your cause. This book is the first of its kind to address upward influence with real people in some of the most daunting persuasion atmospheres ever.
Not only do we tell the reader what works, we reveal how to develop the qualities that will make them underdog influence stars.
A: I had many ”ah-ha” moments, but the ones I believe are most helpful to the reader are, first, that not all underdogs are equal. Just being under-privileged does not guarantee influence results. There are certain characteristics of “card-carrying” underdogs—those that possess what I call “underdog street cred.”
The second is the amount of grit required for persuasion success. I started counting the number of years each underdog was involved in their issue. I think the shortest amount of time was 18 months. Many had conducted over 100 meetings and phone calls with the person they were trying to persuade!
Everyone wants instant gratification, and when influencing up, there is no “instant influence.” As I researched the DNA of grit, I found it comes from adversity, and industrial strength grit comes from adversity and loss. So I went back to the underdogs in the book and asked them about adversity and loss in their life. Everyone had some type of adversity and loss which was the prologue to their gritty demeanor. So the lesson is to get some people on your team who have lived a little and suffered some hardship –they will persevere.
And third, as I referenced above, that being a “passionista” will doom your efforts. Powerful people are not swayed by excessive passion. Many sincere underdogs have a lack of awareness of how their top dog looks at life, and a simplistic belief that “if this person knows what I know, they will believe what I believe; therefore, I’ll sway them with my passion.” It’s really a bit self-righteous when I think about it. “Passionista” behavior also stems from a lack of self-control. So we teach the reader how to develop more self- control, because with practice, you can build your reservoir of self control and, as one of our underdogs so wisely advised, “Save your passion to motivate your troops, rather than wasting it on your influence prospect.”