Who Doesn’t Love a Good Underdog Story?

By Cheryl Geoffrion, Vice President, Consulting Services

February 12, 2016

Underdog

Who doesn’t love a good underdog story? The come-from-behind against all odds, unpredictable and improbable win that brings people to their feet and tears to their eyes. We are moved by these stories; they touch our heart and inspire us to believe anything is possible. So why is it we are so inspired by these underdog stories and yet resist being the underdog ourselves?

In your professional sales conversations, the last thing you want to feel like is the underdog. Traditional sales and negotiation teachings are all about you finding YOUR power or taking a strong and confident stand to retake power. The belief is that whoever has the power has the advantage in the negotiation. When the other party has more power than you do, your natural reaction to that dynamic is to power up so you can level the playing field. This assumption is intuitive, it’s instinctual, and it’s been proven to be wrong.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath, he challenges our beliefs and explores a different perspective of advantages and disadvantages. He uses the classic underdog story of David and Goliath to show that there are advantages to being in the low power position and that what may look like a disadvantage may be an advantage after all. He delves into the rules of engagement that shape the outcome of these underdog “battles.”

As the story goes, the giant Goliath was expecting to fight a warrior just like himself… someone who would step forward dressed in armor and do battle in hand-to-hand combat. It never occurred to him or anyone else there that the battle would be fought on anything other than those conventional terms. But the little shepherd boy David chooses to use completely different tactics, substituting speed and surprise for brute strength, and wins the battle with a sling and a stone. The accepted belief of the time, of course, was that the power advantage was completely with Goliath and David had no chance of winning.

We’ve seen this scenario play itself out time and again over the years where battles are won and lost between opposing forces of differing strengths. Gladwell highlights a study done by political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft who reviewed every war fought in the past 200 years in which one side was at least 10 times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent. The Goliaths, he found, won 71.5 percent of the time. Even more interesting, he went back and re-analyzed his data looking for what happened when the underdogs acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy. In those cases, the “David’s” winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6 percent. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.

So how does the underdog story play out in complex B2B sales conversations?

According to ES Research, over the last five years there has been a significant shift in the power dynamic between buyer and seller. Polls now show you and your customers are in complete agreement: the buyer has the most power. Customers come to you with a list of what they want and expect you to simply fill the order. They expect you to come to them to do battle on their field, using their weapons of choice, and they are the ones who set the terms of engagement.

Well, given the finding above about the benefits of a counterintuitive, unexpected approaches, it doesn’t seem to make any sense to enter negotiations by playing the game the way you and everyone else is used to playing it and trying to regain the high power position.

The research on “The Benefits of Dominance Complementarity in Negotiations,” a fancy name for the study of power, specifically proves that when you try to match the “power level” of the person on the other side of the negotiations table, you get worse outcomes, not better. What the studies show is that when two high power parties come together, less value is created in the negotiation, therefore there is less value to claim. This can end with either no deal or a worse deal for both parties. Trying to reduce their power doesn’t work any better.

Your customers have become the Goliath in the room! And, you are firmly planted in the low-power position. This study shows that when you maintain the low power / high power dynamic that already exists in the negotiation instead of trying to exert more or equal dominance, your outcomes are better for both the buyer and seller.

What does this mean for your negotiations approach? This is the first of our series to show you how to optimize your negotiations by using your LOW POWER ADVANTAGE the way David did, applying unexpected, counterintuitive skills to capture maximum value.

To learn more about how this approach to negotiations works, check out this solution brief.

Source: L.Z. Tiedens, M.M. Unzueta, and M.J. Young. “An Unconscious Desire for Hierarchy? The Motivated Perception of Dominance Complementarity in Task Partners.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 93, no. 3. 2007.

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