February 24, 2010
Underdogs more motivated? Not necessarily
My dog has this somewhat defeatist habit of giving up chase on a tennis ball when it's clear that a faster dog at the park is about to beat him to the punch. I used to think this was such a lazy way to go, until I realized that in his paws, I'd probably do the same thing.
Apparently I'm not the only one. You'd think underdogs would be more motivated to wipe the floor with a competitor that outranks them. But a new study by researchers at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business found that collaborative teams are inspired to work their tails off when pitted against a rival of a lower status, not a higher one.
"It seems surprising to many people that the high-status team has more motivation, but it really makes sense," said study co-author Robert Lount, an assistant professor of management and human resources. "The higher-ranked group has more to lose if they don't compare well against a lower-status group. But if you're the lower-status group and lose to your superior rival, nothing has changed -- it just reaffirms the way things are."
In fact, Lount's research revealed that groups competing against an underdog will work almost 30 percent harder at winning.
Maybe this theory goes out the window when you look at this year's Superbowl outcome. But in the business world, it makes a lot of sense.
Fight what's likely to be a losing battle -- especially in a climate where competition for jobs and clients is so stiff -- and you may very well expend all that time and energy for naught. Better to focus on the strengths you do have and the contests you do stand a chance of winning.
For job seekers, this means not applying for jobs that require eight years of experience in the field when you only have two. For freelancers and small business owners, it means not chasing after customers who want a red widget when you only sell a blue one.
This may sound like the mentality of someone lacking in ambition or self-confidence. But I think it's the mentality of someone who's wisely built up a solid niche for themselves in the business world and offers what the bigger guns don't. It's the mentality of someone who's carefully honed their specific market, be it a type of job, a type of employer, or a type of customer.
In other words, why scramble after the serious long shots and set yourself up to fail when you could chase down those opportunities at which you might actually succeed?
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
Paul Anderson helps professionals in transition find their desired employment.
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