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Is Our Love of Underdogs Killing Diversity Efforts?

by Tacy Byham, Ph.D.

Is Our Love of Underdogs Killing Diversity Efforts?There’s nothing like the rush of good feeling we get from a great underdog story. From stories that reach as far back as David & Goliath and the Tortoise & the Hare, all the way to Harry Potter & Voldemort, we love stories that show us the unlikely candidate can find a way to triumph.

Just as beloved underdog stories are part of our culture, they are likewise a well-covered narrative in the business world. We’re inspired by the stories of people like Ursula Burns, who ascended from living in public housing as the daughter of Panamanian immigrants to become the first black woman to serve as a Fortune 500 CEO. And many of us are familiar with the legendary story of Sidney Weinberg, a junior high school dropout who worked his way up from being a janitor’s assistant to the CEO of Goldman Sachs.

At heart, underdog stories are about the recognition of potential. Underdogs remind us it’s possible for people who don’t fit the traditional model of potential to overcome the odds to achieve great things. Thus, underdog stories are often held up as positive models as we work to build better diversity in leadership.

But for business leaders and HR professionals, underdog success stories should be a red flag. Here are three reasons why:

1. A single underdog success may be viewed as representative of an entire group.

The success of an underdog is often such a powerful story that it gets told and retold, to the point where it’s so well-known it begins to be representative of an entire group. For example, in the past few years there has been a lot more talk about women in leadership, and a few shining examples of high-profile successful women have dominated the media. We see the stories of women like Mary Barra of GM, Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook told over and over again.

The result of the attention drawn by these underdog stories may be the misperception that women are doing better than they really are in the workplace. According to a 2017 study from McKinsey and the Lean In Foundation, half of men—and a third of women—believe that women are well-represented in leadership when only 10 percent of senior leaders are women.

Statistics show, however, that business success comes from a broader representation of diversity, not simply having a few token people from diverse backgrounds who were able to fight their way to the top. For example, in DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2018, published in partnership with The Conference Board and EY, we found that organizations with at least 30 percent women leaders—and at least 20 percent women at the senior level—were 1.4 times more likely to have sustained, profitable growth.

Furthermore, University of Michigan professor Scott Page has produced abundant research showing that a group of ordinary people from diverse backgrounds can outperform a group of like-minded experts. Page found that when you solve problems based on one dominant perspective, you build in an error rate of about 30 percent.

2. We hold up underdogs as proof that there’s nothing wrong with the system.

Most people want to work in a meritocracy in which those that have the most talent and work the hardest will get ahead. Underdogs seemingly reinforce that rule, demonstrating that people from any background can get ahead in the current system. While it’s true that an underdog success story shows it’s possible to get ahead in the current system, underdogs must work harder, overcome obstacles, and go without resources that their peers have access to, which may include networking opportunities, educational background, access to mentors, and monetary advantages.

Overcoming these barriers makes an underdog more admirable, but the question HR and talent professionals need to ask themselves is how many people of equal (or even greater) talent are being held back by those same barriers. Who is being missed?

3. Underdogs get our hearts but not our money.

It’s easy to cheer for the underdog. We might as well clap when a rookie gets a home run off a legendary pitcher, root for the smallest horse in the race, or support an underfunded entrepreneur trying to start a business. After all, it doesn’t cost much to show a little support, and if they lose, it’s no big surprise. But it’s a different story when it comes to money. There’s a good reason you can get great odds by betting on the underdog—no one is willing to take the risk.

The same is often true with our diversity efforts. We may empathize with those facing challenges because they are a different gender, come from a different cultural background, or have a different way of thinking than the majority of the people in power. As a result, many companies have tried to address the issue by instituting awareness programs or affinity groups. While these tactics are a step in the right direction, we’ve only seen a slight change in the diversity of executive teams and boards of directors at most companies. While key stakeholders may agree with diversity efforts, it’s often a different story when it comes time to invest in systems that help to level the playing field across the organization.

Ultimately, underdog stories represent our failure to recognize potential. If you have underdogs in your organization, it’s important to ask some important, if uncomfortable questions:

  • Why was this person’s potential overlooked in the first place?
  • Why did the systems we have in place to identify potential miss this person?
  • Are we missing other similarly talented people?
  • If this person is doing this well now, how much more might they have achieved if we’d spotted their potential earlier and acted to develop it?

At the individual level, we still gain plenty of inspiration from the stories of underdogs who overcame the odds to get ahead. But if your organization is touting underdog stories about senior leadership—particularly if your organization’s senior leadership lacks diversity—it should be cause for concern.

Here are five things you can do to help eliminate underdogs and level the playing field for those in the organizations whose potential you need to unleash:

Underdogs are an indicator that talented people are experiencing barriers in your organization. It’s time to remove those barriers and start unleashing potential across your entire organization!

Sign up for our webinar on April 25th, “The Myth of the Underdog: Uncovering Hidden Potential,” to learn more about how to remove the barriers holding back high-potential underdogs in your organization.

Tacy Byham, Ph.D. is DDI’s chief executive officer and co-author of Your First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others.

Posted: 28 Mar, 2018,
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