Wharton's Samir Nurmohamed discusses his research on the power of underdog self-narratives.

Discrimination is a particularly destructive force. For those who experience it in the workplace, discrimination can rob them of self-worth and ultimately affect job performance as they feel increasingly marginalized. Wharton management professor Samir Nurmohamed has a new study that looks at an important tool employees can use to push back against the negative psychological consequences of discrimination: the self-narrative.

The paper is titled “Against the Odds: Developing Underdog Versus Favorite Narratives to Offset Prior Experiences of Discrimination.” The co-authors are Timothy G. Kundro, organizational behavior professor at University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business, and Christopher G. Myers, management and organization and health professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School.

Nurmohamed joined Knowledge at Wharton to talk about the study. Listen to the podcast above or keep reading for an edited transcript of the conversation.

Knowledge at Wharton: What made you want to study this topic?

Samir Nurmohamed: I got interested in the topic of underdogs and this idea that when you’re perceived as unlikely to succeed, does that motivate you or not? A lot of existing research said no, that being an underdog was really bad for effort and performance, and it would reduce confidence. In some of my other research, I was finding that’s not always the case, that there are times where actually being seen as an underdog could be motivating. It can motivate you to prove others wrong.

When I was talking with other faculty members here at Wharton, they started wondering, “Is it possible that this idea of an underdog narrative and underdog story could be beneficial? Could it serve as a buffer against some of the negative adversity that people experience, whether it’s at the workplace or in their careers?” That’s what got me started thinking about this topic.

“Those who told an underdog narrative to themselves felt more confident in their ability to land a job, and ultimately did.”— Samir Nurmohamed

Knowledge at Wharton: What is an underdog narrative, and what is a favorite narrative?

Nurmohamed: The words “underdog” and “favorite” get thrown around a lot. It gets thrown around in sports, in politics, among business entrepreneurs. You can think about the relationship between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates over the years. One was an underdog; one was kind of the favorite in terms of their performance and their company’s performance. They flipped at different points in time.

My co-authors — Tim Kundro and Chris Myers — and I started thinking about what makes an underdog narrative special. It’s a story about a time in which others didn’t believe you could succeed, but you did believe you could be successful. A favorite narrative has some similarities, but it’s different. It’s this idea of a time in which others believed you could succeed, and you also thought you could be successful. Both underdog and favorite narratives, in the context of this paper, end with success, but they have very different starting points.

Knowledge at Wharton: In the paper, you use the phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy,” which is that the favorite at work fulfills this prophecy that everyone believes they’re successful and will do a good job. With the underdog, they have to create their own narrative that they can succeed despite the odds. Is that correct?

Nurmohamed: Yes, that’s exactly correct. This idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy has been supported by decades of research. It’s actually some of my favorite research in the management literature, and it has been shown across settings of organizations, educational settings, even in the military. One of the things about the self-fulfilling prophecy is that, yes, when others expect you to succeed, you also believe you can be successful.

What I was interested in with my co-authors, though, is this idea that that’s not always the case. People don’t always perceive success from others at the workplace or in their careers. One of the open questions that hadn’t been answered by prior research and hadn’t even really been thought of is: What happens in those situations? Is it better to suppress others’ low expectations and just make yourself believe that others believe that you can be successful? Or should you almost acknowledge it, acknowledge the fact that others don’t believe that you can be successful, and then refocus on defying the odds in some way to be successful in those situations?

“Everyone tells stories. What we’re hoping that this research does is make them aware of the power of storytelling as a vehicle for self-reflection during the job search.”— Samir Nurmohamed

Knowledge at Wharton: What was the key takeaway in your study?

Nurmohamed: The key takeaway was that these underdog narratives actually offset the repercussions of prior discrimination, compared to favorite narratives. Those who told an underdog narrative to themselves felt more confident in their ability to land a job, and ultimately did.

Knowledge at Wharton: That’s really interesting. How did you go about studying this?

Nurmohamed: For our main field experiment, we recruited 330 unemployed job-seekers at two Pennsylvania reemployment centers. We invited them to attend workshops, but in these studies, they either told an underdog narrative or a favorite narrative, or a narrative from a story in their life. Through the process of the workshop, we had them learn the aspects of a story — the beginning, middle parts, and end — and come up with the theme of this story that they told, and then have them apply it to their job search. Afterward, we had them fill out measures of their confidence of landing a job. Then we tracked their performance 30 days later on, and ultimately, whether they found a job or not.

Knowledge at Wharton: I’ve got to ask, though: You’re not saying that the results of this research, that being an underdog or giving yourself a positive message, is the panacea for discrimination? That doesn’t really solve the things that are going on in the workplace, right?

Nurmohamed: Of course, you’re absolutely right. With discrimination, there are obviously huge structural barriers and inequity in systems. At an organizational level or even a societal level, we’ve got to figure out ways to address discrimination. All we’re saying in this study is that an underdog narrative can be more beneficial for offsetting the negative effects of prior experiences with discrimination, but it’s not going to make it go away, obviously.

Knowledge at Wharton: We usually ask our scholars to give us the practical implications of their research, but your paper has some very specific advice for people on how they can use this research to fortify themselves when dealing with discrimination. Can you walk us through that advice?

“I think it’s really important that people feel in control, even when they’re not. That doesn’t mean that society and organizations don’t have a role to play in supporting people.”— Samir Nurmohamed

Nurmohamed: One of the things that I love about the study, in particular, is that it happened in the real world. These were at reemployment centers. So, thinking about the practical takeaways of our work, I think it’s on two sides. One is for job placement advisors who work with people who have experienced discrimination or other forms of adversity and are looking for jobs. The workforce advisors could encourage individuals to write down times when others expected them to fail, but they succeeded. Rather than having people suppress those experiences, have them look at it through a new lens, essentially. Those can be really powerful moments of learning and performance for individuals.

The other side of this is looking at it from a job seeker’s perspective. One thing that they’re already doing is thinking about the stories that they tell themselves. Everyone tells stories. What we’re hoping that this research does is make them aware of the power of storytelling as a vehicle for self-reflection during the job search. You can think of them using blogs or journals to harness their prior experiences, and the resilience that can come from surviving adversity in the past.

Knowledge at Wharton: For many years, you have focused your research on how people respond to adversity in the workplace. What draws you to that personally, and what’s next on your list of things to study?

Nurmohamed: I think it’s really important that people feel in control, even when they’re not. That doesn’t mean that society and organizations don’t have a role to play in supporting people. One of the themes of my research is everyone experiences adversity in some way. Everyone has faced different forms. So, what’s the way in which we can help people get better at responding to it and even harnessing it or learning from it?

One of the things that I’m doing in my follow-up research with co-author Zoe Schwingel-Sauer at the University of Michigan is that we’re looking at how might adversity come up in organizations. What happens when someone is hired for the job, but they weren’t actually the first choice for the job? Are there effects for those newcomers that come into the workforce? We’re studying that more and more and seeing the effects of that on their socialization and feedback-seeking in their organizations, as well as their performance.