The Power of Being Underestimated - Michelle Gibbings

Relationships are full of expectations. We can expect someone to do something or not do something. We have assumptions about people’s behaviours and motives.

Of course, these expectations go both ways, and there are times when a person’s expectations of you may be lower than they should be.

They underestimate what you can and will do.

As the fabulous writer Joan Didion wrote in her book ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem‘:

“My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their interests. And it always does.”

I’ve seen underestimating play out many times in my career, and it can work in your favour.

When you are not expected to achieve, it takes the pressure off, and so you don’t worry about letting people down or disappointing others. Instead, you purely focus on doing your best.

It is also beneficial when it comes to negotiating outcomes.

When your boss, colleague or stakeholder underestimates you, they are more likely to come to the conversation under-prepared. They won’t expect you to hold your ground, which means you can more easily steer the conversation in the direction you want it to go. Likewise, because they think the discussion will be easy, they will be more relaxed and more likely to say things they perhaps didn’t intend to.

In fact, they may not expect you to raise the issue in the first place, and they certainly won’t be expecting you to initiate the negotiation or put the first offer on the table.

Now, there are mixed views about the concept of first-mover advantage. You’ll often hear (or read) about it in the context of product development. It’s the idea that the first product to market has an advantage over any subsequent competing products. Some claim, however, that there is a benefit in going second because you learn from the mistakes of the company that went first.

In a negotiation, going first can seem risky. You may worry that you are showing your cards too early or raising an issue that the other person hasn’t noticed.

Typically, however, when you go first, you have more power in the negotiation. You frame the conversation. Set the scene. All of this works in your favour.

The offer you put out – well, it anchors the rest of the conversation.

I’ve written about anchoring before. It’s a behavioural economic principle (and cognitive bias) whereby the value of the first offer ultimately predicts the value of the final agreed outcome.

Researchers have put anchoring to the test. Using examples such as the age at which Gandhi died, the height of Germany’s Brandenburg Gates and Turkey’s population, they’ve found that the first figure given to people influences their answer to subsequent questions.

For example, Strack and Mussweilier (1997) asked two groups a different question:
Group 1 – Did Gandhi die before or after the age of 9?
Group 2 – Did Gandhi die before or after the age of 140?

Next, the participants in each group were asked to guess the age at which Gandhi died. The numbers 9 and 140 anchored how the participants answered, so that in group 1 (the low anchor condition) the average age was 50, while for the second group (the high anchor condition) the average age of Gandhi’s death was 67.

This phenomenon happens because the brain relies on first impressions or first details when it makes decisions. Once the ‘anchor’ is in place, you unconsciously use that data point – ignoring other relevant information or views.

As a result, when negotiating the first offer you put on the table matters. Also, while you can always lower an offer, it is always much harder to increase an offer.

Now, of course, success in a negotiation requires many things (as I’ve written about before) but being under-estimated puts you ahead of the starting blocks.

So next time you are worried about going first, remember that being first may well work in your favour. And if you are worried that the person you are negotiating with is likely to underestimate your position, perspective and passion then use that energy as positive fuel to get going.

Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®

Michelle Gibbings is bringing back the happy to workplace culture. The author of three books, and a global keynote speaker, she’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated. 

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