Managing team dynamics with the underdogs, misfits, and rockstars


Startups, just like other organisations, are made up of different kinds of people. But when they scale up and team sizes balloon, the changing dynamics need careful handling.

As was routine, the quality control team had gathered at 5 pm sharp to reflect on the week that was and the things to expect from the one to come. Like every time, Tina S was found to have missed a few tasks. Though she had managed to complete most, a few had slipped through her fingers. On the other hand was Monica K, who, as always, had outperformed.

As a manager, Vivian was in a fix. She knew that Monica consistently outperformed and Tina did okay, sometimes barely scraping through. And yet, she couldn’t help but try and support Tina as much as she could, because Tina was quiet, unassuming, and always worked hard.

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The lovable underdog

“The decision would be easier if she wasn’t hard working or difficult to deal with. And somewhere I just hope she moves ahead and outperforms the rest. There is a slight soft corner I have for her and I try to mentor her as much as I can,” says Vivian.

Such a sentiment is echoed by many. Everyone loves an underdog. We are instinctively driven towards urging them on, as a closer look at literature (JK Rowling created a great underdog with Harry Potter), sports, and even presidential elections – Barack Obama and John McCain, (both showed themselves as underdogs) -- will show, and startup teams are not immune, either.

Steli Efti, Founder and CEO,, in his blog slots employees under these categories:

  1. Capable and willing: The so-called ‘rockstars’, who are great at their jobs and are even willing to take on more responsibilities.
  2. Capable and unwilling: The ‘difficult ones’, who have outstanding résumés and are known do a great job but are difficult to deal with. In most cases, they are easy to weed out as they don’t fit the culture and are destructive.
  3. Incapable and unwilling: The ones who have neither the qualifications nor the zeal to compensate for their shortcomings.
  4. Incapable and willing: The underdogs, who Stefi terms ‘kryptonite’. These are people with heart, but not the skill. While they have the desire to learn, they could be big hits or bigger misses.

An article in the Harvard Business Review says, “The stronger a person’s own sense of struggling is, the greater the preference for the underdog.” A research paper titled ‘The Future is Bright: The Underdog Label, Availability, and Optimism, by Nadav P Goldschmied and Joseph A Vandello makes an interesting point as well:

“We might be attracted to the little guy because we actually think he's going to win — which we're convinced of precisely because the odds are against him.”

While it sounds great, how does this play out in a startup, considering the changing dynamics that accompany growth?

What is the composition of the team?

Anu Acharya, Founder and CEO, MapMyGenome, believes that while underdogs are important, they aren’t necessarily the best for teams, in the way that great performers aren’t always great for the team.

“When we first started, we were focused on keeping only the high performers. We fire people who don’t perform. Performance is measured on the kind of role you have. The bottom 5–10 percent is always hacked. We are a small team and it’s essential we remain nimble. But it is also important that the dynamics within the team work.”

However, a learning that comes with being a founder is that it takes all kinds of people to make a good team. Each individual brings in different skill sets into a team, a top performer brings in the best ideas and challenges the status quo. But then there are those who form the startup’s backbone by effectively handling day-to-day coordination, database management, and reporting.

Top performers won’t like to take up such roles and someone emerges as a good manager when he/she can understand this and divide work according to capabilities and situations.

In his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz says, "While the founding team in any startup is important, given the rapid scaling of ExO company with a very small footprint in terms of resources, the careful composition of its founding team is especially critical."

Taking the personal out of the professional

Abhijeet Bhaduri, author, columnist, and management consultant says,

“It is generally a handful of people who start an enterprise. They are driven by a common purpose and they have a common end state that they visualise. But as companies grow, more people need to be added into the mix. One of the mistakes that startups make here is that they begin to choose competency over culture and values fit. This is where the glue that actually binds people starts diluting.”

But add an underdog and a top performer into the mix and it can be a deadly combination. Most believe that underdogs make the best hires because they have the drive and hunger, but then top performers are known to be vocal, opinionated, and have a tendency to overshadow everyone.

Your job as a manager then becomes a balancing act, requiring you to ensure that everyone is given due credit and respect. While the underdogs seem to be the ones managers like to support, TN Hari, Head of HR, BigBasket, says it is important as a manager to be viewed as fair.

Performance should determine it all

Hari says,

“Your comments on individuals shouldn’t be on them personally, but more on what work they are doing well and not doing well. In case of the underdogs, you cannot give them extraordinary career progression, but you need to keep them in roll with minor career enrichments.”

But then if there is an underdog who is a poor performer and doesn’t cope with the organisational plans, then you need to cut your losses quickly and find a dignified way of parting with them. It is important to keep the conversation focused on the performance and steer clear of personal comments.

Abhijeet adds that it is, therefore, important to start setting processes in place as organisations grow. He says that it is these processes that reflect the culture. In many cases, teams grow so large that they aren’t located around the same table, and the minute this happens, processes play a very important role.

If the processes aren’t built, there is a problem, and that is when the team dynamics actually come into play. When processes aren’t set, it gives rise to politics where some people perform and continue to do so while some do not. Abhijeet says,

“Politics is an integral part of life. It is there in families, it is there in larger setups. It is simply the way individuals manage themselves. Most startups believe that the role of an HR is to hire, but the important role they play is to ensure that teams remain healthy and vibrant. Team dynamics is a microcosm of the overall organisation.”

In organisations, it is generally the people who have the power that define a pattern for competence or incompetence. It is, therefore, the role of a manager to be extremely mindful that they aren’t setting a pattern of incompetence or mediocrity. If as founders and managers you tend to tolerate incompetence, it sends out a powerful message. If as a manager you forgive non-performance, it trickles down to the others in the team and organisation.

For this, it is important to create a high-performance ethic and culture in the organisation. Hari adds,

You need to create a culture where you can have candid conversations and atmosphere, without political implications. Once you create that, when you give feedback it is taken in the right spirit. So as a manager if you end up giving more roles and responsibilities to the high performer, there are no questions asked. It needs to be clearly mandated that the high performer goes higher up the ladder.”