The (overdue) death of the (unreformed) alpha

Overly masculine leadership styles are under siege like never before these days. Yesterday’s hard driving, high achiever with a sense of urgency and a ruthless streak has just two options – change or take cover.

(Mitch McCrimmon in How to Tame the Alpha Male Leader)

OK, I may not be the best barometer on this one, but I reckon there are few things more annoying in the workplace than other people trying to dominate and control.

It drives me nuts.

I don’t like being told what to do at the best of times, but least of all by an egomaniac enthralled with the cult of their own personality.

I am talking about the workplace alpha: an individual who needs to dominate and control other people at work.

That’s my definition, not the official one.

Here’s an official definition:

being the most dominant, powerful, or assertive person in a particular group.

(Source)

Examples of alpha behaviour:

  • Self-confidence, courage and energy
  • Focus on winning rather than being right or effective
  • Command and control rather than being inclusive and collaborative
  • Conflict, politics and power games
  • Poor emotional intelligence and lack of empathy
  • Not good at introspection and humility

Not all alphas are bad, some can control themselves, but as their self-confidence often far outstrips their self-awareness, there is an inbuilt reluctance for alphas to learn and change their behaviour to improve their effectiveness.

This is why whilst some are excellent, others are …

… organizational risks, not assets. They inspire fear and resentment rather than trust and respect, often causing expensive problems for their companies.

(Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson in The Alpha Male Syndrome)

And being self-defined superheroes, they cannot accept their own weaknesses, reacting defensively to criticism or negative feedback. Their mistakes lead to blame and cover-up rather than opportunities for introspection and learning.

Alphas are people too

Having alpha traits is natural.

We can no more criticize the alpha for being an alpha than we can a redhead for being a redhead – not that we’d want to, I love red hair, it’s just an example.

And anyway, we are all a mix of traits. Unlike a dog pack or a flange of baboons, we do not fall neatly into alpha, beta and gamma categories.

We are more complex than that:

all men display a nuanced blend of Alpha and Beta through their character

(Source)

The point is that we’re all dealt a unique package of personality and character traits: some positive, some negative and many neutral (depending on the context). We have to learn to understand ourselves, develop where we can, and learn to take hold of the wheel (the “executive function” as they call it in Transactional Analysis) to keep in control of our own characters.

Maximize the best, work with the negatives, learn, grow, improve …

But you can only do that if you’re humble enough to accept your weaknesses, and willing to believe your performance can be improved by being less you.

This is pretty tough medicine for the alpha to swallow.

Everything about their self-confident egotistical being is screaming that the exact opposite is true … and maybe it used to be true, back in the day, but the world has changed.

[W]hat works in a jungle or on a battlefield – or during a genuine crisis – is not always appropriate in today’s business environment. Nowadays, leaders are expected to do more than command and control; they’re called upon to motivate, inspire, teach, communicate, and model integrity and personal growth. Such skills do not come naturally to most alpha males, and those who fail to develop them are increasingly out of place.

(Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson in The Alpha Male Syndrome)

 

The unreformed alpha

So the challenge for the alpha is to accept that pure alpha-ness is no longer effective. They can improve by becoming less alpha-y, and that they, like everyone else, need to work on their weaknesses whilst maximizing their strengths.

But workplaces also need to change.

With many senior slots being filled with alphas, and the lazy (and incorrect) view that leadership requires alpha-like traits (often (incorrectly) used as proxies for “natural leaders”), many alphas will receive positive reinforcement for their behaviour, even if it is actually destructive.

This makes it hard for them to see the need to change.

This can only be challenged when the senior team have a more complex understanding of what we mean by successful performance, an understanding not simply based on paper-thin numbers but one that exposes the problems and ineffectiveness that the unreformed alpha creates.

This connects with the central thesis of this blog: that work should be better, and my homemade hypothesis that the role of management in the workplace (where many alphas reside) is the key to ensure both an effective organization and a fulfilling and rewarding experience for the people.

Blimey, there’s a whole book in this.

An aside …

Alpha males, or alpha people?

The language most often talks about “alpha males” and research appears to bear out the observation that alpha traits are more common in males than females. In fact, some articles I read when researching this post talked about the female influence on leadership being a major factor in the pressure on the traditional unreformed alpha male leader.

However, there are alpha females *. I have anecdotal evidence from my own experience that I could bore you with for hours, but it’s not just me: the existence of this book by Meredith Fuller (Working With Mean Girls) seems to back up the idea that women are not immune from the negative power games of the alpha animal.

And me?

In writing this post I guess I must look a bit like a brassed-off beta sick of being pushed around by alphas.

This is not really true.

I am not a beta animal. I certainly have some beta traits, but I find the whole beta gig to be unsatisfying and restrictive.

But nor am I really an alpha.

I enjoy being influential, but I have no ego-driven need to dominate and control. Quite the contrary, I get great pleasure from working in collaboration with others and I love seeing other people in my team develop and shine.

I think there’s another category where I best fit: the rogue.

The workplace rogue male/female/other sits aside from all this alpha and beta jockeying. They strike out on their own, co-operative and collaborative, but they engage on their own terms, valuing autonomy and independence above power and control; we don’t judge our status in relation to how much we dominate other people.

 

Footnotes

* This post was written in 2013, and talks about male and female in a binary sense, which now, in 2020, sounds incomplete – so please apply the above thinking to all humans, not just those who slot neatly into the male and female categories

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