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Alpha Boys Behaving Badly

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* As published in WA Business News

Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet and it has come to mean ‘the first of anything’. In the animal kingdom, it’s the dominant male. In astronomy, alpha is the brightest star in the constellation. In work organisations, an alpha is a powerful, aggressive person who demands results and top performance from himself and others. And a recent study from the U.S. shows they are usually males. While there are also alpha women in the workplace, the study showed that men scored much higher on the negative characteristics of alpha behaviour and while women have some of the negative characteristics of alphas they don’t behave as badly. In short, there are more alpha boys behaving badly at work.

The study showed the more positive alpha traits a person had (e.g. self confidence, innovative thinker, boldness) the more likely they were to have negative alpha traits (e.g. domineering, aggressive, dismissive, etc).

Research has defined three distinct alpha traits; hard-driving competitiveness, interpersonal impatience and difficulty controlling anger. Alpha males are self confident and pursue their goals with an urgent sense of mission. They are highly competitive and focused on winning. They are often charismatic, have a strong influence on others and command attention. They can be farsighted and determined to bring possibilities into realty.

Female alphas are ambitious and drawn to positions of authority but less inclined to dominate. Because they are more attuned to people’s feelings, they are more likely to collaborate and find win-win solutions. Alpha females can be opinionated and strong-minded, but are more likely to search for consensus and buy-in rather than impose their will.

The most damaging alpha trait is volatility. Alpha volatility makes a workplace edgy and unpredictable. Because alphas have strong energy, they set the tone of the workplace. When an anger-prone alpha enters the room, people get anxious and hold their breath waiting to see if they’ll be singled out for attention.

Alpha males want excellence, they want it now and they’re sure they know how to get it. When others fail to measure up, alphas let them know about it. Alphas operate under the mistaken belief that fear moves people to productive action. Their intimidating style makes people defensive and when challenged an Alpha has a powerful need to explain, justify and convince – in short to prove themselves to others and themselves.

People often comply with alpha males and mindlessly implement their strategies, even if they disagree with them. As a result effort ceases, learning is diminished and honest dialogue is silenced.

Alpha males, who operate with a sense of fairness, give feedback appropriately and limit their outbursts to genuine crises, become respected leaders. But those who don’t control their anger cripple a team or an entire organisation since this law-of-the jungle, chest thumping leadership style doesn’t work in today’s workplace.

Like other company resources, alphas can be both useful and potentially hazardous. If you run a team of alphas, you’ll need to maximise their productive capacity while keeping a lid on their tendency to turn the workplace into guerrilla warfare. Alphas need to learn to minimize their characteristics that cause harm to people around them and the organisation.

If you are an Alpha;

  • Become Aware; observe your impact on others, how they avoid or hold back from you. Be aware of your own physical and mental stress, your fear and what is driving you. Be aware of your impatience, frustration and anger and ask yourself what is important and what isn’t.
  • Centre Your Thinking; review your attitudes and self talk about others, ask questions and listen to why they did what they did. Learn meditation to quiet and calm your busy mind.
  • Connect Emotionally; With people who matter to you and have fun doing the things you enjoy. Stop being so serious about everything.
  • Re-engage Physically; Exercise, stretch, take a holiday, eat healthily, join a gym, ride a bike or play team sports.

 

If you work with an Alpha;

  • Learn How to Assert Yourself; Overcome your fear and tell the alpha directly what they have done that is causing difficulty and ask them specifically to do or behave in the way you need them to.
  • Be Clear on Your Key Concern; Help the alpha see that what you are asking is reasonable and in their best interest.
  • Stay Calm, Don’t Take it Personally; Let go of your emotional baggage about them. As they say in sport, play the ball (their behaviour in the situation), not the man (don’t attack them personally).

Ron Cacioppe

Ron Cacioppe is the Managing Director of Integral Development and holds a BSc, an MBA and a PhD. He has taught in the Graduate School of Management at Macquarie University, Curtin University and the University of Western Australia.

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