How to manage an 'Alpha' employee

by Emily Douglas17 Aug 2018

As the saying goes, it takes all sorts to make a world. Though, admittedly, that world may function a little better if certain sorts learned to toe the line.

The workplace of today is a veritable jungle of mish-mash personalities – the most disruptive of which is the ‘Alpha’ employee. You may be forgiven for assuming that all Alphas are male but, despite historical preconceptions, they come in all genders and ages.

Firstly, let’s acknowledge that Alpha employees are not necessarily the most toxic workers in your organization. Whilst the name tends to conjure up images of domineering, white, male middle management-types, in practice Alphas can actually help disrupt your company in a proactive and innovative way.

How to recognize an Alpha employee
According to reports, confident and successful Alpha males comprise up to 70% of all senior executives – obviously that figure would differ for their female counterparts. Researchers Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson reasoned this in their study - Coaching the Alpha Male.

“Alphas reach the top ranks in large organizations because they are natural leaders—comfortable with responsibility in a way non-Alphas can never be. Most people feel stress when they have to make important decisions; Alphas get stressed when tough decisions don’t rest in their capable hands. For them, being in charge delivers such a thrill, they willingly take on levels of responsibility most rational people would find overwhelming.”

Now, this all sounds very positive. Strong-willed, determined, confident, forward-thinking; realistically this could also define any number of career-driven employees. So, what differentiates the Alpha from rest of the pack?

“As it turns out, Alphas’ quintessential strengths are also what make them so challenging, and often frustrating, to work with,” the report continued. “Independent and action oriented, alphas take extraordinarily high levels of performance for granted, both in themselves and in others.”

It’s this lack of understanding, or unwillingness to compromise, that can really irk colleagues. Whilst Alphas often demonstrate their usefulness in high-pressure situations, such as closing a sale or hitting a deadline, in less anxious scenarios Alphas have the propensity to intimidate fellow employees.

When it comes to the more elusive female Alpha, they share certain characteristics with the male species – though they also sport shocking differences.

Executive coach Gill Corkindale once remarked that Alpha females are more likely to be “rounded” individuals. In an interview with HBR, she outlined how you’d go about identifying an Alpha female.

“I don’t think they are pack animals, and I don’t think they move in groups. I think they’re very individual, very different, often very rounded in their experience. They also have a very compassionate side to them which is demonstrable. But, like the Alpha males, you know when one walks into a room – you know they’re there, you can sense that charisma.”

She also pinpointed two classic examples of the Alpha female; Nicola Horlick - an investment fund manager, Karren Brady – manager of Birmingham City Football Club.

How Alphas impact your organization
Because of their no-nonsense attitude and goal-orientated behaviour, Alphas can help drive your organization forward. They make excellent sales professionals, investment managers and politicians, primarily down to their charm when dealing with clients or the public.

However, this strong attitude can intimidate senior figures into thinking they’ve lost control. Unless Alphas are managed correctly, and not allowed to be given full and free reign, they can improve all facets of the business.

How to manage Alpha
Begin by relaying any concerns you have with the Alpha directly – as more often than not, they’re pretty blinkered in their approach and won’t realize they’ve annoyed colleagues. After reaching out to them on a face-to-face level, come up with a plan of action. This plan should allow for the Alpha to shine as the go-getter they are, whilst also making them acknowledge that not everyone operates in the same way as they do.

The competitive nature of Alpha employees means they need continual challenges. Meet this by setting out clear incentives, goals and milestones that, once met, will be recognized by the organization.

Writing in HBR, researchers explained the risks of being too forceful when coaching an Alpha: “They’re uncomfortable showing vulnerability or taking a break from constant action. The coaching process can make them feel unproductive and out of control.”

Having said that, if you approach the coaching session in a fair and controlled manner – and allow the Alpha to voice their own concerns – you should be able to reach a mutual ground.

Remember – Alpha employees, both male and female, can be an asset to any organization when managed in the correct way.

 

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