How To Manage An Alpha Boss

Alpha personalities can make good bosses because of their ability to lead with singular focus. However, that trait is a double-edged sword, particularly when it comes to maintaining a harmonious and conducive workplace. 

I have had the mixture of privilege and anxiety of working with several Alpha bosses. Those experiences have given me an insight into attaining a productive balance for the best personal and professional results. I share them with you here. 

If the typical Singapore workplace is a melting pot of cultures, it is also a microcosm of personality types. ‘Alphas’ are individuals with strong, domineering personalities and a characteristically abrasive work style. They are difficult enough to contend with as colleagues and can be virtually untenable as bosses. Over the course of my career, I have developed a reasonably effective system on how to manage a boss with an alpha personality. 

Alpha 101: Understanding the personality 

Know your enemy and know yourself; a hundred battles, a hundred victories. 

I am certainly not suggesting that your alpha boss is an ‘enemy’ to conquer but this quote from Sun Tzu is as applicable to the boardroom as it is to the battlefield. In our context, it refers to understanding what motivates your alpha boss and moulding your interactions for mutually beneficial outcomes. 

Five most common traits of an alpha personality. 

  1. Intelligence – It is easy to dismiss a domineering boss as stupid but alphas are successful precisely because they are highly intelligent and don’t suffer fools. 
  2. Goal-driven – They identify goals and work tirelessly – and relentlessly – to achieve them. They do not like barriers. 
  3. Fearless – That relentless pursuit of goals often requires alphas to tread where others have not gone before… and they do so almost without a second thought. 
  4. Natural leaders – You may not like their leadership style but few will honestly be able to deny that an alpha boss commands respect, begrudging as it may be. 
  5. Unemotional- A sangfroid mindset can be infuriating when they disregard emotional cues but an alpha’s dissociation from others’ feelings gives them the clarity to make professional decisions. 

Note that psychologists and workplace experts sometimes list as many as 15. However, these five have been the most prominent and the most troublesome in my experiences with alpha bosses. 

How to manage a boss with alpha traits 

Note that it is ‘alpha traits’ here rather than just an ‘alpha boss’. That is because there is considerable personality-type overlap in some people, and they epitomise some of these alpha characteristics without necessarily being alphas, per se. 

I have discovered, sometimes the hard way, that flowing with these traits is more productive than working against them. 

1. Intelligence 

Can intelligence be a bad thing? Yes, if it is improperly applied. Alphas can use that superior intellect to orchestrate Machiavellian machinations with office politics. 

My first experience with this was rather early in my career. My alpha boss was someone who I admired for her leadership, commanding personality and ability to get things done. Some staff members were older than her and there was some friction because of her perceived lack of experience. 

One faction wrote a letter to the company’s owner asking that she be transferred. I was shocked when she was actually transferred to another branch the following month. The faction’s celebrations were short-lived, though; it turned out that she had anticipated their move and had already begun the process of shutting down that office and transferring operations to her new one. There were staff cuts involved and, needless to say, no one from the letter-writing faction survived. 

I realised that they were playing checkers against someone who was adept at 4D chess. Don’t play games with alphas. They are where they are because they know the field. Underhanded tactics will backfire. 

2. Goal-driven 

Your alpha boss’s boss loves them because they get results. The alpha knows this and cements their power and position by focusing on the company’s objectives, not the hurdles that litter the way. Anyone they perceive as dead weight will quickly suffer consequences. 

I learned that while working at a media company creating high-volume content. My manager was the typical alpha female, very goal oriented (why goal setting is important); her idea was to produce, produce, produce. Our editor, however, was a perfectionist. His focus was on creating value with each product. This inevitably led to a Quality vs. Quantity clash between them. 

While there were no firings in this case, the editor was transferred. The bosses realised that their success hinged on the goal-driven nature of the manager, not the pedantic one of the editor. When the situation calls for it, don’t stand in an alpha’s way but instead work with them to make their success yours, too. 

3. Fearless 

Alpha bosses are not afraid to jump right into the mix when the situation demands it. This trait can be difficult to contend with if you are a more cautious person. 

This was illustrated to me with the goal-driven manager very early on. She had a voracious appetite for new and cutting-edge content. One of the genres that we had traditionally avoided was anything that touched on sexual interactions. She made the decision to breach that unwritten rule and publish more raunchy content than before. 

There were murmurings of displeasure among the team and some even quit. When we released the first batch of content created under her new guidelines, though, readership spiked to unprecedented levels. There was some consternation from her bosses, all of which she breezily waved aside by flashing the ad revenue figures.  

Her fearless and decisive attitude paid off while the team members who quit missed out on massive bonuses. Alphas are intelligent and can see patterns where others may not. A little bit of trust can deflect conflict, and you get to share the spoils at the end. 

4. Natural Leaders 

Some people automatically command respect when they speak and that is a prime alpha trait. In fact, ask around your office and there will almost always be consensus on who is listened to and whose words carry less weight. 

One reason for that is that despite their shortcomings, alphas are generally well-liked. They are successful, tend to have magnetic personalities, are popular with the opposite sex, and can be charming when they please. These traits attract people like moths to a flame. 

I say that based on a workplace conflict I saw from start to end. My alpha boss was a brash and loud executive who had graduated from a local university. What he lacked in substance, he made up with laughter and banter. An older executive on the same hierarchical tier was a Stamford graduate who really knew the job. She was more experienced and, in my eyes at least, much better at her job. 

However, the alpha’s entitled attitude marked a shift in loyalties towards him. His ‘rival’ resented this and left the company within the year. It was an unnecessary move that probably affected her career. She would have served herself better by acquiescing to his natural leadership rather than trying to pull the “I’m actually better than you” card. 

Don’t undersell yourself with an alpha boss when you can ride the wave of positivity with them. 

5. Unemotional 

Alphas can be brutal in their assessment and treatment of colleagues and subordinates. While many of us regard the people with whom we work almost as family, they see them as a means to an end. Do not expect them to empathise with your situation and you won’t be disappointed. 

I found this out myself a couple of years ago as the Covid pandemic started. In those days, no one knew what we were up against and fear was prevalent. I had been working casually for a content creation company that was led by the owner who rarely interacted directly with us. 

Most of my colleagues at the time were younger women, a couple of whom had just returned to the workforce after having kids. As the effects of the pandemic began to bite financially, it soon became clear that some staff would have to be let go. 

I sat in on some of the assessment interviews and saw those two women tear up as they explained why they should not be let go. When the interviews ended, he told me they and another person who had been emotional were the three being fired. 

Emotions do not work with the unemotional. Alphas are focused on things that will help them succeed and will not allow themselves to be distracted by what they perceive as unimportant distractions. Bring your best game to the table, show them why you are crucial to the team, and give them reasons to trust you. 

Check out our career guidance page for more useful lifestyle and career tips!   

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