My first glimpse of an alpha boss was at a summer internship. The head of my department was known for being exceptional at her job and having a commanding personality; I idolized her and compared her to the ambitious career women I saw in movies growing up. She was decisive, highly confident, and commandeering, and she had an enormous amount of presence.
Years later, I had the chance to report directly to an alpha boss, and I began to see how the qualities that make alphas shine often go hand-in-hand with the qualities that makes them difficult to work with.
Having an alpha boss can be great for several reasons: They tend to be extremely smart, they can be exceptional leaders, especially in times of crisis or distress, and they aren't afraid to give you straightforward feedback. But there are also a few downsides: They can be highly aggressive in situations where it's uncalled for, they tend to be extremely stubborn, and they can seem like emotional robots—completely numb to other people's feelings.
So, how do you build a successful relationship with them without compromising your self-respect or silencing your voice? Whether you're suffering from a bad relationship with an alpha boss you've worked with for a while, or you've started a new job and realized your boss is a little more controlling than you’re used to, here are some tips to keep in mind.
Speak Up—the Right Way
While it might seem like alpha bosses want their direct reports to simply follow instructions, no questions asked, they generally welcome other people's opinions and ideas—including ones that contradict their own—as long as they are presented in the right way.
In other words, you shouldn’t be afraid to state your opinions or share your ideas, even if they contradict those of your boss. In fact, in my experience, alpha bosses respect people who demonstrate that they can think for themselves and don't blindly follow orders. Just make sure you do it in a respectful, tactful way; never embarrass them or make them look foolish in front of others.
Try something like:
I think that's a great point. In addition, we need to consider that X impacts Y, which indicates that we should also do Z. What do you think?"
As opposed to:
I don't agree. You've overlooked the fact that X impacts Y, and I think it would be better if we did Z."
This might be how your alpha boss talks, but don't speak to him or her like this—especially in front of others—unless you're ready for trouble!
When planning your approach, you should also consider which type of alpha boss you're working with—Claudia H. Deutsch describes four main types. For example, the alpha boss I've worked most closely with was an "alpha strategist," which means that when I stated an opinion that differed from his, it always had to be backed up with clear data and lots of detail that demonstrated that what I was saying was valid.
Don't Take Your Boss's Actions Too Personally
One of the most important lessons I've learned while working with alpha bosses is that they typically aren't as emotionally tuned in as others, and as such, you're going to have a tough time if you always take their actions and words personally.
One day, a boss of mine came into my work area and started speaking to me very aggressively in front of my team. He was on the brink of yelling, and I assumed he was angry with me and that it was a personal attack. A couple of days later during a private meeting, I told him that the way he had spoken to me was inappropriately aggressive, especially considering other people were in the room, and that I was always open to feedback, but that it should be done behind closed doors.
He said he had no idea he was being aggressive and agreed to not give feedback in front of others. This was a turning point in my understanding of alphas—I realized that they are often simply not aware of how their actions, tone of voice, and body language affect others. In fact, the book Alpha Male Syndrome points out that alphas often lack introspection, and the downside to their propensity to be bold, creative thinkers is that it can go hand-in-hand with being closed off to other people’s viewpoints.
The next time your boss lashes out at you, take a step back, and ask yourself, "Is this really about me? Will I benefit from taking his or her aggressiveness to heart, or should I brush it off and go back to focusing on my work?"
Set Clear Boundaries by Standing Up to Your Boss
If you want to have a successful relationship with an alpha boss, you need to set clear boundaries about what kind of treatment you will and won't accept, no matter how scary it is to do so. When I confronted my boss, he not only apologized, but he asked me if there were other times he had been aggressive in public—pen in hand, ready to take notes.
My jaw was basically on the floor. I had rehearsed the scene in my mind dozens of times and was ready for him to yell at me and tell me I was wrong. What actually happened couldn't have been farther from what I had imagined. He even asked me to give that kind of feedback sooner next time.
Sometimes, giving feedback like this to alphas is the best way to improve your relationship, especially if you want to be treated differently going forward. Just make sure to do it behind closed doors, and make sure your delivery is as respectful and calm as possible. Moreover, try not to be emotional about it; if you make it personal and focus on how the situation made you feel, you might lose the alpha's attention and respect.
But, if you firmly say that it's not okay to treat you in a particular way and tell him or her how you expect to be treated, you might be pleasantly surprised by your boss’ reaction. If he or she responds like my prior boss did, then you know you're working for an alpha boss who is reasonable and probably has more of the positive alpha qualities than the negative ones. On the flip side, if he or she responds with anger or belittles your request, you might want to think about whether or not you want to continue working for him or her. After all, being alpha does not mean you have a free pass to treat people poorly.
You’ll likely have many different bosses throughout your career, and at some point you may work for someone who fits the alpha profile. And when you do? Consider yourself lucky. Alpha bosses have many qualities that can make them excellent managers—plus, learning how to communicate effectively with alpha types in the workplace will take you far for years to come. And if you wind up with a boss who’s just too difficult to work for, consider it a learning experience and move on.