According to Ludeman and Erlandson (2004). ‘Alpha’ executives make up 70% of senior executives. They are confident and intelligent, competitive and impatient. They like to be in charge.
‘Alpha’ executives don’t tend to listen well to others. They engage in dominance behaviours, (Schmid Mast and Hall 2009) such as:
Taking charge of the conversation
Talking down to people
Expressing strong opinions
Tending to steamroll others into doing what they want (Schmid Mast and Hall 2003)
Senior alpha executives can find it hard to let others influence their decision making. (See, Morrison et al. 2011)
Alpha executives often have unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. This can lead to burnout, both in themselves and in members of their team. Alpha executives can be dismissive of others feelings and can fail to notice the negative impact that their competitive and aggressive approach has on others. Colleagues and direct reports can sometimes experience the aggressive alpha behaviour as bullying.
Alpha’s often achieve results in the short to medium term; they look confident; they speak up in meetings. They look like potential C-Suite material and they get promoted.
But once they reach higher levels of management, the need for cooperation and collaboration grows and their dominance behaviours start to hold them back and sometimes even derail them.
I often coach executives who exhibit some, if not all, of those alpha behaviours. I enjoy working with them. I like their intelligence, their focus on results and honesty. It can also feel intimidating. The curiosity and exploration that is central to good coaching can seem like a waste of time to these executives – and they let me know this assessment in no uncertain terms!
How does ACT help these executives to develop more effective leadership behaviours?
An ACT-informed coaching approach would likely include:
- Identifying workable and unworkable behaviours
- Helping the executive to make better quality decisions
- Choosing values and choosing how to convert those values into action
- Developing compassion for self and others
- Broadening behaviour and improving the criteria the executive uses to select their behaviour in a given situation.
- Building psychological flexibility (of course!)
- Uncovering unhelpful internal rules that are controlling behaviour
In this post, I want to explore the tricky topic of working with these executives and their emotions.
My observation is that many, but not all, of these executives have learnt to disconnect from their own emotions. This disconnect is often contributing significantly to their insensitive and impatient behaviour. The behaviour is, in a sense, a form of running away from unwanted thoughts and feelings.
Executives have often donned corporate armour, in order to protect themselves, in the sometimes hostile environment of organisations. Whilst this armour can be helpful, it does make it hard for them to be emotionally intelligent and agile.
In many, the armour was actually created early in life. It may well have been adopted in the school years, as a response to the harsh experiences that many of us have during childhood. This means that many of these executives have never learnt to really notice and label their emotions, a core skill of emotional intelligence.
Emotionally intelligent leaders can tease out the different grades of their own and others emotion, for example separating impatience from frustration or anger. Emotionally intelligent leaders can notice emotions that may be pulling them in different directions. They can pause, notice their emotions and notice the urges that result from these emotions, without having to act on those impulses. They can hear the wisdom their emotions often offer, perhaps about the risks in a situation or how others may be feeling about something.
The lack of emotional awareness that some alpha executives experience is often coupled with avoidance of many of the ‘softer’ emotions. This does not mean, however, that the executives are genuinely emotionless, the emotions will still be present and will often drive behaviour unconsciously.
The aim of coaching alpha executives can often be to help them to learn to engage with their own emotions with more curiosity and wisdom.
This work can be scary for executives, many of them have an emotion phobia; where approaching certain emotions, such as sadness or fear, can make them freeze or escape. Just like with other exposure work, this needs to be done with the consent of the individual concerned and with gentleness and curiosity.
Often the most important thing that a coach can do in this situation is to help the executive to pause and notice. How does it feel in your body as you talk about this issue? And what does that tell you? And what do your values and the needs of the situation suggest you do next?
As people become more fluent with their own emotions, they become less driven by them and have a greater capacity to choose the most effective behaviour in a given moment.
As people become more open to their own emotions, they also become more aware and empathic towards others.
(For Australian Readers – I am running a workshop on this topic at the APS International Coaching Congress in Melbourne in November 13th to 15th)