March 15th, 2017 | 156 Comments

A new client asked me if I could help him get promoted. Sensing his interpersonal presence, I immediately thought that this would be a challenge. He seemed tentative and a bit insecure. He believed that hard work alone would move him up the ranks. But he sincerely wanted to be seen as a leader, to be more respected and to be listened to more. So we embarked on a leadership coaching program that would enable others see him as a natural leader, a program that would raise his social status in his organization.

Social status has been an important factor in human societies since the beginning of civilization; at first in tribal cultures, then, in early agrarian civilizations and on into modern societies. Recently, psychologists and even neuroscientists have confirmed social status as one of the most important drivers of human behavior, and similarly, loss of status as one of our greatest fears.

Behavioral anthropologists and social psychologists have identified alpha and beta as the two status roles that people and social animals adopt. Alphas assume the leader role and betas, the follower roles. Both roles are important for the smooth functioning of a tribe, team or organization. In chimpanzee communities betas will defer to the alpha with ritualized gestures such as bowing, standing aside when the alpha challenges, and allowing the alpha to walk first in a procession. Alpha and beta behavior can also be observed among wolves, dogs and other social animals, even in temporary gatherings like urban dog runs.
de Waal, Frans (2007) [1982]. Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes (25th Anniversary ed.). Baltimore, MD: JHU Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-8656-0.

Historically, human groups have thrived when leaders and followers work together harmoniously. The alpha leaders set the direction. And beta followers implement it. In modern organizations, alphas, when they have requisite leadership skills, often rise to senior roles, while betas fill the middle and junior ranks. Even when “formal “ promotional criteria describe more objective skill requirements, actual promotions are often bestowed on alphas who are “natural leaders”.

Louis Cozzolino in Why Therapy Works, describes the four social status schemas.

Natural alphas – Are the natural leaders who feel confident and free to speak up in a group, and to lead when necessary. They are biologically programmed to be less anxious, more exploratory and more resilient to physical and social stress.

Natural betas – Are the natural followers who gain meaning and satisfaction in contributing to the group by fulfilling an established role and implementing decisions. They are biologically programmed to be somewhat more anxious and more influenced by the opinions of others.

Aspirational alphas – Are biologically programmed to be betas, yet have the desire and often the ability to take on a leadership role. Their desire to be seen and express themselves often comes into conflict with their programming to play it safe, be part of the group and follow the leader.

Pseudo-alphas – Are people with the outward persona of an alpha but the internal conflicts of betas. They think of themselves as alphas and cover over their anxieties and insecurities with denial, bullying, and bravado.

All would be fine if we lived in a static society and everyone accepted their designated roles. But our culture purports itself to be a mobile meritocracy, with people being able to move up the status ladder. This means that many betas aspire to become alphas. These aspirational alphas have found that hard work, intelligence and good relationships are often not enough to earn them this rise in status.

In leadership coaching we often work with aspirational alphas, assisting them with personal growth. They seek out coaching because they believe they have what it takes to be alphas, and have the drive to pursue leadership roles. They work with leadership coaches to help them figure out the magic formula that will get them promoted.

Coaches can and do work with them on two levels:
On a behavioral level – developing leadership behaviors such as: speaking up freely in meetings, confidently handing tough questions or criticisms from others, and assuming confident body language.
On an emotional/self-concept level – when these outward behaviors are not enough. They may have some inner conflicts about assuming leadership roles. One part of their mind feels confident and wants them to be visible, take charge and take risks; while other part is conditioned to feel anxiety, to take aback seat, and avoid jumping into conflict. So, often they go back to their comfort zone of simply following the leader. Since these two parts of themselves are in conflict with one another, they live in a dynamic tension between the drive to express themselves and the fear of their expressions not being accepted. Becoming aware of these two parts of themselves can reduce the backwards pull into their comfort zone, and free them to act and feel more alpha-like.

Coaches are also called in to work with clients with an opposite set of needs; that is, when alphas are too dominant and don’t leave enough room for others to participate in decision making. Over the past 40 or 50 years organizations have been becoming more democratic. Participative leadership, servant leadership and empowering leadership have increased in popularity. This means that the classic, ultra-dominant, “Just do what I say.” leaders have been falling out of favor. This culture change creates another opportunity for leadership coaches; that is, to help natural alphas become less alpha. In coaching they learn how to hold back on their opinions, to ask questions of others and to listen. By practicing these more receptive skills, they become more welcoming leaders, the kind of leader that people want to work for.

Even though alpha and beta social status has not been very well researched, people in organizations can use coaches to enable them to feel more fulfilled and successful.


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