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How to coach, direct, and give feedback to “Alpha Males”

Posted by Deb Muoio

Jan 9, 2015 2:28:00 PM

Our previous post brought to light research showing that female employees are more open to coaching, feedback, and direction than male employees. It now begs the question: How do you coach male employees who don’t want to be coached?
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Researchers Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson used the term “alpha males” to describe male employees who are not very amenable to feedback and direction. Aside from being “highly intelligent, confident, and successful, ”alpha males:

“…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. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the modern corporation without alpha leaders. Then why do so many of them need executive coaches?”

The problem is that alpha males find it hard to ask for help. They take pride in the fact that it’s through their own hard work and effort that they’ve made it to the top. They are masters of taking control of situations. And while you appreciate this side of them and recognize that they’re an asset because of their tenacity, determination, resilience, and ability to get results, you also rue it as well. To put it simply, what makes an alpha male an asset can also make him a liability.

Taking criticism is hard. Being told that you need improvement is hard. For an alpha male to admit that he has any weaknesses puts him in a vulnerable position and makes him feel weak. If that wasn’t emasculating enough, coaching places an alpha in a situation where someone else is in control and telling him what to do.

What a coach needs to do is to help an alpha understand that the point of coaching isn’t to lay their faults bare but rather, enhance their existing strengths and turn limitations into strengths. In essence, coaching is like restoring an old painting: you must strip away the layers that hide the true masterpiece within.

Here are some tips for coaching alpha males in your organization:

  • Ludeman and Erlandson encourage the use of a 360˚ degree feedback system. Here’s why: Telling an alpha male that what makes him an asset could also come at the cost of peer and subordinate relationships isn’t enough. Your feedback and recommendations for improvement are likely to go over more easily if you have the proof to back up your claims. The 360˚ feedback system allows peers, direct reports, managers, and even clients to rate a person’s performance and effectiveness (which can be shown as a graph, a detailed narrative, etc.) and allows raters to add comments as well. The point is that you’ll be speaking in a language that alpha males can understand. It will likely be more difficult for an alpha male to refute negative feedback and the consequences of his behavior when it’s translated into something tangible. It goes without saying that 360˚ feedback reports can be an eye-opening experience for a lot of top executives.
  • Don’t be wishy-washy in your approach. If you want an alpha male to respect and listen to you, be direct and assertive in your approach. According to Ludeman and Erlandson, “The executive coach best suited to alphas has lots of experience handling superstars and standing up to bullies. The coach doesn’t have to be an alpha, but it helps to share characteristics such as an analytical orientation and a direct style of communication.”
  • Structure improvement as a goal to achieve. For example, let’s say that your alpha male has a tendency to push subordinates too hard, and upper management has been receiving complaints. Bring it up with the alpha, but put it across as a general organizational issue that you would like his advice on. “Employee motivation has been low lately. Employees are feeling overworked and underappreciated. We’d be grateful for any ideas you might have on improving morale, and reducing the ‘us vs. them’ mentality that seems to be developing.”
  • Be careful how you phrase feedback, so alpha males do not perceive it as a threat to their ego. Start by pointing out an alpha’s strengths, and then show him how he could achieve even better results by (fill in the blank…focusing on improving employee relations, empowering and delegating, etc.). Alphas may respond better to concrete examples and practical advice, so show them how improving in a certain area can prove advantageous to them. For example, if your alpha employee needs to improve his emotional intelligence, telling him that it will help him “get along better with others” likely won’t go over well. Instead, present it from the point of view of subordinates and “talk a good attitude into existence”: “I think EQ training can improve your employees’ response to your management style. I think that because you are such a strong/intense personality, people might perceive you as intimidating. EQ training would help you to communicate in a way that shows them that you can be quite open, understanding, and approachable. Even slight changes to your communication style can have surprising results; you will be able to give direction to them in a smoother way. Your direct style might work well with some people, but others tend to focus on the negative and get defensive. I can show you some tricks that will help you deliver the message in a more diplomatic way, so that they focus on the content, rather than the way you say it.   This is what you are doing (provide an example to him), but you’d achieve much better results if you did this or that.” Essentially, rather than approaching the problem as being his “issue”, show him how he can achieve better results and become better equipped at dealing with styles, preferences and idiosyncrasies of others.
  • Organize a role-playing activity as part of a team-building exercise. Ask group members to create a list of strengths for each person in the group, as well as potential challenges. This can be particularly eye-opening for alpha males, as they may not be aware of how they come across to others, and how their demeanor, attitude, and actions impact the people around them.
  • If you have an alpha male who tends to take over group discussions (despite the fact that you’re the leader), don’t challenge him directly. Try this approach: Take him aside before a meeting and tell him what the problem is without pointing fingers:“Hey Mike, I need your opinion on something. You’ve probably noticed this too, but there are some people in the group who don’t seem to participate in discussions. I suspect that they might have interesting viewpoints to share, but don’t dare to speak up. Any ideas about what we can do to encourage them to participate?” It’s possible that “Mike” may figure out that he’s the problem, but there’s a good chance that he’ll be so focused on impressing you with his knowledge and input that he won’t realize that you a) played to his ego and b) are “urging” him to solve his own problem. The bottom line is that alpha males like to be in control – and they’ll fight for it. Give them the impression that they are in control by acknowledging their contributions and there’s a good chance that they’ll relax more. If they are truly clueless, you can offer some ideas about why some team members keep mum: “I’m thinking they might feel intimidated or insecure, or are afraid that they will be criticized if their idea is not a good one. I have read that it’s good to suspend judgment during a brainstorming session, and to announce it as a rule before the brainstorm begins. What do you think – should we try it next time and see what gives?”
  • Encourage him to come up with insights about himself, but keep it real and down-to-earth. Chances are your alpha is not a fan of psychoanalysis, so stay clear of any jargon that might suggest that that’s what you want him to do. Present him with various traits that he possesses, and ask him a) how the trait benefits the company and b) how it could hurt the company. For example, his take-charge attitude is great in crisis situations and inspires confidence, but it can also make it difficult for him to delegate or relinquish control when he needs to (e.g. when working as a team).

If you’re interested in using the CTAA (Coachability & Trainability Attitude Assessment) or other tests for HR purposes, request a free trial for ARCH Profile here.

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Topics: HR Tips, Leadership Development, Employee Attitude, Mentoring, Motivation, Coaching, Employee Relations, Training

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