9 Leadership Strategies for Handling an Alpha Boss
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The other day, an executive coaching client, Jon, entered our session looking rather embattled. “I’ve put up with Marie’s abuse for long enough. Today was the last straw!” he exclaimed.
“The problem is, I don’t know what to do about it. I love my company, my team and my job.”
Marie, the CEO of a pharmaceutical manufacturing company, is Jon’s boss. She is renowned in her field, but her “alpha” personality makes her a difficult person to work with — and to work for.
Jon is not alone in his struggles as a leader with a harsh boss.
Management 101 provides many strategies for handling challenging employees, but dealing with a difficult boss can be tricky, especially for leaders like Jon.
ALPHA Boss? 9 Ways to Manage Up
While you can’t control anyone else’s behaviors — especially your boss’s — you always remain in control of your own thoughts, which drive your moods and influence your behaviors and actions.
Many of the leadership strategies you use with your team members can vastly improve your interactions with a difficult boss, as you find yourself leading from under, also known as "managing up."
1. Don’t poke the bear
Bears aren’t vicious animals by nature — but if you venture into their territory, they will defend it ferociously.
Likewise, a boss with an alpha personality is easy to incite. If and when that happens, pay attention! What got you in that situation? What did you say? What boundaries did you cross? Strive to understand the reasons for the backlash.
Then, going forward, respect those boundaries. Avoid actions or statements that may be perceived as threats or provocation.
When you have a difference of opinion, or question their position on a given situation, approach the conversation with curiosity, openness and flexibility.
“I’m wondering what you’d think of xyz” is less directive and will be much better received than “Don’t you think we should xyz?” Phrase your questions in a way that establishes your intent to gain clarity, not to question their authority.
While remaining confident in your own stance, show deference to your boss’s stature and position. You actually have the upper position here — this is classic leading from underneath.
2. Modulate your speech
Moods are contagious. When you’re interacting with someone who is anxious, angry or overwhelmed, the negative energy is palpable. If that person happens to be your boss, it can really trigger your resentment and/or anxiety.
When you’re engaged in an emotionally charged interaction with an alpha boss, one of the most effective ways to calm yourself — and the situation — is to deliberately slow the cadence of your speech.
Rather than engaging in the frenzy that your boss may be creating, you can imperceptibly calibrate the mood of the conversation by responding in a neutral, soothing manner. Modulate your own tone of voice as you respond.
The ability to proactively impact and influence the emotional atmosphere in the room is a critical leadership skill in managing up or down.
3. Ask how you can better serve your boss
It is critical for your boss to understand that you know that your job is to make him or her (and your department/organization) more successful. You’ll be more valuable — and more appreciated — when you make it clear that your aim is to make their job easier.
Asking questions that help you understand your boss’s vantage point — and what they deem the highest priorities — will help increase your own leadership effectiveness.
This clarity will allow you to better lead your team in alignment with this bigger-picture perspective. You’ll know when it’s important to communicate any risks to deadlines versus when certain factors might be considered minutiae to your boss.
If you’re not clear about what their needs are, ask. If you’re wondering if something you’re doing (or not doing) is a pet peeve of theirs, ask. And if you want to find out what you could be doing better in order to meet their needs, or to further the goals of the company, ask.
Rather than waiting for your review, it’s much better to engage in proactive, ongoing conversation. (See How to Covertly Seek More Context, below, for more ways to ask without inciting.)
How to Covertly Seek Context – Without Asking Too Many Questions
Bosses are busy. You likely have a very short window of time to seek the information you need in order to do your job well.
Within that window, there lies a fine line between asking questions and asking too many questions.
When you cross that line, you will become annoying. You can, however, learn more about the context of a project or request by asking the right questions — in the right way.
Help your boss understand your intentions by prefacing your questions accordingly. Begin a question with a purpose: “I want to make sure I deliver an outstanding report for you,” and then ask “Which of the areas I’m going to cover for you is most important, and why?”
When you seek information from an alpha boss, planning ahead will allow you to ask strategic questions to gain very specific information that will improve your performance — and enhance the results you deliver.
It’s the constant reinforcement that "I’m thinking about you" and "I’m going to take care of what you need."
4. Maintain a positive, optimistic attitude
There’s nothing more infectious than a leader who remains positive and optimistic regardless of the challenges and mood states that surround them. When you remain a “Teflon” leader, resistant to your boss’s moods, your presence becomes welcome. People — including your boss — will enjoy spending time around you because of your ability to lift the emotional atmosphere.
Dealing with an alpha boss can lead to frustration, disappointment, anxiety and a variety of other negative emotions. Our MindMastery workshop can teach you how to dramatically shift your thoughts in order to reduce stress, gain resilience and retain an effective leadership perspective.
5. Identify the best way to communicate
Everyone has a favorite method of receiving or directing communication. Traditionalists tend to prefer phone calls over emails. Most millennials would rather receive a text than an email.
Although some corporate cultures favor one communication channel over another, there are rarely hard-and-fast rules, leaving space for individual preferences.
Knowing your boss’s preferred mode of communication will allow you to communicate on their terms. Ask, experiment and refine your messaging to accommodate those preferences.
One overarching rule of thumb: be succinct.
Avoid rambling and minutiae. Provide enough information but only the pertinent details that will allow your boss to make a yes/no decision quickly and with confidence.
SOS: A Recipe to Rescue Your Mind
How can you break the cycle of negative thoughts that influence your moods and behaviors? The next time you catch yourself in an unproductive loop — anxious, angry or upset — try the SOS method:
S: Stop thinking
O: Oxygenate (breathe diaphragmatically)
S: Seek new information (e.g., Is this thought really true?)
There will be situations where you find yourself threatened or triggered by your interactions with an alpha boss. The quickest way to physiologically recover is to engage in deep diaphragmatic breathing.
Use the SOS strategy to shift your mood state. (See sidebar, SOS: A Recipe to Rescue Your Mind, for details.)
7. Become a more effective observer
Your capacity to read your boss and to manage from underneath lies, to a great extent, in your capacity to become a very competent reader of emotional undertones.
Develop your interpersonal observational skills, including your ability to recognize and decipher microexpressions.
Applying emotional intelligence will allow you to read the room — and your boss. In the event that a message hasn’t landed correctly, you will be able to adjust the course accordingly.
8. Don’t attack back
The worst thing is to meet confrontation with opposition. Not only will you not win, but you’ll escalate the tension.
The most effective antidote to conflict is empathy. Be curious. Gain clarity around the situation by fully understanding your boss’s perceptions and perspective.
Of course, that’s easier done under calm circumstances. If you find yourself in the midst of emotional chaos, especially if you feel attacked, take a moment — or a few — to collect your thoughts and regain control of your own mood state so that you can respond rather than react.
Accountability creates trust, and is foundational to effective leadership, including — especially — when managing up. Rather than assuming a defensive (or offensive) stance, take ownership, when appropriate.
If you’ve made a mistake, be quick to own it. Even if the mistake was made by a team member working under your leadership, there’s a high probability that they may have done so based on inadequate or erroneous information from you.
Be affirmative in your response, using phrases like “thanks for letting me know” or “duly noted.”
9. Anticipate their needs
Trends and patterns will become apparent when you pay attention to your boss’s modus operandi.
You will become indispensable once you’re able to understand — and respond to — your boss’s needs before he or she articulates them.
What happened with Jon, the client facing his difficult boss, Marie? By learning to better understand Marie's perspective, take her comments less personally and communicate more effectively, Jon became less vulnerable to her volatility. In developing the ability to manage up, Jon was able to exponentially catapult his leadership impact and influence.