Why the quietest colleague in the office may have the last laugh

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Amy Swales
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There are arguments for redefining our view of success, always coming back to the good old work-life balance and what it means to be happy (generally involving Scandinavia, whether moving there or adopting a buzzword-friendly way of life).

But for those struggling with the more immediate problems of everyday workplace politics – such as feeling like a dormouse in an office full of roaring lions – contrary to appearances, the ones who prefer to keep their heads down could well be onto something.

We probably all have examples, whether male or female, of alpha and beta types in our own work environments. Perhaps you’re the one who instantly defers to colleagues’ achievements when praised for your own. Or you struggle to point out that a mistake wasn’t yours because it would feel like throwing someone else under the bus.

But it seems more and more experts agree betas can be as strong as alphas – just in a different way.

Rebecca Holman, author of Beta: Quiet Girls Can Run the World, says those who don’t appear to speak up for themselves in meetings could actually be doing themselves a favour, even when it feels like they’re being drowned out by those who always take the lead.

Holman explains that she was a ‘beta’ boss managing an ‘alpha’ team – something she thought was a problem. But she says that consulting with experts and psychologists made her think otherwise. Explaining her idea in an article for The Times, she pushes against the notion that being loud is being heard: “What you can’t see is that while everyone else in the room is ‘engaging in a robust exchange of views’, [the beta worker is] making notes and thinking things through.

“While they’re getting sucked into a pointless argument, she’s trying to solve the problem. And, to save time, she’ll probably email her thoughts after the meeting to the person who presented it.”

While she acknowledges that this approach doesn’t always “get credit”, she says it’s the easiest way to actually get something done.

Organisational psychologist and co-founder of 3COze consultancy, Liane Davey, has previously told Stylist that putting up with those who interrupt you in meetings can have a negative effect, citing a study she undertook that revealed seeing someone get frequently interrupted means others “pick up on those cues and conclude that what she’s saying isn’t that important – that she’s not worth listening to.”

However, like Holman, she does endorse strategies that deal with the problem later – as betas are wont to do – rather than barrelling in like the alphas who seem to get all the airtime. For instance, approaching someone else on the team and asking for guidance on how to handle regular interruptions makes the asker seem in control of the situation again, while simultaneously ensuring the problem is noticed by others next time.

Davey also says waiting before saying what you actually want to say can be useful in instances where the other party is getting emotional and you’re risking a confrontation – a beta’s worst nightmare.

Instead of firing back, as an alpha colleague may do, or not responding at all, she advises waiting: “It might sound counter-intuitive, but don’t immediately steer the conversation back to your topic – it will set up a tug-of-war dynamic and just increase the level of hostility.”

She then advises calmly turning the attention back to them by asking what about the conversation prompted such a strong reaction and, once they feel they’ve been heard, there’s a chance to go back to your original point.

Equally, discussing how to ask for a pay rise or promotion, Jim Morris – a principal at Moementum, a global training consultancy – says it’s not about trumpeting your achievements, a la alphas, but taking a more rounded approach.

“Your boss will be far more impressed with your ability and desire to learn than with ego and ambition to improve your rank or status,” he says. “Resist the urge to talk about what you know or brag about how easy everything is for you. Instead, share what you’re learning, and be vulnerable and honest about it. If you’ve suddenly discovered a new way to do a task or job better, don’t say ‘I feel like I have my area wired’, say, ‘Just when I thought I had my area wired, I learned a whole new way to approach [a task] that I can now apply to how I do a lot of things. What a great lesson!’”

He also adds: “In every great team, there is at least one person who makes things click because he or she has the collaboration superpowers of listening, compromising, and mediating. Be that person.”

What’s more, recent research analysing the personalities, career history, business results and behavioural patterns of 2,000 CEOs over a period of 10 years discovered that introverts make the most successful CEOs – and that while extroverts may get the job in the first place, introverts will do it well.

Holman recommends that betas recognise their traits as positive ones, but points out there’s no harm in taking a tiny bit of alpha personality and applying it judiciously – that is to say, only when it matters: “One of the most important parts of being a successful beta is knowing when you’re being taken for a ride and having the confidence to speak up and do something about it.”

Still worried that your innate inability to shout the loudest/overegg your achievements/throw a colleague under the bus reflects badly on you? Know that you’re following in the wise footsteps of Helen Mirren, whose most sage career (and life) advice is this: “Don’t be an arsehole”.

Read Holman’s article in full here.

Images: iStock


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Amy Swales

Amy Swales is a freelance writer who likes to eat, drink and talk about her dog. She will continue to plunder her own life and the lives of her loved ones for material in the name of comedy, catharsis and getting pictures of her dog on the internet.