The power of beta

power beta leadership

Do emotionally mindful bosses foster greater creativity, more productive working environments and lasting success in teams? Guest columnist Jenn Selby looks at the rise of the 'beta' boss and how those who lead collaboratively from the centre are having a big impact on traditional ideas of leadership.


Strong, decisive and assertive: words that spring to mind as traditional qualities associated with leadership. In order to get to the top and stay there, common wisdom has it that a boss needs to exude confidence, steer from the helm and be as visible as possible.

Yet in among these well-watered stereotypes grows an overwhelming case for a different style of direction. There is evidence that an emotionally mindful – or ‘beta’ – boss, who leads collaboratively from the centre, is more likely to foster greater creativity, nurture a better working environment and achieve lasting success.

It’s an idea that’s been written about extensively, most recently by editor of women’s lifestyle site The Debrief, Rebecca Holman. In her book, Beta: Quiet Girls Can Run the World, she argues that her introverted qualities of listening more and deciding with others have served her well in the workplace. Similarly, Susan Cain’s Quiet Leadership Institute aims to empower quieter characters to use their beta traits to their advantage. But is listening more and ‘leaning out’ all that defines beta leadership?

Dr John Mervyn-Smith, Chief Psychologist at The GC Index, a revolutionary scientific framework that aims to identify and nurture individual qualities to build successful teams, says not. “The key beta skill is not listening. It’s about being open to influence,” he argues. “You might have a boss that has learned to appear as though they are listening, but it’s not the same as having a boss who actually takes your points on board and makes decisions with you." Being open to influence encourages collaboration by instilling a sense of empowerment and self-worth in the individual doing the influencing,” says Mervyn-Smith.

Vicky Sleight, founder of Perfect Ltd and senior advisor on diversity and inclusion at Cambridge Wireless, is a self-proclaimed ‘beta boss’ and takes this idea one step further. She says that shining a spotlight on her team allowed them to flourish and produce lasting results.

I ensure that at board level they don’t just see one person, but a leader of an amazing and diverse team. [Being a beta boss] is also about taking risks because you believe in people and not just about mentoring them, but championing them.

This style of direction, she adds, was particularly helpful when she took on a new team with low morale. “I had to let them gripe so I could understand the problems and challenges in order to be able to make the necessary changes. I listened to them as individuals, understood their skills and ideas, before bringing them back as a group. We were then able to work through our common goals and re-engage. The members became supportive of each other and they became a respected team, achieving great results.”

Forming a successful team that will produce long-term results requires communication, collaboration, creativity and an instilled sense of value in individual team members. To create this kind of dynamic, Dr Ileana Stigliani, Assistant Professor of Design and Innovation at Imperial College Business School, believes putting a beta boss in charge is essential. “A business is more than one person, and it requires the joint effort of a myriad different actors. Thus, the success of any business does not depend merely on how the boss performs, but rather on how everyone pulls together.”

It’s a strong point and one increasingly gaining traction. A recent study conducted by HBR and the Energy Project found that employees performed better if four basic needs had been met: renewal (physical), value (emotional), focus (mental) and purpose (spiritual). It found that employees who not only felt heard but also respected were 63% more satisfied with their jobs, 55% more engaged and 58% more focused. They were also more likely to stay with their employers long-term.

However, the question remains: if there is so much evidence suggesting beta leadership is better for getting results and keeping employees happy, why aren’t our organisations overflowing with them already? What is it about alpha extroverts we just can’t seem to stop promoting?

“We traditionally view alpha qualities as being those that leaders have,” says Dr Suzanne Ross, a senior lecturer at the Business School of Nottingham Trent University and a corporate management consultant. “They are tall, strong and lead from the front. Being a beta boss is about working collaboratively and emphasising the importance of the role of others.

“In the shorter term, alpha leadership that is assertive and dominant produces short-term wins,” she continues. “I think the challenge here is how [beta bosses] are perceived. There is some research to support the idea that women ask more questions in meetings, for example. Is it perceived that they are holding up the meeting? Beta bosses may be seen as valuing relationships over task, particularly in male-dominated environments. In organisations with more women than men, it’s a more accepted approach and people see the value in that style of leadership and the culture it creates.”

The continuing stereotypes that surround success, too, can block receptivity to rewarding beta qualities in the workplace – the well-worn image of a The Devil Wears Prada-style boss (authoritative and hyper-dominant) is all too often assumed to convey effective direction whether or not the results reflect the impression.

Splitting leadership styles into two narrow camps perpetuates these all-or-nothing age-old stereotypes – and this is what Dr Meryvn-Smith’s GC Index is helping businesses such as Orange, UniCredit, local government organisations and NGOs, to transcend. His scientific framework is designed to view leadership and team participation in a more diverse way, identifying individual talents and empowering the employee to use them to their optimal advantage. Collaborative leaders become ‘play makers’, a genderless term that comes without the associated connotations of ‘alpha’ and ‘beta’.

According to Dr Meryvn-Smith, ‘play maker’ qualities, such as investing time in their relationships at work and giving others space to shine, come from a nurturing social conditioning. However, these qualities can be developed in some leaders even if they did not develop organically. “I have seen people move into that role through coaching and development,” he says. Only by being in a comfortable position with their own abilities and self-worth, he adds, is it possible for a leader to truly adopt ‘play maker’ attributes.
Even so, you don’t have to wait for coaching to begin to tap into the potential of ‘beta’ behaviour. Dr Stigliani believes there are a few ways we can all start channeling these powers today, namely by cultivating the first pillar of emotional intelligence, empathy. She recommends fostering a genuine interest in people inside and outside of an organisation. “Challenge prejudices, especially those that encourage non-empathetic thinking and seek out commonalities between people and ideas.”

Dr Ross’s advice, however, is perhaps the most essential of all. “Women need to get more comfortable with sharing success stories so we can see where this style of leadership is working well,” she says. “If we can share successes and wins, organisations can start to see the value of that leadership and it may start to change they reward different styles of leadership.”

Are you open to influence and success? It may just be time to make some noise about it.