Saturday, July 13, 2024

The pandemic ended the regime of alpha employees

Until two years ago, it was easy to spot future leaders in every batch of newcomers in a company. The alphas among them worked their way into cabins, usurping others’ at lethal speed. It often left the rest of the staff with the impression that these alpha employees were reclaiming roles and designations that had temporarily been given to others. But then, the covid pandemic happened. Business leaders across corporate hierarchies were no longer viewed as invincible.

Since then, the days of alpha employees have seemed numbered.

Why the pandemic? Because it accelerated discussions on ‘empathy’, ‘vulnerability’ and the need to work together as a cohesive unit, relying on one another. Until then, these attributes were taken as ‘soft touch’ traits in many companies, but not must-haves. The essential part until then was to get the job done, itself part of the business drive for returns on investment.

A behavioural coach to CXOs explained to me that an alpha is not a personality but a behaviour trait. “The modern leader cares about ‘how’ something was achieved and not ‘what’ was achieved,” said the coach. As teams in offices worked through professional and personal crises, they were forced to listen , take decisions involving everyone and seek advice on how to wade through many a tough spot. There was no place left for one dominant viewpoint. No one had experienced a lockdown or medical crisis at this scale, and even the leader of the pack was forced to loosen reins of control.

A Mumbai-based conglomerate’s Human Resources (HR) head described how the business house was changing and alpha team members were no longer appreciated. “Their age is over. We are becoming global and the new generations are teaching us not to be alpha,” he said, indicating that aggressive and ‘get results at any cost’ behaviour would no work in the group, which employs more than 20,000 people. The HR head said the group had changed its performance measurement system and colleagues were now asked to rate each other on what were earlier called “softer skills”. The manager does not have a say in appraisals anymore and employees have their Key Result Areas (KRAs) directly linked to their team and business performance. The message is clear: No one cohort of employees will influence the culture and decision-making capabilities of the entire group.

Are alphas detrimental to a workplace? Absolutely not. Many of them have battled and powered through many wars for their teams and companies. In some ways, they are like the whips of political parties who influence decisions and impact the organizational culture by pushing for agreement on important issues. Not all alphas are aggressive. Some work in phantom mode. Typically, they make themselves available to the top leaders, become privy to information that can be important in certain circles, and within a short period of time, are usually given more responsibility than their peers. Sometimes, they leave their traces etched even after they are no longer with the firm.

Why the change then? Companies are realizing that placing a disproportionate onus on a few is risky. This is a risk that permeates right down the hierarchy and leads to a select few coming under the limelight while the rest slave away in the shadows. Companies are realizing that when baton holders whip up support behind a leader or a project, risks can rise of manipulation, groupism and a fractious environment roiled by office politics. Two alphas who turn predatory in the same company could get embroiled in turf wars.

A CXO pointed out that an egalitarian approach towards problems is the new trend. Employers are forced to rethink every policy that worked over the past decades as they now have multiple generations of workers squeezed into the same payrolls for the first time.

“A return-to-work policy, which companies assumed was natural as cases of covid reduced, continues to be met with resistance. Cautionary mails have given way to threats that it will impact appraisals, but employees have held steadfast to their stance that it is hybrid at most, or one will have to deal with exit interviews,” said the CXO. Alpha team leaders have also realized that accepted norms need to be overhauled and they may no longer wield the same power as they did before the pandemic.

Will alphas end up forced out of the pack? Unlikely. As turfs shrink, those who display alpha behaviour will have to change along with their employers. The dominant voice will need to soften, even as the approach to problem-solving will have to be one that makes optimal use of all skill-sets represented. Hierarchies are getting fluid, and this means even for the alpha, the path to survival and success is blurry. Moving along with others will be the safer option.

After alpha, who? Studies on workplaces have begun to highlight the recent rise of the so-called omega employee. One who is confident, has many interests beyond work, does not require validation, is competent but avoids confrontation. Post-pandemic, omega employees are in demand.

Devina Sengupta writes on workplaces and education at Mint 


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Updated: 06 Jul 2023, 11:05 PM IST

#pandemic #ended #regime #alpha #employees

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