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Breaking the glass ceiling: Coaching alpha females


Women face tough challenges when they aim for the top of their profession. Dr Ho Law examines how coaching psychology can help Alpha females become champions in leadership and corporate social responsibilities.

Alpha females play special roles in the gender hierarchy and have specific strengths and problems. Coaching them can be the most challenging and rewarding experience for coaches and coachees alike.

Complexity in the expression of alpha female personality type
Alpha females share similar personality traits as their male counterparts, described by Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI®) as ENTJ (Extraversion, iNtuition, Thinking, Judgement). However, their expressions tend to be more subtle. Because they are not obvious, they often go undetected.

Whilst gender differences exist due to the different social challenges that female leaders face within a typically male dominant society, Alpha females tend to maintain more balanced dynamics of personality expressions.

While they are assertive, confident, decisive, determined, dominant, efficient and intelligent (the same traits in Extraverted Thinking type as their male counter parts), they sometimes underplay these attributes and substitute them with their more gentle characters, belonging to their shadow type character (Introverted Feeling).

"Alpha females are faced with a unique gender dilemma: should they show off their attributes of assertiveness, independent decision making and career-mindedness; or should they demonstrate their caring side by being supportive and empathetic?"

As Ludeman & Erlandson (2006) observe, compared with alpha males, fewer females reach the top: ie they hit the ‘glass ceiling’ for women. With equally high emotional intelligence, alpha females are clever enough to play the corporate game. They understand that traditional gender norms imply that, being women, they are expected to play caring roles. If they appear too aggressive in their communication, their performance will be ‘judged’ less favourably than their male counterparts.
Combined with skills to strike a more appropriate balance this insight can only be mastered by a few alpha females: in Chinese parlance, they do the ‘Yang’ job but soften the rough edge with a bit of ‘Ying’ at the right time. The former UK prime minister Lady Thatcher is a classic example of such championship.

The alpha female’s dilemma
In our leadership research on breaking through the ‘glass ceiling’, Lesley Yeung, a trainee coaching psychologist at Empsy® Network, has found that owing to the gender stereotype in leadership, Alpha females who are effective, ambitious and critical may be perceived as violating their expected role of nurturing the team.

Thus alpha females are faced with a unique gender dilemma: should they show off their attributes of assertiveness, independent decision making and career-mindedness; or should they demonstrate their caring side by being supportive and empathetic?

Either way, they may be criticised, as observed by Eagly & Karau (2002). Female leaders often feel torn between the two seemingly contrasting roles.

As mentioned, many Alpha females are capable of overcoming this leadership dilemma by complementing their leadership style with behaviours more consistent with their gender role. They may, for instance, place more value on interpersonal relationships and pay closer attention to people’s sentiments.

They are likely to encourage collaboration and less inclined to intimidate others, unlike alpha males. They may be more reluctant and uncomfortable with ‘touchy-feeling’ expressions, but do understand the importance of motivation and team work (for more information, see Ludeman & Erlandson, 2006).

These mixed behaviour patterns may make Alpha females very difficult to identify when initially encountered.

The 'Queen Bee Syndrome' – an alpha female trap
So we almost have a perfect leader or superhuman – a leader who is strategic and visionary, but can also multi-task and pay attention to relationships.

Alpha female leaders may have experienced great barriers and withstood culturally embedded discrimination, but through resilience, hard work and determination have managed to reach to the top.

Alpha females could utilise their softer skills to become better leaders than alpha males. However, as Yeung has also discovered in her research, when some of female leaders reach a position of power and authority they may actually restrain other women from gaining the leadership role in order to protect their own status, rather than helping other women break through the ‘glass ceiling’.

This phenomenon is known as the ‘Queen Bee Syndrome’. Driven by a need to control, Alpha female leaders may undermine other women to protect their own power. ‘Queen Bee’ leaders may even seek out weaker same-gender employees and bully them. As Namie & Namie (2000) observed, these tendencies may be more prominent in male-dominated organisations, where female leaders are encouraged to maintain the culture that enabled their individual success.

Consequently, they may preclude other females from helping each other and breaking the existing ‘glass ceiling’.

How can coaching help alpha females become true champions?
Irrespective of gender, the use of 360-degree feedback is generally a good coaching tool to help alpha leaders become aware of others’ perspectives and their impact upon others. Results from 360-degree feedback provide a start point for the coaching dialogue.

To ensure that alpha female leaders understand their championship role and responsibility in matters of equality and diversity, important in both business sustainability and succession planning, coaches need to help them align their personal values with global ones.

Cultural Social Intelligence (CSI), the online tool developed by the author and his colleagues Sara Ireland and Zulfi Hussain, contains an element called ‘Championship’, specifically designed to measure leaders’ awareness on these aspects. It also provides a 360-degree feedback mechanism for users to review their self-awareness as well as feedback from others. (See or email the author for information).

Gender inequality and under-representation tend to be prevalent in most organisations, particularly at board room level. The resulting tensions in the perspectives and experiences of alpha female leaders should be openly discussed in a safe coaching environment.

To enable alpha female leaders to engage with the wider agenda and their corporate social responsibility, important in today’s economic climate, coaches need to inspire coachees, engaging them in re-visioning and re-appraisal exercises.

These not only raise awareness of their roles, but also re-evaluate what is truly at stake. In doing so, coaches need to help coachees to re-energise their new aspirations and address their inner fears.

For instance, when providing the coachee with feedback from her subordinates, the coach may need to explore her underlying fear about the corresponding criticisms. Bearing in mind that the coachee’s own achievements may already have been achieved against a constant backdrop of critical evaluation, negative feedback may be misinterpreted as undermining her authority and perceived as a threat.

The coach may need to focus the feedback on the positive strengths of the coachee. Key dialogues might include a leadership challenge such as:
OK, we know that you are already very good at these areas. How could you use your own skills and experience to empower others who have not yet benefited from that journey?
How could you, as a minority leader, help shape the culture of the organisation?
How do you address the potential problem of bullying at work?

In the last question, for instance, a probing question like “have you been bullied yourself?” might be painfully unwelcome. Instead of asking direct questions which may prove tactless in a coaching conversation, the coach may use a narrative approach (such as ‘re-membering’) to invite the coachee to tell her own story about her experience (for more information on narrative techniques, see Law et al, 2007).

Listening carefully and reading between the lines of those stories, the coach actively identifies the hidden strengths exhibited by the alpha female battling her way through the organisational matrix, such as struggling for power, etc.
- Do these strengths set a great role model to other women?
- Do you regard the person in your story as a role model for the others
- What would the others think about you if they were here listening to this story now?

By bringing positive values and re-authoring stories of new possibilities, the coachee may become overwhelmed with emotions. These emotions represent a self-awakening of new hopes and dreams, and are to be welcomed.

As Yeung points out, alpha females are unique individuals with exceptional qualities who could prove to be inspirational leaders.

Coaching could enable them to achieve the highest potential and empower others (both male and female) to collectively develop their leadership skills and career paths.

Dr Ho Law is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Chartered Scientist, Fellow of Royal Society of Medicine, a founding member of Association for Coaching, Society for Coaching Psychology, Special Group in Coaching Psychology (British Psychological Society), and the President of Empsy® Network for coaching ( He is also an international practitioner in psychology, coaching, mentoring and psychotherapy. He is the principal author of ‘The Psychology of Coaching, Mentoring & Learning’ (Wiley, 2007); and a contributor to the Association for Coaching’s Diversity in Coaching, edited by Jonathan Passmore (Kogan Page, 2009). He is the founder director of Empsy® Ltd, and at present a senior lecturer at UEL, Coaching Psychology Unit

Eagly, A. & Karau, S. (2002). Congruity Theory of Prejudice Toward Female Leaders. Psychological Review. 109, 573 -589.
Law, H.C.; Ireland, S. and Hussain, Z. (2007)The Psychology of Coaching, Mentoring & Learning’. Wiley.
Ludeman, K. & Erlandson, E. (2006). Alpha Male Syndrome. Harvard Business Press. Boston. MA.
Namie, G. & Namie, R. (2000). The bully at work. What You can do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job. Sourcebooks Inc: Naperville, IL.


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