Thought Leadership


Selling safety to alpha dogs

June 21, 2012
KEYWORDS alpha / behave / manage / safety
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In last week’s post I talked a bit about dealing with Senior Executives who are alpha dogs. First, for those of you who don’t understand the reference, an “alpha dog” is the leader of a pack of dogs. Dogs, like wolves, are pack animals (as in they live in the wild in packs, not as in you should load them up with packs of prospecting equipment like you would a “pack mule”) and dogs have a deep need establish and maintain a pecking order. At the top of this hierarchy is the “alpha” dog; the one dog who exerts its power through physical force and intimidation.

When we describe people as “alpha dogs” we are typically talking about people who are domineering, bullying, and in general like to get their way by reminding everyone else of the power they wield. For good or for ill, many senior executives are alpha dogs. They yell and behave badly in meetings, threaten to fire people, and mess with people just to show they can. Alpha dogs are always (in their minds) the smartest people in the room; they seldom believe that they can do wrong and their ideas are always the best.

Trying to convince an alpha dog that the organization needs to support safety can be hell. What’s worse, the safety professional’s mishandling of the initial meeting can imprint a pattern that can create a lasting impression of Safety on the alpha dog. So how should one broach the subject of safety with an alpha dog? Here are a couple things I’ve learned about dealing with alpha dogs;

  • Be Confident. A successful alpha dog can virtually smell fear and has trained him/herself to quickly identify weakness. An indecisive and timid Safety professional can trigger the alpha dog’s predator instincts and invite attacks. Since the alpha dog cannot attack you physically he or she will most likely shift his or her hostility to your ideas.
  • Don’t Be Cocky. Alpha dogs tend to see cockiness as a challenge to their dominance and may deliberately put you in your place.  That’s not to say you should be sucking up to them, however, as alpha dogs may interpret that as a sign of weakness.  State your case in a confident, but not overly aggressive, manner.
  • Don’t Try To Scare them. Alpha dogs pride themselves on being fearless creatures, and have nothing but contempt for the simpering fools who come in with horror stories. Threatening the alpha dogs with government fines, whistleblowers, or bad press will fail on two levels:
  1.  the alpha dog will view you with contempt for your cowardice and
  2.  the alpha dog will often invite the attack just to prove his or her bravery and power.
  • Talk In Terms of Risk. In last week’s post I used the example where one would say “we have to correct this problem because if we don’t OSHA will shut us down” say, “that’s certainly a plan that I can execute, but how do we manage the risk of an OSHA inspection that will shut us down” and “how do we manage the risk of a whistle blower going to the media or OSHA.” This was poorly phrased, a better example would be, “we have to do this training because it is a legal requirement” one should say, “how do we manage the risks of being noncompliant with the law. What this does is plant the seed of doubt in the mind of the alpha dog without directly challenging his or her power and authority. It puts you on the same side instead of at dangerous logger heads.
  • Find A Way To Say Yes. Alpha dogs tend to be an impatient lot, and bogging things down with this warning or that consideration make them hot-headed and behave rashly. Instead of positioning safety as slowing things down and making them more safe talk about how doing things safely has helped avoid costly work stoppages or down time.
  • Let them Take the Credit. Letting the alpha dog claim credit for your work is a bitter pill for most Safety professionals to swallow, but let me ask you this: would you prefer to take credit or be successful? Nobody believes the alpha dog suddenly got smarter because you started working for him or her. Furthermore, letting the alpha dog take credit for your hard work makes you more valuable to him or her and to the organization; success is borne of hard work and ideas, not of accolades and exposure.

Working with alpha dogs may never be easy, but alpha dogs also tend to be loyal to those who serve them well. It may be torturous to endure working for an alpha dog, but if you can endure, you will be well rewarded.

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