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Championing the beta female

Quiet and uncompetitive, Ellen Tout worried she would need a personality change if she wanted to be successful and not fade into the background – but a new book opened her eyes

by Ellen Tout

Our team is in a meeting at work; everyone is talking at once but I haven’t said a word. Working like this has never felt right for me. I’m not competitive, my default is to avoid confrontation and I’m more productive when I have time to reflect. But I worry: Do they think I don’t understand? Or that I’m daydreaming? Or uninterested?

Author and journalist Rebecca Holman describes people like me as ‘beta’. ‘What people can’t see is that while everyone else is being sucked into a pointless argument, you’re making notes and thinking things through,’ she says. ‘You’re trying to solve the problem. To save time, you’ll probably email your thoughts after the meeting. You may not get credit, but it’s the easiest way to do it.’

This is exactly how I operate, and hearing someone put it into words is refreshing. So is her insistence that betas are as essential to a team as alphas. I’ve often questioned myself and worried whether colleagues overlook me or assume I don’t have anything to contribute. I know that I get the job done, but I’ve felt like I don’t fit in – that I need to be louder and more assertive if I’m going to progress.

Holman believes that we are sold a ‘one-dimensional’ image of success. Think of any film or book, she says, and it’s likely that the powerful women are represented as loud, confident, alpha leads, while the beta characters are often timid, fleeting and on the sidelines. I can see I’ve bought into this, even to the point of trying to change who I am. But surely this is restrictive to alphas and betas?

Holman suggests that we’re actually all on a spectrum, with each of us sharing different alpha and beta qualities, which adapt to suit our environment. Now an editor, Holman, like me, doubted her ability to manage a team or be taken seriously. It wasn’t until she embraced her beta qualities – empathy, adaptability, listening, pragmatism and teamwork – that she realised their value in achieving authentic success.

Quiet girls can run the world

The subtitle of Holman’s book Beta (Hodder, £18.99) reads: Quiet Girls Can Run The World. She believes that while an alpha can inspire others, betas are quietly leading from behind, not making a fuss and calmly getting things done. ‘We’re taught that success is a personality type, not a mark of our achievement,’ she says. ‘It’s not about changing who we are to fit in better; it’s about making better use of the tools we already have at our disposal.’

She explains that modern workplaces need our skills. A report by the World Economic Forum found that emotional intelligence has become one of the most desirable traits in an employee, along with persuasion and the ability to teach others – all strong beta qualities. By nurturing, rather than doubting, these ‘soft’ skills, we can make the most of being beta. For example, by reflecting and giving honest, well-thought-out feedback, betas can build trust and help others shine, too. Betas’ ability for observation and introspection can be invaluable for sparking creativity and ideas, in ourselves and in a team. The more you practise these skills, the more comfortable you’ll feel.

As a beta, I’m often labelled quiet or shy. I’m great one-to-one but, in meetings or presentations, I can leave feeling hopeless. I’d always assumed that the people who talk the most must feel confident and I envied them a little, but Holman questions this, saying: ‘We mistake the volume of someone’s voice, and the frequency with which they speak up, as competence.’

Maybe more people share my self-doubt? I realise that while betas worry and internalise their thoughts, alphas might cover up their insecurity by talking a lot.

Holman explains how betas can take criticism to heart. ‘While an alpha may confront criticism, a beta may internalise it, and start to believe it,’ she says. I do have a habit of latching onto comments and overthinking them and, especially if I’m nervous or put on the spot, I struggle to question feedback or explain my thoughts. By being aware of this, I find I’m able to listen to what’s being said, and remind myself to think laterally about it.

Digital identities

The alpha-beta dynamic feels enhanced by social media. There’s an unwritten pressure to be out there, and often our ‘world champions are shouting the loudest both in real life and online’. Holman says: ‘You’re expected to project a version of yourself to other people for scrutiny, judgement and approval.’ But, she believes, ‘The only authenticity you can get from someone’s social media output is how much time and energy they’re willing to put into curating it.’ She advises focusing on what real, rather than assumed, success looks like.

Holman suggests reframing personal qualities as strengths. So, although I feel uncomfortable in the limelight, I know I’m better at absorbing the problem fully before taking time to think and do research ahead of offering a considered suggestion. When alpha colleagues are discussing ideas, that’s my time to listen and decide what I can offer. Holman says this makes betas ‘natural conflict negotiators’. ‘When I’m in a roomful of alpha women, I’m more about managing their agendas than pushing mine.’ And that’s a crucial role in balancing the dynamic of a team.

Holman stresses that because we are easy to work with, exible and proactive, colleagues appreciate betas. ‘They are more likely to do me a favour if I ask,’ she says, ‘so, my agenda still gets pushed, just in a more roundabout way.’ When I think about it, I realise long-term colleagues rate my work and take the time to tell me.

Alpha and beta strengths

Understanding what motivates you and your alpha co-workers means you can collaborate and maximise the benefits of your differing approaches. If you always avoid confrontation, say, an alpha may perceive this as being uncommunicative. ‘I embrace the beta characteristics that make me good at my job, but I keep an eye on ones that are less helpful,’ she says.

It’s a relief to feel I don’t have to change to achieve my goals. ‘Alpha or beta, the only way we stop feeling like impostors is if we start being honest about who we are, rather than trying be a one-size-fits-all template of a working woman.’

Of course, it’s beneficial to push myself beyond my comfort zone, in networking, for example, but without losing sight of my needs and the advantages of my natural way. Holman suggests tackling manageable mini-challenges every few months. ‘I try new things; do things that are hard, then ease off. I learn from these, but am not constantly in a state of stress.’

I now also appreciate my alpha colleagues more – and the concept of a dynamic workplace where we can all ourish. Alpha, beta, or somewhere in between, real success is about finding our own authentic way. After all, without the betas quietly questioning the norms, uniting teams and leading others with empathy, where would we all be?

Image: istock

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