What Happens When The Alpha Goes On Leave?


A number of years ago when I was a HR director I was absent from the office for several weeks. When I returned a few of the team complained about the behaviour of one of their colleagues while I was absent. This team member had thrown his weight around while I was away and had seemed to enjoy the power he wielded.

What happens to a group if the alpha goes on leave? It doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference whether the group is human or monkey. Depending on how long the alpha is away, the group tends to experience an increase in deviant behaviour by some group members that were contained while the alpha was present. 


Dominance Hierarchies  

For social species, dominance relationships emerge when two or more adults of the same sex are members of a group.  One researcher has investigated vervet monkeys, indigenous to Ethiopia and Kenya and nearby countries. Vervets have distinct male and female hierarchies and the two hierarchies operate quite differently. The male hierarchy is a simple binary hierarchy; one male is dominant to another. The female hierarchy is more complex – it is linear (with all adult females in a line of dominance) and females at all status levels are usually members of a coalition. In a vervet troop there is always a single dominant male – the alpha. If you were observing vervet monkeys you would readily spot the alpha. He’s the one with more erect body posture, elevated tail, priority access to environmental resources, priority access to females, demonstrable patrolling behaviour and vigorous defence of group members who are in distress. 

In the wild, non-dominant males spend substantial time away from the alpha. As you would presume from behaviour you might have observed in your workplace, when non-dominant individuals are far away from the dominant individual, they often engage in behaviours rarely observed in the presence of the alpha. For example, they assume dominant-like postures. Researchers postulate that the regularity of this pattern suggests that non-dominant males avoid the alpha so that they can engage in behaviours normally “inhibited” in his presence. This certainly seemed to be the case with my HR colleague when my back was turned! 

Withdraw the Alpha 

One way of investigating dynamics of the dominance hierarchy is to withdraw the dominant male from a captive group – we are still talking about monkeys. When this occurs, within a day the remaining males will begin to show signs of behaving like the dominant male and will begin to compete amongst themselves for the dominant position. Within 48 hours it is apparently, to the skilled observer, quite clear who among the competing males will become the replacement alpha. Because of the speed in which dominance behaviours appear it is believed that these behaviours are not suddenly learned, but rather they were already known to the individuals now displaying them and they were otherwise inhibited from doing so by the presence of the alpha. Now the alpha is on leave they are no longer inhibited. 


Period of Absence  

How long can the alpha be on leave and still retain his position when he returns? If the dominant animal is returned to the group within two weeks the interim dominant male will not seriously contest his return and the original alpha will retain his positon. However, if the removed alpha is absent for 6-8 weeks, the interim alpha almost always contests the returned leader. Approximately 80% of the time the returning alpha retains his dominant position if he returns within 8 weeks. However, if the absent alpha returns after an absence of 12 or more weeks then he rarely regains his top position. According to the author of the study I am referring to here, one of the explanations for this pattern of a period of absence is that maintenance of a high status position requires an animal to engage in certain behaviours with specific other animals. 


Change in Hospital Chiefs

We can easily jump from captive vervets to humans in workplaces. In another study, researchers looked at leadership changes in a psychiatric hospital and the impact on the behaviour of patients and staff. It’s an intriguing study as there was a comparison group – two wards where the alpha changed compared with two wards where there was no change in leader. They studied the four wards in two phases. The first phase in Months 1 and 2, before any change in leader, involved careful study of the behaviour of staff and patients. A 4-month period then elapsed where there were no observations. In the middle of this period the chief physician (the alpha) changed on two of the four wards. Then the observational studies conducted during Months 1 and 2 were repeated in Months 7 and 8 (phase 2).

In the two wards where the alpha changed there were significant changes in behaviour. There was a decrease in social behaviour amongst patients between phase 1 and 2, there was less involvement in social activities, deviant behaviour increased, the staff spent significantly less time with patients and staff were noticeably preoccupied with their new chiefs (measured by frequency of verbal references to their new leaders). The researchers interpreted the decreased social behaviour of patients as being a result of staff attention moving away from patients to their new chiefs. Asocial behaviour that had up until now been inhibited was no longer  inhibited. There were no changes in behavior in the two wards that had not experienced a change of leader.   

(Reference: Michael T. McGuire, “Social Dominance Relationships in Male Vervet Monkeys – A Possible Model for the Study of Dominance Relationships in Human Political Systems" in International Political Science Review, Vol 3, No 1, 1982 11-32)

Implications for Workplaces

While leaders of vervet monkeys have an unrelenting contest to retain their position, leaders in workplaces are appointed to their role so a battle of wills to retain their role is much less likely. Nevertheless, there are implications for leaders, for HR/OD professionals influencing leadership appointments and for people who coach leaders:

  • A powerful and present leader inhibits asocial or deviant behaviour.
  • Leaders, new and existing, need to use ways to assert themselves appropriately. Constructive ways which give signals of your leadership position and power include convening annual planning meetings, holding regular team meetings, holding divisional briefings and conducting regular individual reviews.
  • When the leader of a team or unit changes, bring the new leader in quickly so there is a minimal gap between the leaders being in place. 
  • Be clear in the communication of the new leader so they have immediate authority.
  • If you are the new leader, accept that there might be displays against you. Take on any such contests quickly and assertively….and win them.
  • Don’t let a weakened alpha exist for too long – deviant behaviour from competing individuals will likely increase and the group will likely become increasingly dysfunctional.
  • Take care who you appoint as your delegate when you are on leave – be conscious that who you appoint is a power signal. In some circumstances it’s best to rotate your delegation and in other circumstances, say if you are grooming someone to take over from you, it is appropriate to have them as your delegate quite often. 


Andrew O'Keeffe


Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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