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How to Navigate Machiavellianism in the Workplace


Machiavellianism Leadership

“The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present.”

Taken from lessons in history and life experiences, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote these words in The Prince, published over 550 years ago. The message is clear: the end justifies the means. These words might seem harsh, but they are not surprising. They reveal the tension that can exist in business between profit and people. Is cheating to achieve favorable results part of doing business? Should managers exploit others to achieve goals? These are not uncommon leadership dilemmas. And are situations that your company or you might be navigating. For some leaders and in some business situations, the way forward is obvious. However, for those with Machiavellian personality tendencies, the best way forward is more complex. The best place to start is by weighing the good and bad of Machiavellianism in the workplace.





The good and bad of Machiavellianism in the workplace


“The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps and a lion to frighten wolves.” Machiavelli

Machiavellianism refers to a manipulative personality trait. The personality is cunning and calculating, believing that the end justifies the means, regardless of how ruthless or moral.


Psychologists Christie and Geis studied the thought processes and actions behind individuals who manipulated others and were the first to define this personality trait as Machiavellianism. The construct they built was based on personality traits displayed in the characters of Machiavelli’s literary work The Prince.


In this book, Niccolò Machiavelli described how leaders must manipulate and use power through any means necessary to achieve their goals. He presented that people cannot be trusted to do what is needed because they typically lack the experience and motivation or have biases and prejudice toward doing what is needed.


Here is a short video about What “Machiavellian” really means.




Despite the negative connotations of Machiavellian leadership, sometimes its admired, and the presence of this personality trait is found in all kinds of businesses and at all levels.


Interestingly, research into Machiavellianism leadership suggests both highly damaging implications along with some surprisingly positive outcomes for individuals and entire organizations:


  • The Good: Able to retain social control during difficult and chaotic situations, strategic foresight and planning, lower operating costs, high task orientation, not impulsive, gets work done by others, able to be competitive and cooperative.

  • The Bad: Unethical behavior, moral ambiguity, lying, revenge, threats, fraud, cheating, emotional abuse, lack of trust in others, excessive politics, theft, and paying for kickbacks.


Although research reveals some good business outcomes of Machiavellian leadership, an overwhelming number of studies demonstrate this kind of manipulative leadership hurts leadership performance. The impacts of lower-quality leader-follower relationships negatively influence performance, company culture, and results.





Do you have Machiavellian tendencies?


Extreme levels of Machiavellianism, fortunately, are rare in the workplace. However, the flip side is that we all likely have some degree of Machiavellianism in our personality.


The Mach-IV is a 20-question inventory that assesses your Machiavellianism tendencies. This site provides your Machiavellian score and a graph showing how you compare to others taking the assessment.




The higher your score on the Mach-IV, the more Machiavellianism. If you score 60 out of 100 or higher on the MACH-IV, you are considered a “high-Mach.” If you score below 60 out of 100, you are considered a “low-mach.”

  • High Mach tendencies: Business goal-oriented and calculated when interacting with others. Taken to the extreme, they are highly focused on winning and willing to use any and all means possible.

  • Low Mach tendencies: Believe everyone has a good and bad side. They tend to be more people-oriented and empathic in their interaction with others. Taken to the extreme, "low-Machs" can be passive, highly agreeable, and socially inept.





What to do when you find Machiavellianism in the workplace?

“There is no other way to guard yourself against flattery than by making men understand that telling you the truth will not offend you” Machiavelli, The Prince

Can you change your personality? Or is it true what Yoda told Luke that if you start down the dark path, it forever will dominate your destiny?




Luckily, there is hope. The Big Five personality traits serve as the building blocks of personality. They are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Research into these personality traits suggests it is possible to make changes through persistent interventions.



There is no single right way to change your personality. Our behaviors are constantly evolving, from situation to situation and moment to moment. The following are six proven suggestions to counter Machiavellian behaviors in the workplace.


Machiavellian Countermeasure #1: Executive Assessments

The higher you move within an organization, the less objective the feedback you tend to receive; however, it becomes more critical personally and professionally. Executive assessments can provide deep insights into areas that, with attention, lead to enhanced potential. When selecting an assessment, its helpful to use a qualified executive coach to help interpret and apply the learnings.


Machiavellian Countermeasure #2: Executive Coaching

There are many benefits of executive coaching. 80% of people who receive coaching report increased self-confidence. Over 70% benefit from improved work performance, relationships, and more effective communication skills. 86% of companies report recouping their investment in coaching and more.


Machiavellian Countermeasure #3: Leadership Style

Research suggests that ethical leadership is a potential remedy for undesirable behaviors associated with Machiavellianism. Ethics include what is good and bad, along with moral duty and obligation. One of the ten characteristics of a Servant Leadership style is influence versus positional power. Organizations can benefit from adopting a servant leadership style.


Here is a free Servant Leadership Style Checker to find out if you have a Servant Leadership style.





Machiavellian Countermeasure #4: Reward and Recognition Systems

Machiavellians are concerned with impression management. It can be both a conscious or subconscious process in which they attempt to influence the perceptions of others. Tightly aligning your company's reward and recognition systems with desired behaviors makes them more appealing and encourages team cohesion.


Machiavellian Countermeasure #5: Training and Development

Bringing out the best in all personality types includes training and development. Evidence suggests that development at critical career transition points is effective for influencing Machiavellian personality types. Investing in developing appropriate work expectations and behaviors helps organizations avoid costly mistakes.


Machiavellian Countermeasure #6: Therapy

For anyone concerned about having a significantly "high-Mach" personality or involved in their life, it is best to contact a mental health professional to get help with adequate coping mechanisms. There are a variety of therapies that can be helpful for people with the Machiavellian personality traits.


So, what is your real leadership challenge?




References:

Christie, R., & Geis, F. (1970). Studies in Machiavellianism. Academic Press.


Kumar, D. (2019). Good, bad, ugly: Exploring the Machiavellian power dynamics of leadership in medical education. Journal of advances in medical education & professionalism, 7(1), 42–46.


Page, N., Bergner, S., & Wills, S. (2017). Who empathizes with Machiavellian or Narcissistic leaders? Harvard Business Review.


Rehman, U., & Shahnawaz, M. (2021). Machiavellianism and task-orientated leadership: the moderating effect of job autonomy. Leadersh Educ Personal Interdiscip J 3, 79–85.


Van Dierendonck, D., & Patterson, K. (2015). Compassionate love as a cornerstone of servant leadership: An integration of previous theorizing and research. Journal of Business Ethics, 128(1), 119-131.

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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