How to Navigate Machiavellianism in the Workplace
“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 are not surprising. They reveal a tension that can exist in business between profit and people. It’s not an uncommon dilemma. And it’s one that your company or you might be navigating. For some leaders and in some businesses, 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 leadership in the workplace.
What is Machiavellianism?
“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, holding a belief that the end justifies the means, regardless of how ruthless or moral.
Psychologists Christie and Geis studied the thought processes and actions behind individuals that 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 for learning more about What “Machiavellian” really means.
The good and bad of Machiavellianism in the workplace
Is cheating to achieve favorable results part of doing business? Should managers exploit others to achieve goals? 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 you with 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. 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 personality. Our behaviors are constantly changing, from situation to situation and moment to moment. The following are proven suggestions to counter Machiavellian leadership behaviors in the workplace.
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, it is vital to use a qualified executive coach to help interpret and apply the learnings.
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 that they recouped their investment in coaching and more.
Leadership Style: Research suggests that ethical leadership is a potential remedy for the undesirable behavior of Machiavellianism. Ethics include dealing with what is good and bad with moral duty and obligation. One of the ten characteristics of a Servant Leadership style is persuasion over positional power. Adopt servant leadership as the company-wide leadership style. Have you ever wondered if you are a servant leader? You can take this free Servant Leadership Style Checker to get your Servant Leadership Style Score.
Reward and Recognition Systems: Machiavellians are concerned with impression management. Tightly aligning reward and recognition systems with desired behaviors will make them more appealing and encourage their behavior toward team cohesion.
Training and Development: Bringing out the best in all personality types includes training and development. Research demonstrates that investments into development at critical career transition points are effective for influencing personality types. Helping individuals understand appropriate work expectations and behaviors can help organizations avoid costly mistakes.
Therapy: For anyone concerned about having an extremely "high-Mach" personality, it is best to reach out to a mental health professional to help you develop adequate coping mechanisms.
So, what is your real leadership challenge?
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: 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.