Leveraging Machiavellianism

Machiavellians are more willing to take risks and challenge norms than other employees, which tends to lead to new ideas and innovations, as well as helping to identify workplace problems overlooked by managers.

A snake may shed its skin, but not its disposition. Machiavellianism is a distinctive trait in how it’s able to quickly adapt to stay hidden, as its power is dependent on its ability to remain undetected. One classic example of the utility of such manipulative tactics is the 8th century tale of Dame Carcas when the city of Carcassonne was under siege from Emperor Charlemagne. In the sixth year of the siege, the city was rapidly running out of resources and famine ran rampant among the inhabitants. In an act of desperation, Dame Carcas ordered the last pig in the city to be force fed grain and thrown from the city walls, where it burst upon impact at the feet of the opposing army. After witnessing such excessive waste, Charlemagne ordered an immediate end to the siege and withdrew his troops, convinced that the city’s food supply would never end. Even in current workplaces, everyone most likely has witnessed some form of Machiavellian manipulation or perhaps even used it themselves—whether that be an overly chummy employee looking for a promotion or a co-worker throwing someone else under the bus in order to avoid punishment.

On a large or small scale, Machiavellianism is a potentially dangerous variable in any equation, but what exactly does Machiavellianism look like in organizations? Within the last few years, researchers have created a model, consisting of three primary factors, for what Machiavellianism looks like specifically in an organizational setting:

  • Maintaining power
  • Harsh management tactics
  • Manipulative behaviors

Machiavellians get a lot of harsh criticism in the public eye and for legitimate reasons. Some research has linked Machiavellianism to negative outcomes such as poor performance, counterproductive work behavior, and even workplace bullying, but this trait shouldn’t be the sole defining feature of any individual. It’s measured on a scale so even the cute little Girl Scouts from whom you buy cookies every year probably have at least a little Machiavellianism under those badge-riddled sashes. Isn’t using irresistible adorableness to sell cookies a bit manipulative?

Let the Inner Lion Out

So if Machiavellianism isn’t quite always as bad as it’s made out to be and it’s virtually unavoidable, how can individuals who use it be leveraged effectively and responsibly?

Machiavellians are your people who are going to do whatever it takes to get the job done when the situation is sticky and the options are running out. Machiavellians typically aren’t going to be your best performers since they tend to be less productive and indulge in more mischievous behaviors, but when given the opportunity to let out their inner lion, they shine. These individuals’ strengths are their competitive edge and manipulative nature, but to fully utilize their abilities, Machiavellians need to be in situations where those strengths are able to emerge as beneficial components to their overall strategy. Look for work environments within the organization that require improvisation with scarce time or resources. What positions involve direct interaction with potential customers, in which a Machiavellian’s ability to make a sale has a significant and immediate personal impact? Alternatively, they’d be right at home in a direct competition against other rival companies where the stakes are high and cunning has the potential to be an advantageous weapon. If you put a Machiavellian against another salesman in an arena with a potential customer and a broken pool stick, you can bet on who is going to walk out of there with the sale.

Meld Egocentric Nature with the Machiavellian’s Workplace Image

One important thing to remember about Machiavellians is that their top priority almost always tends to be the person staring back at them in the mirror. Such a mentality could be detrimental to an organization, but one way to turn the tides is through strengthening the link between a Machiavellian’s personal identity and his or her work identity. Machiavellians want to feel good about themselves just like the rest of us, but their questionable work ethic and wavering loyalty are due to the fact that they only care about themselves, leaving sparse room in their hearts for the well-being of your organization.

But if an organization is able to meld a Machiavellian’s egocentric nature with his or her workplace image, then it completely changes the game. They still mainly care about themselves, but now they see the success of the organization as an extension of their own. Providing regular feedback has been suggested to have a significant increase on employees’ mental identification with their work. Set up bi-weekly, monthly, or quarterly one-on-one meetings with Machiavellians where you can discuss their development, the things they’ve done well for which they are appreciated, and some potential areas for change that could unlock even greater potential. Provide feedback that doesn’t impose on their autonomy. Instead of critiquing their decisions, walk with them through their decision-making process and provide insight to help them expand on their own problem-solving abilities.

Context Matters

If it’s not yet clear by now, the work behavior of Machiavellians is highly dependent on context. This next idea for leveraging Machiavellians may seem counterintuitive and potentially even risky, but it has been supported by research. A leader with an exemplary work ethic, the ability to inspire employees, a genuine concern for employees, and a tendency to challenge subordinates to be innovative and creative provides a positive role model for all workplace employees. This leadership style is nothing new (it’s referred to as transformational leadership in the research literature) and can provide a multitude of organizational benefits, but it’s especially interesting when it’s applied to Machiavellians. Transformational leaders who provide Machiavellians with the ability to work independently of supervisors, let them set their own schedules, and create their own means of achieving goals should see an increase in internal motivation and a fostered sense of personal responsibility, leading to better performance and rigorous self-determination.

Additionally, such accountability and autonomy compose an environment in which Machiavellians are more willing to take risks and challenge norms than other employees, which tends to lead to new ideas and innovations, as well as helping to identify workplace problems overlooked by managers. Such healthy forms of conflict can have a number of organizational benefits, and individuals in an organization who are able to effectively challenge the status quo are rare. So go on now, manipulate the manipulators. And may the best mind win.           

Justin Cospito is a Ph.D. student in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Seattle Pacific University. He can be reached via e-mail at: Cospitoj@spu.edu


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