Machiavellianism – the most toxic of the three threats to a business?

“It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.”

So said the Italian Renaissance diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli, whose activities have bequeathed us the term Machiavellianism.

Machiavellian puppet master bossIn a business context, this final personality type of the Dark Triad behaviours (with psychopathy and narcissism) is potentially the most dangerous of the three, not least because it is often widely admired and promoted as a recipe for professional and business success.

However, that success is only at the personal level. It can be lethal for the organisation to which the Machiavellian belongs, especially if they are in a leadership position, as they often are.

It is the most difficult to detect and it involves cynicism, deceit and duplicity.

How to recognise Machiavellianism

Characterized by a duplicitous interpersonal style, a cynical disregard for morality, and a focus on self-interest and personal gain the extreme Machiavellian is likely to be an aloof, sarcastic bully, slyly manipulating a given situation to their own advantage.

They will pick their time and the situation carefully to suit their aims, generally to maintain power. While they may show a superficial charm, they operate on the principle that the end justifies the means.

As ever, with the Dark Triad behaviours, however, there is a continuum, where at the moderate end of the scale such behaviour can be positive but taken to extremes its application can damage the people in an organisation and ultimately the organisation itself.

The study and understanding Machiavellianism in business has become a topic of increasing interest.

This may be related to a growing demand for more ethical behaviour in business in the years since the 2008 Financial Crash, but perhaps also in part because of the media focus on the proliferation of employment practices like Zero Hours contracts, greater income inequality and corporate greed.

In the European Journal of Psychology, November 2015, Panagiotis Gkorezis, Eugenia Petridou, and Theodora Krouklidou, shared an article under Creative Commons rules on their study: The Detrimental Effect of Machiavellian Leadership on Employees’ Emotional Exhaustion:

While their results are nuanced and too lengthy to go into here this comment stands out:

“The findings indicated that Machiavellian leaders have a detrimental impact on employees’ organizational cynicism and emotional exhaustion … both outcomes negatively affect core attitudinal and behavioural outcomes such as job satisfaction, organizational commitment, intention to quit and job performance,”

In Why Bad Guys Win at Work, an article in the Harvard Business Review, also in November 2015, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a Professor of Business Psychology at University College London and a faculty member at Columbia University, argues that “Machiavellian tendencies facilitate both the seduction and intimidation tactics that frighten potential competitors and captivate bosses”.

That might sound like a positive for a business but, he says, the individual gains of the Machiavellian perpetrator always come at the expense of the group.

The implications are clear. For businesses that rely on their reputation for ethical and fair behaviour, as most do, or should, the lesson is clear.  In order to survive and prosper as an organisation employ a Machiavellian type at your peril.

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