For the Good of the Organization You Need to Be a Little Machiavellian

In our workplaces, as in society at large, we try hard to create open, transparent, meritocratic structures. Our increasing success can blind us to some nagging obstacles. We can persuade ourselves that we are creating new utopias: workplaces in which we are all equal before the common task. But we may be forgetting our deep history.

As a species, we are very good at sociability but demonstrably bad at egalitarianism. Create a new community out on the prairie and pretty soon someone will have a better house than everyone else and start putting on airs and graces and standing for election.

Social climbing is in our genes; it’s what we do.

Machiavellian intelligence

In the 1980’s, primatologists identified what were then seen as surprising levels of “political” behaviors in monkeys and apes living in large social groups. The primates use sophisticated social manoeuvres (and less sophisticated outbursts of minor violence) to establish and maintain their precise position in the social hierarchy. The scientists said that the primates were displaying Machiavellian Intelligence, in honour of the great political theorist of the Italian Renaissance, Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince.

Some primatologists also argued that the advantages of greater sociability were a primary driver for the evolutionary development of larger brains. The primates’ complex social groups are stable, cohesive and capable of well-coordinated action, but it takes a lot of brain power to remember large numbers of faces, the precise positions of individuals in the social hierarchy and exactly who prevailed in the last squabble. These primatologists argue that our own species, Homo sapiens, followed the same evolutionary route: The advantages of living in organized social groups and the need to ‘outwit our clever colleagues’ drove greater brain power to enable an increase in Machiavellian intelligence (MI).

On this analysis, MI is one of our defining characteristics. Wherever there is a hierarchy and significant rewards for gaining more power, people use political stratagems designed to gain favour with (or subvert) the people in power, in order to become more powerful themselves.

Think Game of Thrones. Or Shakespeare’s Richard III. Or any day at Congress. When the stakes are high, Machiavellian behaviors emerge.

Bad Machiavellianism

MI has a bad reputation outside of primatology. In the world of psychology, it is one of the ominously-named “dark triad” of personality disorders, along with narcissism and psychopathy. On this analysis, MI represents cynical, manipulative behavior that benefits the perpetrator and disregards the disastrous effect on all around him.

Well, we’ve all had colleagues like that.

We’ve also learned how destructive such behaviors are and have taken pains to exclude them from our workplaces – with a few notable and headline-winning exceptions, such as Uber.

The good news is that few organizational cultures are rife with bad Machiavellianism, and that society is increasingly taking organizational leaders to task and making them responsible for such toxic organizational cultures.

The more nuanced news is that most of our Machiavellian behaviors are both relatively benign and an inescapable part of human nature. We use them in our most banal social interactions to maintain and enhance our social standing. These Machiavellian behaviors are meat and drink to us as social beings – but some humans are better at them than others.

Benign Machiavellianism: ‘Clever politics’

You could call benign MI “great diplomacy” or “clever politics.”

Do you have any colleagues who are just good at the political game? Who never miss a chance to put their own actions and results in the best possible light; who network well with people in positions of power and forge useful alliances; who make sure they come to the attention of the powers that be; who have the enviable knack of seeming always to be in the right place at the right time?

That’s MI in action.

In our most recent book, Machiavellian Intelligence: How to survive and rise in the modern corporation, we argue that many talented, hard-working executives don’t rise as far in their organizations as they deserve because other colleagues have naturally higher levels of MI.

We advocate that people should adopt more Machiavellian strategies (in the benign sense) to promote their careers because, in our experience, these kinds of behavior are still needed to get to the top of most workplaces. And if people who are not Machiavellian by instinct don’t adopt a few more Machiavellian behaviors to get to the top, then the top will be populated with people with naturally high MI, which is not healthy.

Here are a few tips, drawn from our book, as to the kind of “good” behaviors in the workplace that may not be best-designed to promote your career.

 Three ‘good’ habits that are bad for your career

1. Working too hard

Everyone has to work hard. Working hard is simply a given; we all have to find our own balance. But it is very easy to work so hard doing the job that you fail to find the essential time to promote your career. If working hard is all you do, you can become invisible to senior management and/or begin to be seen as a “safe pair of hands”; someone who is best left in their current role, working hard, as opposed to being someone who is clearly destined for more senior roles.

Step back a bit. Stop doing some things that seem essential but are not actually vital to achieving your key objectives. Delegate more. Decide which meetings are really essential and which are not. Use your (small) new freedoms to choose the things that you devote time to and think:

  • Are they essential to delivering the things that will be seen as success, and
  • Are they things that are most likely to show you in a good light and bring you to the attention of the people who matter?

As a rough guide, you should be spending 20% of your time planning and actively promoting your career. Being seen as the kind of person with clear potential for more senior roles takes time and effort. Do the networking! Make the time!

2. Being too generous

We all have certain assets: knowledge; skills; experience; contacts – people we have access to both inside and outside the organization who can help us make good things happen. In the current, frantic pace of working life (which is unlikely to ease off, ever) it is very easy to “burn off” these resources very quickly.

We download all of our knowledge to our colleagues; we use our skills and experience to come up with several brilliant new ideas in short order and tell everyone about them; we make our network available to everyone and bring people together to achieve exciting new initiatives.

Great. Now what? And how many kudos did we personally gain from all that (praiseworthy) activity?

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Be a bit Machiavellian; use your precious resources carefully over time in ways that have the most impact on your career. Don’t make them available to all and sundry from day one. Offer the knowledge, disseminate the ideas and launch the initiatives that will have the most notable effect at the most significant career moment.

3. Sticking things out

Hard-working, conscientious executives have a tendency to feel that, once they have accepted a certain project, they are honour-bound to see it through to the end – even if that end is bitter.

There is a perfect moment at which the organization feels that the significant gains from any project have effectively been achieved: the project is established and is going along nicely; all those involved deserve praise and potential reward.

Beyond this moment, only one of two things can happen. Either the project carries on smoothly, delivering the hoped-for results, which have now become merely the “new normal”; or the shine comes off and the project begins to look like a failure.

Stay with a project for too long and either you become part of the new normal or part of a potential disaster. There is a moment of maximum leverage at which your involvement with any role portrays you in the perfect light; seize the moment to use that leverage and move up.

It’s OK to be competitive

The workplace is a competitive place. People who want to get to the top will use Machiavellian behaviors to promote their own cause; people who are not naturally Machiavellian are disadvantaged.

We need talented, hard-working people to be a bit more Machiavellian – in the benign, clever politics sense – so that our most senior roles are not all populated with people who are born politicians. Then we can think about creating organizations where Machiavellian behaviors aren’t needed to get to the top in any case. Steep hierarchies of power, command and control management and many other organizational mindsets that are a hangover from our industrial past are well past their sell-by date.

But that’s another story.

Mark Powell

Dr Mark Powell is a business writer, consultant and entrepreneur. He spent 10 years as an Associate Fellow of the Oxford Saïd Business School where he specialized in executive coaching and designing and directing senior executive leadership programmes. Mark read Economics and Management and gained a PhD in Organizational Behaviour, both from the University of Cambridge. As a business and strategy consultant for over 30 years, he has held senior executive and partner roles in a number of large organizations including Accenture, Fujitsu, Aon, KPMG, A.T. Kearney and Capgemini, in addition to running several start-up businesses.

He is the co-author with Jonathan Gifford of My Steam Engine Is Broken: Taking the Organization from the Industrial Age to the Age of Ideas; Perform to Win: Unlocking the Secrets of the Arts for Personal and Business Success; and Machiavellian Intelligence: How to survive and rise in the modern corporation.

Jonathan Gifford
Jonathan Gifford is a business author whose books include "History Lessons: What business and management can learn from the great leaders of history;" "Blindsided: How business and society are shaped by our irrational and unpredictable behavior;" "100 Great Leadership Ideas" and "100 Great Business Leaders." His books have been translated into Chinese, Korean, Thai and Indonesian. Jonathan’s previous career was in newspapers and magazines; he was the launch publisher of BBC History Magazine.