Machiavellianism is a strategy of interpersonal conduct whereby others are manipulated and deceived in the pursuit of one’s own interests. In the workplace, people who are high in Machiavellianism (referred to as high Machs) regard coworkers as means toward personal ends. High Machs are characterized by four criteria: lack of interpersonal affect, lack of concern for conventional morality, low ideological commitment, and lack of gross psychopathology. Machiavellianism shares some common features with psychopathy (similar to antisocial personality disorder) but is more situation dependent and lacks the pathological lying and anxiety that are usually associated with psychopathic behavior patterns. Although Machiavellianism is not related to intelligence, it is arguably a component of social intelligence. Machiavellian behaviors tend to be highest in late adolescence and decline with age, suggesting that this interpersonal strategy strikes a balance between “state” and “trait.”
The term itself is a reference to the 16th-century Florentine diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli, who was expelled from office and briefly imprisoned in 1512 when the de Medici family overthrew the regime he had served. Machiavelli felt passionately about Florence, and he desperately wished to restore his political career. In an effort to win favor with the new rulers, he wrote and dedicated to them The Prince, an openly amoral treatise on methods of acquiring and retaining political power. Although Machiavelli was unsuccessful in his own bid to regain political power, The Prince had a lasting impact on political ideology and its relation to morality.
During the late 1960s, a number of pioneering studies conducted by Richard Christie and Florence Geis helped to define and explore the construct. These efforts developed and validated scales used to measure Machiavellianism, namely, the Mach IV and Mach V scales. Early laboratory research established that high Machs outperform low Machs in non-zero-sum games such as the prisoner’s dilemma, in which two players can either “cooperate” or “defect.” Both players gain if each chooses to cooperate, but a player can gain more by defecting when the other player cooperates (the typical strategy adopted by high Machs). High Machs succeed by employing both cooperative and defecting strategies, toggling between them as opportunity arises. Additional research established that high Machs succeed in bargaining or alliance-forming games by taking advantage of opportunities for physical confrontation, lack of formal structure, and emotionally charged situations. These factors—face-to-face interaction, latitude for improvisation, and arousal of irrelevant affect—are recognized as the situational antecedents of Machiavellian behavior.
Machiavellianism is often studied in conjunction with charismatic leadership. Charismatic leaders are characterized by outgoing, dynamic, and persuasive conduct that creates powerful motivational bonds with their followers. Both charismatic leaders and high Machs engage in impression management and regulate their emotions in high-pressure situations. One notable position of leadership that has been examined for Machiavellian behavior is the U.S. presidency. The U.S. president holds a position of tremendous power, requiring leadership and negotiation skills in critical situations that show little semblance of structure. Retrospective research methods have demonstrated that charismatic presidents, such as Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, had greater Machiavellian tendencies than presidents with less charisma, such as William McKinley. These high-Mach leaders were also perceived as more effective presidents.
When opportunities for personal gain emerge, high Machs employ a variety of influence tactics to satisfy their own needs. In competitive group settings, for example, Machiavellian leaders may exhibit prosocial behaviors toward members of their own group and aggressive behaviors toward members of competing groups. When attempting to influence those at higher organizational levels, high Machs may be more likely to use ingratiation than low Machs. To secure the compliance of subordinates, high Machs may threaten the use of exploitive tactics to block employees from accomplishing their own goals. In the absence of situational characteristics such as face-to-face interaction, however, such conduct is less likely to occur.
Assessing the Impact of Machiavellianism in Organizations
Although high-Mach employees may be misperceived as possessing superior intellect by coworkers, consistent relationships between Machiavellianism and job performance have not been demonstrated. Some studies show a positive relationship, some a negative relationship, and still others no relationship at all. Surprisingly few studies in organizational settings, however, have examined the impact of situational moderators on this relationship. For example, jobs with a greater degree of job autonomy or a laissez-faire organizational culture may allow the latitude for improvisation that enables high Machs to outperform low Machs. Indeed, research suggests that high Machs may gain the upper hand in positions marked by social interaction in loosely structured environments, such as stockbroker, politician, or senior executive. Another finding of note is a consistent negative relationship between Machiavellianism and job satisfaction, such that high Machs report low job satisfaction. One explanation for this finding is that many workplaces do not offer—or did not offer in the past—a great deal of autonomy to accomplish work tasks. Thus, high Machs may be frustrated by perceived situational constraints, leading to low satisfaction but otherwise not affecting performance.
In managerial positions, high Machs are likely to use their power to the detriment of others. When subordinates disagree with the decisions of Machiavellian managers, they may be dealt with in harsh or even inhumane ways. Moreover, Machiavellianism may influence more than simply the interpersonal workings of organizations. In addition to their willingness to pursue personal gains at the expense of others, high Machs are willing to engage in ethically questionable behaviors to further the goals of the organization as well. Thus, Machiavellian leaders could conceivably commit transgressions that affect entire organizations or industries. A system of checks and balances, however, can minimize the harm done by aggressors. For example, establishing organizational norms that encourage full disclosure and documentation of work activities should thwart openly Machiavellian conduct.
- Christie, R., & Geis, F. (1970). Studies in Machiavellianism. New York: Academic Press.
- Machiavelli, N. (1513/1966). The prince. New York: Bantam.
- McHoskey, J. W., Worzel, W., & Szyarto, C. (1998). Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 192-210.
- Wilson, D. S., Near, D., & Miller, R. R. (1996). Machiavellianism: A synthesis of the evolutionary and psychological literatures. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 285-299.