Brain powerSystems & complexity

How Machiavellians affect organisations

Machivelli’s The Prince described techniques for managing all organisations of “supreme political power”. The treatise’s highly utilitarian approach to success led to the coining of the term Machiavellian, a personal style of operations with “a cynical disregard for morality and a focus on self-interest and personal gain”. Jeffrey Braithwaite has a great piece summing up recent research into the traits and effects of Machiavellianism in organisations:

[People] aren’t either Machiavellian or not. Instead, there are gradients of more or less Machiavellian tendencies …

High Machs tend to be manipulative, selfish, and deceitful, and to act tactically in favor of their own interests. They are relatively detached from others, and calculating about relationships. They have been labelled as having the “cool syndrome”. Unlike psychopaths, however, who have a clinical condition, they understand the difference between right and wrong, and can accept responsibility and the consequences of their actions …

High Machs as employees tended to make less positive contributions to the organizational culture, and had the potential to inflict greater levels of harm in the organization than their Low Mach counterparts. In a sense, High Machs had less of a psychological contract—they were less cognitively signed up to the organization’s aims, mission and purpose. Low Machs were much more so. Another way of describing this is that High Machs were poorer organizational citizens than their Low Mach colleagues.

High Machs are normal. They just manipulate more readily, and are more exploitative, than most others … They will bend the rules in their favor, confess less than others when found out, lie more plausibly than most, and find ways to manipulate others in novel and unexpected ways.

Source: The psychology of Machiavellians in the 21st Century — Jeffrey Braithwaite

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Stephen Bounds

Stephen Bounds is an Information and Knowledge Management Specialist with a wide range of experience across the government and private sectors. As founding editor of RealKM and Executive, Information Management at Cordelta, Stephen provides clear strategic thinking along with a hands-on approach to help organisations successfully develop and implement modern information systems.

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  1. It’s not entirely clear to me how classifying people as “high Machs” helps us understand how to deal with the underlying issue. Clearly the triumph of self interest over communal good can be destructive, but our systems and culture usually incentivize self interested behavior. We have many rules (financial, etc.) designed to curb such behavior but every day’s news brings additional proof that they are insufficient to stem the tide of our greed and willingness to cut corners.

  2. Great question Neil. I don’t think the research indicates a solution but by being aware of the tendency we can design systems that counter the potential for misbehaviour.

    For example, in my experience high Machs will fight transparent decision-making with every trick in the book. Why? Because if decisions are transparent then everyone can see where one has been made with self-interest in mind, and when it has been made to benefit the group.

    Low Machs, who tend towards empathy and group decision-making naturally, have a self-interest to institute this kind of transparent environment — but the High Machs will try to destroy it.

    Based on nothing but anecdotal experience, High Machs will steer organisations away from transparency claiming that it “slows down decision making” and “they don’t have time to tell people about everything they do”. But the rationale is entirely self-interested. As soon as they can make decisions in private, a world of insider privilege and preferment is opened up to their manipulative tendencies.

  3. Thanks Neil for your great comment – I’m very pleased to announce you as the winner of the first week of the RealKM Promotional Giveaways!

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