Brain power

The risks of collaborating with a Machiavellian partner

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

As INSEAD’s Nathan Furr argues in his recent book The Upside of Uncertainty1, one of the key differences between the startup ecosystems of Boston and Silicon Valley was the greater willingness for entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley to share knowledge and collaborate with one another.

Generally such openness is crucial to any successful alliance, but research2 from the University of Leeds highlights that sometimes alliances are more Machiavellian in nature.

“Machiavellianism in an alliance is a firm’s strategy of social conduct that involves manipulation of the partner for its own gain, often against its best interests. Our interviews with executives confirm that Machiavellianism resonates strongly in the marketing alliance context,” the researchers say.

Masters of manipulation

Indeed, one CEO remarked to the researchers that they very much see alliances as a way to gain from the partner and its skills. The researchers explain that at a firm level, Machiavellianism is not really a fixed disposition but tends to depend instead vary depending on the unique settings of each partnership.

The study found that Machiavellianism can harm the performance of a partnership in a number of ways, whether by weakening the desire to share knowledge with each other or via misuse of power to dominate the agenda of the partnership.

The key to whether Machiavellianism drives learning anxiety or collaboration is the collaborative history of the partnership. Given the right collaborative history, the researchers believe moderating conditions can be introduced to neutralize the negative effects of Machiavellianism.

“Performance outcomes of learning are contingent on the alliance development stage,” they explain. “We observe an inverted U-shaped moderation at the alliance development stage on the paths from collaborative learning and learning anxiety to performance. Once an alliance partnership is past its peak, opportunities fade for both learning-related mechanisms.”

Misuse of power

It’s important to note that abuses of power are particularly problematic in a partnership because it is capable of over-riding any neutralizing effect of the collaborative history, so should be a key concern for alliance managers.

“Machiavellian firms’ preoccupation with dark-side learning anxiety and use of power could preclude a focus on collaborative learning, to the detriment of performance. Still, it is important that managers factor into their planning the conditioning effects of alliance situational factors like collaborative history,” the authors continue.

It can be crucial to successfully spot a Machiavellian partner as early as possible, but this is not always easy as many such partners are extremely good at hiding behind an illusion of cooperation. Nonetheless, the researchers believe characteristics such as calculative adaptations, authoritative work patterns, and hyper-vigilance are often giveaways of a Machiavellian partner.

Article source: The Risks Of Collaborating With A Machiavellian Partner.

Header image source: Alex Yomare on Pixabay.


  1. Furr, N. & Furr, S.H. (2022). The Upside of Uncertainty: A Guide to Finding Possibility in the Unknown. Harvard Business Press.
  2. Musarra, G., Robson, M. J., & Katsikeas, C. S. (2022). Machiavellianism in alliance partnerships. Journal of Marketing, June 2022.
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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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