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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

‘Machiavellianism’ well practiced at office, September 1, 2006, 2D.

For those who have seen Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, you might remember the scene where Viscount Mabrey teaches his nephew, Nicholas Devereaux, how to always hit a bull’s-eye in darts.  The method, which Mabrey shows to Nicholas, is one that he learned from his friend “Niccolo Machiavelli.”  The secret method of hitting a bull’s-eye was to walk to the target with the dart in hand and stick it in the bull’s-eye.  When young Nicholas suggested that such a method was cheating, his uncle wholeheartedly agreed.

For most people, that scene would pass by with little notice or understanding.  However, serious students of organization and management recognize and appreciate the reference.  “Machiavellianism” is a well-studied concept in management research and a seemingly well-practiced (unfortunately) concept in the work place.  

Niccolo Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469, in Florence, Italy.  He wrote a pamphlet (or book) for the ruling Medici family in Florence that outlined ways to gain and hold political power.  In his writing, he expressed views suggesting, “The ends justify the means.”  While it is better to be forthright, honest, and noble, sometimes situations require that power-holders be devious, ruthless, and dishonest to make desirable outcomes arise.  And when rulers must be devious and manipulative, Machiavelli suggested, it is important that their people perceive them as forthright, honest, and noble.

Machiavelli’s ideas gained him notoriety.  Suggesting that rulers (i.e., political, organizational, and other) cheat, manipulate, and act in devious ways for personal gain is appalling to us today and it was also appalling to Machiavelli’s contemporaries (at least they gave the public impression that the ideas were appalling). 

Contemporary researchers Richard Christie and Florence Geis developed a test for measuring a person's level of Machiavellianism.  The test asks respondents a series of questions and categorizes people by their scores into two groups: low Machs and high Machs.  Low Machs believe that leading clean, moral lives are the proper ways live, interact with others, and get ahead in the world.  High Machs believe that looking out for one’s self-interest and well being is the best strategy to getting ahead—and if that requires deception, promises, and/or punishments to get what they want, they will do it.

Machiavellianism is alive and well in our society.  The recent series of well-publicized corporate scandals from the past half-decade attest to that fact.  Machiavellianism also happens in less obvious ways in organizations, such as: only revealing information to others when it is personally beneficial, using rewards to bring about one’s desired actions, using flattery to shape attitudes, and making insincere promises to others to foster commitment and loyalty.  Researchers have also examined Machiavellianism and its role in marketing and impression management.

Organizational leaders need to be aware of Machiavellianism and how it exists within their workplaces.  Creating moral and ethical organizational cultures, transmitting clear ethical guidelines and expectations to employees, and leading by example are ways to combat the harmful effects of Machiavellianism.

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© 2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved