How a Machiavellian approach could boost your career

Handling your emotions at work may be necessary to navigate the complex political waters in office environments, to protect your job and bolster your career prospects.

What do you do if your boss is favouring other members of the team but has left you out in the cold?

New research from Monash Business School suggests that not everyone is up to adopting survival tactics in the workplace. However, those who do, are able to navigate the workplace and align themselves with co-workers who can give them access to more resources and power than they may have themselves. And they are winning.

Associate Professor Herman Tse from Monash Business School’s Department of Management says these people, who he calls ‘high Machs’ have an ability to ‘suck up’ – regulating their emotions in a situation where they seemingly have little power, and utilize their relationships with co-workers of a higher standing with the boss, allowing them to flourish.

High Mach or low Mach?

Machiavellian (Mach) behaviour/tactics are associated with devious political manoeuvres first outlined by Italian Renaissance diplomat, Niccolo Machiavelli, in his classic political tome, The Prince.

There is a test that measures the level of Machiavellianism in a person, those scoring greater than 60 out of 100 are considered high Machs.

And while it is usually thought that high Mach people manipulate and undermine others using cunning and duplicitous methods, Associate Professor Tse says high Mach is more about reading the emotion of your boss and colleagues and adjusting yourself to fit into the environment without creating too many waves.

Instead of being envious and harmful, high Mach team members can be very calculative, calm and strategic in maximizing their personal gains in unfavourable and stressful situations.

It’s all about the team

Along with his co-authors from different universities in China, Hong Kong and Australia, Associate Professor Tse and his Monash Business School colleague Dr Jun Gu looked at the positive effects of high Mach personalities on teamwork.

“Individuals are always sensitive to their relative status in different relationships with their boss and other co-workers which may affect their interaction with each other,” Associate Professor Tse says.

Drawing on social comparison and utility affiliation theories, they set out to test a conceptual model uncovering why and when individuals with high Mach can partner with their co-workers in unfavourable relationship comparisons in teams. In other words, if you are not in the boss’ favour can you get what you want by sidling up to someone who is closer to the manager?

Associate Professor Tse believes that high Mach people are born with this trait and are able to make their own lives easier by being aware of social cues and relational information around them. They can use some associated behaviour to get along with other members, therefore, cementing their place and status within the team.

“If you are not seen as a threat then, you will not die, so to speak,” Associate Professor Tse says.

Adopting high Mach behaviour

Adopting high Mach behaviour makes your work life much easier because you are more likely to get more influence and respect in your team.

“It’s not about being cruel or underhanded, but colloquially it may be viewed as being ingratiating towards others so that you are not seen as a threat,” Associate Professor Tse says.

“You don’t want to stick your head up too much in an organisation or you will be treated like a tall poppy and eventually your head will be cut off.”

“Low Machs, on the other hand, tend to get involved emotionally with others with higher standing and often it’s this emotional involvement which causes them to lose,” Associate Professor Tse says.

“Many people find it difficult to hide and regulate their emotions in unfair and stressful situations at work. They fly off the handle, and become frustrated when they don’t get what they want.”

High Machs are winners

Based on some results of an empirical study, Associate Professor Tse suggests that a high Mach member would tend to manage his/her negative emotions such as envy, contempt and anger towards the other member with a better relationship with the boss and can actively display positive reactions such as ingratiation (e.g., praises and recognition to the member).

This also implies that Machiavellian tactics/ behaviour help members with low relationships with the boss to manage their lesser status and negative feelings, viewing the comparison targets – enemies – as enhancers who can enable them to get closer to the boss for personal gains in teams.

Published on 18 Jul 2018