Machiavellianism is a personality trait characterized by manipulation, deception, and a cynical view of human nature. Named after Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote The Prince in 1513, Machiavellians influence and control others for their own personal gain. Machiavellians in the workplace do things that undermine productivity and collaboration for their own selfish ends. For example, a Machiavellian coworker might insidiously push you toward a decision that benefits them while risking your job and the company's well-being.

The Domino Effect

At work, Machiavellians use emotional manipulation as a strategy, doing things like spreading rumors, undermining colleagues, or even sabotaging projects. These counterproductive work behaviors create an environment that fosters more counterproductive work behaviors in others. In this way, emotional manipulation links Machiavellian tendencies to detrimental workplace outcomes that harm organizations.

The consequences of emotional manipulation in the workplace extend far beyond its immediate targets. The manipulative tactics of Machiavellian people can induce feelings of stress, anxiety, or betrayal in their coworkers. Over time, these negative emotions can erode self-confidence and lead to burnout, which harms personal well-being as well as performance at work. Their tactics can create an environment of distrust and suspicion among employees, undermining collaboration. This toxicity can stifle innovation, reduce job satisfaction, and increase the likelihood of employees searching for employment elsewhere.

Breaking the Link

While the effects of Machiavellianism are pervasive, they are not inevitable.  Other personality traits and skills affect how Machiavellian tendencies are expressed. In our research, we looked at how different personality traits and skills can weaken this harmful chain of manipulation. We conducted two survey studies involving 360 employees at companies in the United States. Our participants, both men and women, ranged in age from 20 to 71 years. This approach allowed us to understand how various traits and skills can alter the impact of Machiavellianism.

Our findings indicate that Machiavellian employees with high levels of agreeableness are less manipulative due to their inherent cooperative and empathetic nature. This "nice" trait counterbalances the cold strategizing commonly found in Machiavellians who lack agreeableness. Likewise, Machiavellians who are good at keeping their emotions in check tend to maintain their composure and resilience, making them less emotionally manipulative. They are less disruptive in the workplace.

Emotional intelligence also attenuates the path from Machiavellianism to counterproductive workplace behaviors via emotionally manipulative tactics. Emotionally intelligent people can recognize and manage their own emotions, as well as understand and influence the emotions of others. While this type of intelligence doesn't stop Machiavellian people from manipulating others, it does change the nature of their emotional manipulation so it is less destructive.

People high in political skill, who understand and influence social dynamics, are adept at building networks, leveraging relationships, and navigating the organizational landscape. We expected political skill to help Machiavellians avoid problematic behavior. Instead, we found that political skill can amplify the effects of Machiavellianism, by enabling people to use tactics strategically and effectively, leading to even greater organizational fallout.

Building a Healthy Work Environment: Countering the Manipulators

Addressing emotional manipulation in the workplace is not just a matter of employee well-being; it is crucial for the overall health of organizations. A workplace free from manipulation fosters trust, collaboration, and innovation, leading to better employee satisfaction and organizational success. Both leaders and employees can take proactive measures to combat Machiavellian behaviors and create a more positive and productive work environment. Organizations can ensure healthier and more harmonious working conditions by recognizing the signs of employee manipulation and implementing strategies to counteract it.

For Further Reading

Burns, G. N., DeGennaro, M. P., Harrell, C. E., Morrison, P. J., Soda, L. M., & Walters, R. (2024). Emotional manipulation in the workplace: An investigation into the indirect effects of Machiavellianism on counterproductive work behaviors (CWBs). Personality and Individual Differences, 221(112568).

Cody Harrell is a doctoral candidate in the Industrial/Organizational Psychology program at Florida Tech, under the supervision of Dr. Gary Burns. His research examines the direct measurement of the Dark Core, a theoretical general factor of dark personality.

Gary Burns is a professor in the Industrial/Organizational Program and the Chair of the Organizational Leadership Program at the Florida Institute of Technology. His research focuses on measuring and predicting individual differences and developing a better understanding of how these differences are related to organizational behavior and decision-making.