This type of coworker may be worse than a narcissist

Machiavellianism is easily the most coveted dark personality trait and there is a strong chance you will work with someone who possesses it. 

Researchers from The Australian National University wanted to determine why Machiavellianism stands alone as the only antagonistic trait that enjoys positive associations in business, literature and social exchanges.

When victims discover that they’ve been employed as pawns their relationship with the perpetrator invariably comes to an end. From afar and in fiction, however, the exercise is often romanticized. Though we blush to admit it, there’s something compelling about humans seemingly unaffected by the husky trappings of empathy.

The trait’s namesake, after all, motioned that ruthlessness was just as valuable to leadership as bravery and wisdom. Niccolò Machiavelli was by no means wrong, but his expertise regarded politics. An ends justify the means approach to governing citizens is hardly applicable to the interpersonal dynamics between them.

“History is littered with many political leaders who achieved and maintained power through a callous and duplicitous disregard for the liberty of their citizens,” the authors of the new report continued.

It’s important to remember that cunning and intelligence are very different attributes, as are force and strength. Machiavellians may climb the ladder quicker than their well-meaning counterparts, but they also forfeit horizons for ceilings. As noted by the authors, exploiting others for personal gain has a way of diluting the allure of success.

So how exactly does one succumb to a Machiavellian worldview and how can the rest of us locate it in ourselves and in our colleagues before the damage is already done?

How a Machiavellian employee works

Psychology recognizes three dark personality traits in total; the remaining two being narcissism and psychopathy. Unlike the others,  a Machiavellian mind advertises cunning and control; an achievement-oriented individual disciplined enough to masquerade their impulsivity as charisma.

In order to effectively maneuver, a true Machiavellian first plants seeds of trust in their prey by exhibiting conscientious values. This makes the quality extremely difficult to identify. In actuality, every industry is populated with scheming opportunists determined to weaponize the goodwill of others.

“For over 45 years, research investigating Machiavellianism has largely used the same unidimensional approach, even though empirical research demonstrates that Machiavellianism is comprised of two robust dimensions: views and tactics,” write the authors of a new study published in the journal Psychological Assessment.

“Evidence of each subscale’s construct validity was established using structural equation modeling. As expected, the views subscale was primarily associated with misanthropy, hypersensitive narcissism, lower subjective well-being, and lower emotional stability.”

The subtle interpersonal distinctions

On paper, Machiavellian traits might seem indistinguishable from many other sociopathic tendencies. The most instructive contrast is illuminated by the nurture versus nature debate.

Sociopaths are by and large products of biological predispositions. Sufferers have reduced neural function in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex of the brain and the amygdala. These regions are chiefly responsible for regulating empathy, guilt, fear, and anxiety. It doesn’t matter how artfully sociopaths go about honoring their self-interests, the genetic predictors remain espoused to prognosis.

Machiavellians on the other end, are exposed to unfortunate events that wound their sense of trust early in life. Over time, this disposition advances into  “an unflattering and pessimistic view of humanity, which is considered gullible, untrustworthy, selfish, and manipulative,” the authors explain in the paper’s abstract.

In other words, sociopaths are authored by neurology while Machiavellians are edited by circumstance. The belief that everyone is ultimately out for themselves pits practicality and altruism against each other. It’s much harder to feel remorseful about double-crossing colleagues when you truly believe that everyone is a closeted carpetbagger.

Using previously conducted studies on the subject, the Australian authors were able to index three core components of the Machiavellian perspective.

  1. In my opinion, human nature is to be dishonest.
  2. I think that most people will take advantage of others in the right situation.
  3. When people do something nice for me they really have another agenda.

The researchers evaluated the presence of Machivalisms via the three points above juxtaposed with a control subscale listed below:

  1. I feel that deep down people trust each other.
  2. I think people would rather help each other than act selfishly.
  3. I believe that most people are essentially good.

The antisocial demonstrations inspired by a misanthropic outlook are often justified using the following:

  1. I think that it is OK to be unethical for the greater good.
  2. I think that it is OK to take advantage of others to achieve an important goal.
  3. It is sometimes necessary for me to mislead others to get things done.

Which can be compared to the control:

  1. I value being honest over getting ahead.
  2. To me, it is never justified to deceive others.
  3. To me, something is not worth doing if it requires being unethical.

The first dimension outlines the Machiavellian frame of mind and the second dimension describes the tactics used to secure personal objectives.

“With just these 12 items, you should be able to get an accurate picture of an individual’s tendencies to try to subject you to their cynical and exploitative world views,” explained psychologist, Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. in response to the new study.”Machiavellianism is a trait, not a category, and it is one that can be shaped by experience. There may be hope for those would-be controllers in your life, but in the meantime, avoid being forced to fulfill their wishes so that you can fulfill your own.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a self-motivated world view so long as it isn’t practiced at the expense of others. Utilitarianism defines a lifestyle premised by the well-being of others. Just like Machiavellianism, actions are judged by their fruits, not by their individual moral basis; deontology proposes just the opposite. Achieving success is a muddled affair saying nothing of the environmental factors proposed by the new paper.

Dr. Whitebourne seems to have the right idea: practice empathy when you can but always keep your head on a swivel.

The new study titled, Two-dimensional Machiavellianism: Conceptualization, theory, and measurement of the views and tactics dimensions. Psychological Assessment and was co-authored by Conal Monaghan, Boris Bizumic. Todd Williams and Martin Sellborn.

Be sure to read the full paper in the journal Psychological Assessment.