Machiavellianism and Bad Behaviour in the Workplace! The Dark Triad of Personality Part 2

It has been almost 20 years since Paulhus and Williams first published their paper on The Dark Triad of Personality. In the second of three articles, I explore the second of the Dark Triad of personality. 

Can you spot this behavioural pattern in your workplace?

This person specializes in office politics. They are adept at deception and lying when it suits them. They will use any underhand tactic to preserve their power or position in the organization. Most people wouldn’t have the audacity! When required, they can turn on the charm and like to think they are good at it. Often others can see right through the insincerity. They may believe that the best way to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear. They may spread rumours, find subtle ways of making other people look bad in the eyes of management, be economical with the truth, or neglect to share important information. They tell half the story. They may specialize in gaslighting. They may engage in workplace bullying and see ethics and morals as for lesser mortals (or suckers as they see it!)  Normally when there is a re-organization or restructure, they quickly emerge in a favourable position. How do they do it?

Yes well spotted, meet the Machiavellian operator! Niccolo Machiavelli was an Italian diplomat. Machiavelli’s name, fairly or otherwise, has come to be associated with unscrupulous acts: deception, treachery, duplicity, and crime. We know the saying: “I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him”. Two-faced and slippery.

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In our own research for Mosaic tasks, we found that those who scored high on the Machiavellian scale as measured by a combination of Mosaic’s self-report questionnaire and certain behavioural traces on Mosaic’s Objective Personality Tasks (OPTs) admitted to the following:

• that in the past they tended not to fulfil promises made to others

• that in the past they haven’t owned up if they damaged something belonging to someone else

• that in the past year they have cheated to get ahead, got around the rules, pretended to have been concerned for others and put people under pressure

• that in the past they have quite often stolen small values

A low score on the “Big 5” personality trait of Agreeableness is a common feature for all aspects of the Dark Triad. 

Psychological research into our ability to detect deception generally finds that people’s ability is no better than chance e.g. Stel et al (2020). “People are generally too trusting, which decreases their ability to detect deceit.” The Machiavellian (High Mach) may thrive in such environments, at least in the short to medium term. They do however contribute greatly to a toxic culture and undermine teamwork. As a leader it can be far worse.  

So what can be done about it? High Machs tend to thrive in working environments with ambiguous rules, roles and where there is an element of competition. Can these aspects be clarified, and reward systems adjusted to encourage cooperation rather than competition?  

Psychologist Dr Annette Towler (2020) offers advice. High Machs won’t change. This is a stable personality trait in them, so don’t try and take them on or compete with them. Try to minimise your time or contact with them. Observe what high Machs actually do, not what they say or promise to you. Avoid their manipulative tactics where possible and check out the facts of a situation separately with a trusted colleague.  

Be careful what you share with high Machs, especially personal information or information about your private life. They may use this for their own aims. Remember they are not a trusted confidant, although they will certainly try to pose as that!

What do you think? How do you recognise and cope with high Machs in your workplace?