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"I'm only doing what's necessary!" | Machiavellianism During Times of Organization

The average organization has undertaken five major company-wide changes in the past three years (e.g., downsizings, restructurings, mergers), with nearly seventy-five percent of companies expecting to increase the types of major changes they will embark on in the next three years. Major change initiatives are obviously meant to benefit the organization, increasing its capacity to survive in today’s globally competitive economy. However, there is often a “dark” side to major changes. Indeed, in a recent study, my colleagues (KiYoung Lee, Katina Sawyer, and Michelle Duffy) and I found across two time-lagged survey studies – each conducted over the course of three months and comprising a total of 516 full-time employees – that some individuals react especially negatively to major changes, with critical implications for their work groups.

Drawing on existing theory and research, we focused our analysis on employees high on the personality profile known as “Machiavellianism.” The scientific study of Machiavellianism began in the 1960s and was based largely on the ideas espoused by Niccolò Machiavelli in his (in)famous treatise, The Prince. Based on his firsthand observations of the rise and fall of European leaders as a Florentine diplomat, Machiavelli asserted that political success depends on expediency, rather than a rigid adherence to traditional virtues of decency, honor, and trust. That is, to achieve and maintain power in complex social systems, Machiavelli emphasized that political actors must adopt a mentality of “the ends justify the means” and, thus, be willing to use force and manipulative influence as necessary depending on the situation. Recognizing that this pattern of behavior seemed to manifest naturally in the general population, psychologists developed personality assessments to assess people’s levels of Machiavellianism – defined as a person’s propensity to distrust others, seek control over others, seek status for oneself, and engage in amoral manipulation. In particular, organizational psychologists have grown increasingly interested in the concept of Machiavellianism given the ethical debacles in Corporate America during the 2000s, as well as recent reports of cutthroat political tactics among employees at companies like Amazon and Facebook.

Our Research

In our research, we found that during times of expected major change in organizations, “high Machs” (vs. “low Machs”) report higher levels of moral disengagement and, in turn, greater engagement in social undermining of their peers. Moral disengagement represents a set of cognitive self-justifications that harming is acceptable (e.g., dehumanizing or blaming victims of one’s harmdoing, reconstruing one’s unethical conduct through moral justification or euphemistic labeling, distorting or obscuring the harmful consequences of one’s behavior). Social undermining represents behavior intended to hinder the ability of others to achieve work-related successes, establish and maintain positive relationships and build favorable reputations (e.g., backbiting, spreading rumors, delaying others’ work, providing incorrect or misleading information about the job).


During times of expected major change in organizations, “high Machs” report higher levels of moral disengagement and, in turn, greater engagement in social undermining of their peers.


In explanation of these findings, we theorized that when high Machs expect major changes on the horizon, they experience a heightened sense of threat to their intense needs for status and control at work. As a consequence, they are likely to experience a heightened “call to action,” whereby they perceive the stakes of competition rising at work and, thus, feel a greater license to exclude coworkers they view as “rivals” or “obstacles” from moral consideration. Interestingly, our findings also suggested, however, that even when high Machs experienced heightened levels of moral disengagement during periods of anticipated major change, these conditions did not automatically translate to greater undermining of their coworkers. Rather, we found that when such individuals perceived their coworkers as useful to advancing their personal goals and interests at work (i.e., they perceived them as valuable social exchange partners), high Machs did not act on their moral disengagement. Put differently, given their highly calculating, non-impulsive mindset and focus on doing what is necessary to ensure their self-preservation, high Machs are likely to exercise a degree of prudence in their undermining activities, seeing little value in undermining coworkers who can help protect and promote their self-interests.

Figure 1. Theoretical Model

What are the practical implications of our research?

Although Machiavellian individuals can be difficult to screen out in selection procedures due to their strong interpersonal skills, our findings suggest several possible interventions. First, in order to ensure that impending changes are perceived as less threatening to high Machs’ strong needs for status and control, leaders should carefully craft their change-related communications to de-emphasize the potential for uncertain and shifting power structures. If high Machs view impending changes as less chaotic and more structured, they may be less likely to perceive such situations as threatening and, thus, requiring them to intensify their undermining efforts. Similarly, leaders should avoid language that intimates the need for employees to contend for power and resources in order to survive the change. For example, emphasizing that structured decision-making processes underlie changes in the organizational hierarchy may reduce the likelihood that high Machs view social undermining as a viable strategy for preserving and promoting their status and control at work. Along with the above, managers should be highly attentive to and proactively address behavioral issues with employees if they arise, rather than keeping their heads down and focusing solely on their own change-related tasks Overall, although organizations may not have access to data that identifies who is highly Machiavellian in their workforce, they do have a capacity to keep high Machs in check by communicating an unequivocal message that their undermining activities will only result in negative consequences.


Leaders should carefully craft their change-related communications to de-emphasize the potential for uncertain and shifting power structures, and foster a collaborative, interdependent work environment.


Second, our findings suggest managers can reduce the incidence of high Machs’ social undermining by fostering a collaborative, interdependent work environment. Although high Machs are unlikely to become emotionally attached to their colleagues in such contexts, the perception of their colleagues as valuable exchange partners may deter their undermining by increasing the personal costs of doing so. In general, employees tend to develop perceptions of their colleagues as valuable exchange partners via key exchanges (e.g., receiving important task assistance) or a series of smaller beneficial interactions over time. Thus, by instituting greater teamwork requirements, high Machs may be more likely to recognize the various ways in which their peers benefit them at work and, thus, the personal consequences of undermining their exchange relationships. Moreover, managers might highlight more often the contributions that employees make to other team members’ success, enhancing high Machs’ awareness of their coworkers’ potential for high quality exchanges and deterring their harm doing. Overall, our findings are disturbing in that they highlight how change initiatives can “activate” the natural tendency of certain employees to disregard moral self-sanctions against harm doing and see value in behaviors that benefit the self at the expense of others. Yet, they also suggest that there may be certain situational “antidotes” that restrict such individuals’ engagement in antisocial acts during times of change.


Christian Thoroughgood, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about him here!

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