Can Machiavelli teach us anything about the workplace?

Maria Nikolova

Participants within modern organizations follow to a large extent the rules outlined by Machiavelli without having ever read his text, argues AMB Prime’s Paul Orford.

This is a guest editorial by Paul Orford, Head of Institutional Sales at AMB Prime.

The name Machiavelli conjures up images of chicanery and gross acts of skullduggery, and has become synonymous with everything that is sly about human behavior. With many viewing the day-to-day politics of the working environment to be the same as in the royal court of the Borgia, can we learn anything from him?

The first guideline to “realpolitik”

To understand more about what many view as an often misrepresented philosophical thinker, we need to understand a little more about the context in which he lived in.

Niccolo Machiavelli was born in 1469 and forged a career as a Florentine political diplomat, whose most famous treatise was ‘The Prince’. If you are not aware, the book is his guide on how a leader should gain and maintain power when faced with the many dilemmas of ruling. Indeed many saw this as the first guideline to what is known as ‘realpolitik’.

The politics of the city states could resemble that of the “Game of Thrones” where an ally could be your enemy, and you enemy could become your ally in an incredibly fluid fashion, so in essence this was written for the leaders of the era to keep a watchful eye on competing influences.

It is possible to apply his work by supplanting the prince for the CEO and instead of the kingdom – use a brokerage. By using some of his more familiar observations we can see if this is applicable in the modern era.

To be feared or loved?

Paul Orford, Head of Institutional Sales, AMB Prime

In chapter 17 of the treatise, Machiavelli outlines the argument of whether it is better to be feared rather than loved when conducting the affairs of state. Although he does argue that it is great to have the masses love you it is easier to rule them if they fear you.

Is this possible for the modern CEO to run their business in this fashion? As we have all probably worked with the varying spectrum of personality types within the industry, would a charismatic knowledgeable leader produce better results than one who continuously threatens impending doom on your career. Ultimately if you do find yourself in this predicament then you are going to look for an alternate source of income and leave.

Working with a leader who can help you grow and learn can sometimes trump financially larger offers from your competitors. If given the choice between working with an uninformed luddite who protects his own ends, and holding a role where you can grow professionally, statistically the latter will be taken.

Machiavelli score: NO

Are we all fickle liars?

“It can be said of men that they are fickle liars and deceivers they shun danger and are greedy for profit. Therefore it is necessary for a leader to learn how not to be good.” – Niccolo Machiavelli.

In Chapter 18, Machiavelli discusses whether a prince needs to keep their word. He argues that experience had shown that rulers who have little regard for their word go on to achieve great things.

Moreover, he argues this from a position of nobody else keeps their word, so why should you be any different.

If we use this doctrine in the modern workplace the machinery of modern relationships would break down incredibly fast. Although many claim that it is common occurrence that working for a leader who does not keep their word to lead to inefficiencies, but could this really be attributed to them, being indecisive and trying to please all. (see previous section.)

Further to this, in the field that we operate in which strives to be as transparent as possible, losing the trust of your workforce can result in a severe downturn in your results and the death knell of your companies hard fought reputation.

Machiavelli score: NO

How to avoid hatred?

Finally in Chapter 19, Machiavelli argues “a prince must avoid becoming hated or despised. Taking the property or the women of his subjects will make him hated”. As we can all appreciate HR practices have moved on since this period, and it is no longer de rigueur for a leader of an organization to take your workers property and their loved ones. He goes further in describing how to remedy the challenge of not becoming hated by your subjects by using the power of delegation.

With this he is not outlining who should carry out the minor and mundane tasks, he argues that your number two should be the one who passes on the bad news so the populace hold a grudge against the person carrying out the order.

Furthermore, all popular decisions and news that is passed out must be given by the Prince so it reflects well on them. I think it is fair to assume that this practice is still a very popular choice today, with the modern CEO often bathing in the glory and allowing others to offer impending doom laden news to their underlings.

Machiavelli Score: YES

And now…

A thorough reading of Machiavelli’s work can give useful guidance in how to follow one particular style in leadership. To argue whether it has any longevity in a successful organization is a separate issue.

What is intriguing is the actions and participants within modern organizations still follow to a large extent the rules which he noted without having ever read his text. Moreover, I am sure he would have been very pleased to observe the relevance of his work in the 21st century work environment.

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