Machiavellian principles and the name itself are synonymous with tyrannical machinations, ruthlessness, and evil. You might hear it bandied about the office or anecdotally amongst friends. But who was the man by this name, what is Machiavellian management, and did Machiavelli advocate for it? After reading this article, you might ask yourself if you are a Machiavellian manager or an employee of a Machiavellian workplace?

To find out more, let’s first look at the man.

The myth and the man

Niccolò di Bernardo Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy in 1469 and eventually worked his way into Florentine politics. He was commissioned to write for and advise several rulers, both Italian and French. He penned his treatise on statecraft, Il Principe (The Prince) in July of 1513.

He lived during a time of unrest, war, and power grabs. The Prince might instruct that to have absolute rule and to keep it means that you must be feared by the people, that being a benevolent ruler is tantamount to being a weak ruler or a dead one. But is that what Machiavelli himself believed in?

Machiavelli said in The Prince, “I believe that it is probably true that fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half or so to be controlled by ourselves.” (Machiavelli, XXV, p79) He goes on to argue that we, as human beings, are living in a system that tries to control us with selfish violence or perhaps violent selfishness. We can put protective governance measures in place to mitigate such societal and political systems, such as capitalistic economics and employment. Namely, in checks and balances, for example, unionisation and workers’ rights. So who was Machiavelli, the man behind the myth, and are you like him?

Although he was given commissioned work by the great Medici, he never managed to be trusted fully by them. This fact might say more about them than Machiavelli himself, however. Keep this in mind as we deep dive into what is considered Machiavellianism, the psychological disorder, and the management style.

Power and boss archetypes

Power is sought by many and won by few. Yet, someone has to be the boss on top, right? Some archetypal bosses are ‘the man’ boss, the ‘girlboss,’ the creative genius boss, the friend boss, the good boss, and the Machiavellian boss.

‘The man’

‘The man’, has long been symbolic of workplace power. For thousands of years, at the dawn of the known world, power belonged to the man, the male gender – the hunter – those guys ambitious, singular, callous, and driven to succeed.

Those few who reach the top of the power chain of command have certain qualities, such as determination, drive, and strategic ability. These are considered good leadership traits, but they can also be misused, and when mixed with some more unsavoury traits, they can be dangerous.

In psychology and the workplace, Machiavellianism is toxic.

Men are considered more likely to be Machiavellian in personality, but many women are also.

The ‘girlboss’

In a Refinery29 article, Elizabeth Gulino writes, “the ‘girlboss’ rose to the top by exploiting the perception that she came from a disempowered place, and therefore would be sure to prioritize the professional empowerment of other disenfranchised people.”

Is this how females rise to the top these days – put into office through the likes of affirmative action – the ‘man’ needing to meet a quota? How we stay in power is perhaps the more poignant question.

The idea that the female boss will be empathetic to other females and minorities seems to have failed and many have turned into pseudo-male bosses – one of the guys, ‘the man’ – is this un-feministic to say? Asking how she made the rise in ranks presents an inherent problem in our society – that we ask this and insinuate certain #metoo, #hollywoodblackbook, and #victimblaming tones – and we put women through a different set of paces to her male counterparts, and that’s not right either.

But, when women rise, how do they act? How do they treat the underling? Like a boss that is empathetic –  or like a male boss – a pseudo-male boss? Gulino suggests the ‘girlboss’ (ding dong, the wicked witch) is dead.

The ‘creative genius’ boss

This is another archetype Gulino talks about that is mostly from the tech industry and start-ups, such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburg. Hailed as innovative super strategists, energetic and “forward-thinking”, but they ended up being mostly “abusive, uncaring, fickle, ethically dubious”, and only interested in the welfare of themselves and their own company.

The ‘good’ boss

Interestingly, Gulino argues this archetype is a mythical creature (like a unicorn) that doesn’t exist. She argues it’s not because a boss can’t be nice and good on an individual basis, but it is not a type, based on the very nature of what being a boss is – self-serving and “acting in their own interests.”

The ‘friend’ boss

Consider Brooklyn 99 character Captain Raymond Holt (season 2, episode 12) when he joins his staff for a weekend at a beach house. The friend boss muddies the waters between the very nature of being a boss and being just one of the team. Trying to hang out with, joke around with, and put yourself on an equal level with your staff will only confuse them in a hierarchical system.

It doesn’t work for Chandler Bing in Friends either (season 1, episode 22). His staff reject him as a friend and treat him as ‘the man.’

The ‘Machiavellian’ boss

If you have seen The Devil Wears Prada, then you will recognise the character Miranda Priestly as the quintessential Machiavellian boss, said to be based on Anna Wintour, Vogue’s Editor in Chief. Wintour is known for being hard on her subordinates, “racist and classist,” hypercritical to the point of cruelty, but in the guise of making her employees more successful.

The Machiavellian boss cracks the whip to get what they want, even to the point of beating a dead horse. The system fails in its ever-increasing expectation of the worker for less and less incentive until there is nothing left to give. That is the boss functionality. That is capitalism. The rich keep getting richer and the poor poorer.

These various boss archetypes call into question if these bosses ultimately fail to bring out the best in their staff. The lasting results should serve every participant in a viable model, but the capitalistic, hierarchical model doesn’t do this. Therefore, the boss’s function, on the whole, is a failure.

The psychology of Machiavellianism

In 1970, psychologists Richard Christie and Florence Geiss discovered certain traits culminating in the personality disorder they termed ‘Machiavellianism’. The main traits were found to be ‘manipulativeness, deceit, and a cold, calculating, cynical view of others.’ (PsychCentral)

Other traits of the disorder are being:

  • duplicitous in the pursuance of motivations
  • unempathetic
  • Immoral
  • selfish
  • abusive
  • emotionally unintelligent
  • passive-aggressive
  • a pretender
  • ruthless.

In 2002, the term ‘dark triad’ was coined, and the Machiavellian personality type was classified with the other apex predatory disorders: psychopaths and narcissists. The dark triad of personalities share some “overlapping traits, including a blatant disregard for others and an obvious obsession with self,” says Dr Bethany Cook, a clinical psychologist.

The Machiavellian personality’s currency is:

  • power
  • money
  • sex
  • competition
  • personal achievement
  • praise
  • social status/glory.

But it victimises everyone, the person with the disorder and the people being terrorised by that person.

So what does a system of the same do to people?

The Machiavellian system, the way

What do terms like capitalism, socialism, class, hierarchy, equality, and modern slavery incite within you? Insurrection? Acceptance or complacency? Which ones bother you? Do you think of a hippy militant leader telling you to drink the Kool-Aid? A Putinesque dictator? Dollar signs? Or fatalistic compliance? If so, the way must change. Is abolition the answer? Gulino thinks so.

The Machiavellian correlation within the workplace creates high levels of job strain, and it decreases job satisfaction and career satisfaction. A Machiavellian workplace is a toxic culture that ‘leads to distrust and workplace bullying,’ and it diminishes commitment and loyalty to the employer and affects productivity.

Recognising Machiavellianism in people

The Machiavellian boss or colleague:

  • is power-driven
  • is self-serving (numero uno)
  • strategic to the point of plotting
  • is a puppet master
  • is opportunistic
  • is unscrupulous
  • will try to win at any cost
  • is not team players (but may pretend to be to get what they want)
  • seemingly has it all, is charismatic and popular
  • is susceptible to stress, depression, and anxiety.

Is this you? Someone you work with?

Aimee Daramus, a clinical psychologist, says they “might be capable of some emotional attachments, but those relationships would be dysfunctional and often abusive.”

As a result, the Machiavellian personality may gaslight and/or ghost you.

Thomas G. Plante, psychology professor and a licensed psychologist at Santa Clara University and Stanford University of Medicine, says they “can easily manipulate others for their advantage and don’t care about the consequences of doing so.”

“Employees that are high in Machiavellianism may participate in knowledge hiding, a technique of withholding or hiding knowledge from co-workers.  This could then lead to damage in co-worker relations and distrust in the workplace.” (Wikipedia, Belschak, 2018)

If this is you or someone you work with, Simone Scully, writing for PsychCentral, prescribes change. Ask for help through counselling and therapeutic strategies for healthy self-improvement. If it’s someone you work with or the culture of your workplace, dust off the CV and job search because you can’t change them and it is unwise to go head-to-head with them.

Professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts and co-founder of non-profit Democracy at Work, Dr Richard D. Wolff says of such systems, “I think we are at the point, in the US especially, where people are done with capitalism.”

He notes people recognise the inherent failings of such one-sided systems.

Another way

A system like that of the cooperative model which “gives equal power and ownership to each of its employees, originally founded in 1752 by a mutual insurance company, removes hierarchy” from its company model. This model is not a utopian ideal, nor a revolutionary one that went out of fashion with the guillotine. It is a proven system.

“In this arrangement, there is no single boss,” Wolff says. “All the workers in an enterprise, whether it’s a factory or a store or an office, collectively, democratically, decide all of the major business decisions.”

Gulino gives some examples of the co-op’s success (based on 2012 data):

  • 18,000 cooperatives in Spain
  • approximately 300 cooperatives in the US
  • 2 out of 3 people in Bologna, Italy, work in a cooperative due to The Marcora Law 1985
  • Mondragón, in Spain, is the largest cooperative in the world with 70,000 employees
  • Defector Media in the US.


Wolff qualifies why capitalism is dead and other systems should be used, ‘If this organizational structure sounds unfeasible in its commitment to equality, ask yourself why it’s any more reasonable for so many companies to operate in ways that only benefit a select few.’

Also, there’s the agile working model (one good thing to be forced and expedited by the pandemic) that promotes flexibility, such as eliminating being ‘late’, having to commute, buying a lot of corporate wear, paying parking costs, paying to eat out daily, and other office-related frustrations.

Change can be good. Another way might be best.


Machiavelli wrote The Prince as a ‘how to’ on power and ruling. His message was based on what is necessary to achieve absolute power, leadership models, and the lengths you must go to keep control. He did not advocate for it or condone it. He simply said it is what you have to do if…He was branded as a monster for this hypothesis. Never mind asking the follow-up question, ‘Is it moral and ethical to have such power over others?’

When you’re writing a letter or manifesto for a prince, you don’t try to talk him out of the power he thinks God gave him, not if you want to be on his payroll. But this in itself complicates matters with what has too long been the all-too-ugly truth: those with money have power over those who don’t.

The question then should not be, ‘Do you have Machiavellian traits?’ At least not without a qualifying follow-up, ‘How can you stifle them and still be an effective but good human and boss?’ Consider the abolition of Machiavellian hierarchies.

Social reform? Democratic cooperation? Yes, please. Try the co-op model.



Is the “good boss” a myth? (

Anna Wintour – Wikipedia

Girlbosses Were Bad, But Good Bosses Don’t Exist (

a boss, but, like, a cool boss 

just wield power, but usually abused it

justifiable critique for racist and classist practices

a mutual insurance company in 1752

Mondragon Corporation – Wikipedia

Defector | All of our bullshit, none of theirs.

Machiavellianism Personality Traits (

Machiavellianism in the workplace – Wikipedia

Machiavellianism (psychology) – Wikipedia