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The Toxic Organization and the psychology of Machiavellians

“The universe runs on the principle that one who can exert the most evil on other creatures runs the show.”

Bangambiki Habyarimana, Pearls Of Eternity

“There are two rules for success... 1. Never reveal everything you know.”

Ylond Miles-Davis, Machiavelli Rage

Over the last half century or so, Machiavellianism has intermittently enjoyed popularity as a concept in psychology—and the minds of the public. Start with psychology.

Richard Christie and Florence L. Geis developed the Mach–IV test, otherwise known as the Machiavelli test, in the 1960s. It is a short questionnaire that you can take to see if you have Machiavellian tendencies. High scoring questions, meaning questions that rate you highly on the scale for Machiavellianism, are for example, “Never tell anyone the real reason you did something unless it is useful to do so,” (question 1) and “The biggest difference between most criminals and other people is that the criminals are stupid enough to get caught” (question 13). You can take an online version of the test here:

Ingenious psychologists have also designed experiments based on the scale which show that Machiavellianism is a powerful aspect of human relationships, and manifests on a continuum rather than as an either/or characteristic. (That is to say, people aren’t either Machiavellian or not. Instead, there are gradients of more or less Machiavellian tendencies).

But with enough people in a sample, you can identify those that can be classified “High Machs” or “Low Machs”. Those at each pole will demonstrate clear clusters of traits that differentiate them markedly. What are these, then, in the real world, rather than in Machiavelli’s The Prince?

Low Machs are more trusting, honest and empathetic and seek out the good-naturedness in others—sometimes struggling to find it even when it isn’t there, a bit like a fish dangling helplessly on a line seeking that life-giving water. They are agreeable and can seek dependency in relationships. Their label is the “soft touch”.


In early studies of this phenomenon, High Machs and Low Machs were assembled in a room and asked to play board games. You can guess who wins. High Machs will manipulate the rules a little or a lot, as they deem necessary, to beat their opponents. Low Machs like to play the game, enjoy the relationship with the other player, and don’t mind quite so much if they lose as long as they have a satisfying time.

(At this point, are you thinking that sounds a lot like the difference between conservative-minded and liberal-minded people? That’ll be a story for another day. But here’s a hint: if you are, you might be close to a universal truth embedded in the personalities of political right- and left-wingers, especially at the extremes.)

Today, Machiavellianism is one of psychology’s “dark triad” of personalities. Alongside psychopathy, which is characterized by a lack of empathy, and narcissism, or an excess of self-appreciation and self-love, there is Machiavellianism: short-hand for scheming, cynical behavior. But that’s a lot to think about, and we discuss these personality types elsewhere here in Naturally Curious. So let’s home in on the psychology of Machiavellianism a little more.

But before we do, there’s a joke that nicely differentiates the three. A narcissist, a psychopath and a Machiavellian walk into a bar. The bar tender throws them a question: “out of you three, who has the darkest personality?” The narcissist says “me”, the psychopath says “who cares?” and the Machiavellian says “it’s whoever I want it to be” (


Despite the best psychology of Machs being almost fifty years old, Machiavellianism in the workplace is a hot topic these days (along with natural human interest in the rest of the dark triad). A study by Kessler et al (2010) found that Machiavellianism in an organizational setting with leaders displaying big doses of the traits could be observed three ways: through the harsh management tactics they employed, their manipulative behaviors, and the propensity they had to maintain their power. Drawing on studies such as this one, we can suppose that an organization which has an oversupply of High Machs, and hence Machiavellianism deeply embedded in its cultural DNA, is likely to be a more counterproductive and deviant workplace than those that haven’t.

Many of us have witnessed first-hand that some organizations are all-too-often arenas for contest and conflict and if people are left to their own devices, a proportion will display unwarranted behaviors such as duplicity, manipulation and the shoring of their own power. That’s why workplaces have Human Resource departments and policies to ensure fair play, equity, and an emphasis on teamwork. Objectively, toxic organizations are interesting to observe, but subjectively, they are not the kind of places many of us want to be trapped in for any length of time. Many careers have crashed and burned that way.


Meanwhile, back in the psych lab, various aspects of Machiavellianism can be induced. In a study published in the Journal of Economic Psychology in 2002, Gunnthorsdottir and colleagues ran a game where participants bargained with each other to win money. They first administered the Mach-IV scale to sort out who’s who, and then put subjects to work in the experiment, pitting High and Low Machs against each other. In this game, subjects could either trust their opposite number or defect, leaving the other player high and dry.

The researcher team found that players scoring lower on the Mach scale mostly trusted the other person in the game whereas two-thirds of High Machs played to win rather than ever trust anyone else. In essence, High Machs are expedient and duplicitous, and have a desire to beat the opposition, whereas Low Machs are prone to reciprocate positively with other players and meet them more than half way. This behavior is easy to slip over into naivety or its close cousin, gullibility.

But that’s not all. In 2011, Zagenczyk and colleagues ran four studies on different occasions and with slightly different rules. They were interested in the extent to which large or small amounts of Machiavellianism were associated with organizational culture. Amongst other findings their research suggested, as you might by now expect, that High Machs as employees tended to make less positive contributions to the organizational culture, and had the potential to inflict greater levels of harm in the organization than their Low Mach counterparts.

In a sense, High Machs had less of a psychological contract—they were less cognitively signed up to the organization’s aims, mission and purpose. Low Machs were much more so. Another way of describing this is that High Machs were much poorer organizational citizens than their Low Mach colleagues.

In other work, Birkás and colleagues in a 2015 article in the journal Personality and Individual Differences examined the extent to which Machiavellian people are sensitive to rewards and punishment. You’d presuppose they were ahead of knowing the results of this work, of course. It’s certainly the case that High Machs act in the world tactically for their own advantage and you would hypothesize that they were strongly motivated to secure short-term benefits for themselves and to gain more than their share of organizational rewards. After playing games (in this instance, the Iowa Gambling Task) Birkás et al found that High Machs were indeed stimulated to attain tangible rewards—in this case, money from the game.


In business and organizations in competitive environments, especially when the chips are down and things are really tough internally (“it’s a jungle in here”) or externally, say in recessionary times (“it’s a jungle out there”), the management literature suggests a Prince is needed. Someone of the kind that Machiavelli himself, the Renaissance writer wrote about.

Enter, the High Mach savior. In modern parlance this is the take-no-prisoners leader; the hard-baked, do-what-it-takes-at-all-costs, CEO. Machiavelli assumed that the Prince’s followers would be fickle, greedy and only courageous when danger is remote. Thus, followers are able to be manipulated readily by the Prince even in normal times, but especially in a difficult period.

Machiavelli believed that it was better to be feared than loved and that power was an offshoot of virtu and fortuna. Virtu is not what we think of it today; being virtuous. For Machiavelli it meant the capacity to be ruthless. Fortuna was one’s fate but this for Machiavelli could be shaped according to the Prince’s own will if that individual was sufficiently strong.

The High Mach Renaissance Italian Prince in colorful doublet and hose, or CEO figure in the modern era in handmade, bespoke navy suit, acts such that the ends justify the means. He or she has no doubts, and even if he or she does, it is never shown. And there is a willingness to take risks. Like in the Nike ads, they just do it, and in the process, they surround themselves with people who are loyal and competent, but owned by the High Mach leader. Subordinates must pay the dues owed to the powerful one. Once they outlive their usefulness, or they give off even the slightest hint that they are disloyal, it is time to eliminate them. In Machiavelli’s time this would be more than just a sacking: elimination meant taking them out of the picture, and also removing or neutering their family, even their entire dynasty. Exile from Florence was Machiavelli’s fate. Death by cold-hearted murder was the end game for others in the 16th Century.


The modus operandi of the Prince-CEO is to create onuses and debts to themselves and their mission, and be readily prepared to call in the obligations. This is the type of person who is never too generous, is decisive and resolute, demands sacrifice from others and uses cruelty to make an example of someone when necessary. Remember, though, this is not a clinical condition. High Machs are normal. They just manipulate more readily, and are more exploitative, than most others.

Perhaps it’s not quite that brutal in your organization? Even if not, the High Machs going about their organizational maneuverings will tend to have a poor opinion of everyone else and be contemptuous of others. They will bend the rules in their favor, confess less than others when found out, lie more plausibly than most, and find ways to manipulate everyone they meet in novel and unexpected ways.

In doing so they can infect the water, but not change the personality or operating systems of Low Machs. The others in the organization, especially those soft touches, will time and again fall for it – and end up losing—and often being miserable along the way. High Machs are difficult, challenging, devious, energy-sapping and debilitating. They are more callous and devious than others, and indifferent to their worries and responses. Even other High-Machs can be done over by a particularly effective High Mach.

They can get to you. Every time especially if you are a very soft touch. You will have very few defenses, especially if you are a soft touch. You have been warned.

Further reading:

Birkás, Béla, Csath, Árpád, Gács, Boróka, Bereczkei, Tamás (2015). Nothing ventured nothing gained: strong associations between reward sensitivity and two measures of Machiavellianism. Personality and Individual Differences 74: 112-115.

Chopra, Raj (2013). Fresh Perspectives on Psychometrics and Psychology. Psychometricsforumblog.

Christie, Richard, Geis, Florence (1970). Studies in Machiavellianism. New York: Academic Press

Gunnthorsdottir, Anna, McCabe, Kevin, Smith, Vernon (2002). Using the Machiavellianism instrument to predict trustworthiness in a bargaining game. Journal of Economic Psychology 23: 49-66.

Kessler, Stacey R, Bandeiii, Adam C, Spector, Paul E, Borman, Walter C, Nelson, Carnot E,Penney, Lisa M (2010). Reexamining Machiavelli: a three dimensional model of Machiavellianism in the workplace. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 40: 1868-1896.

Zagenczyk, Thomas J, Restubog, Simon LD, Kiewitz, Christian, Kiazad, Kohyar, Tange, Robert L (2011). Psychological contracts as a mediator between Machiavellianism and employee citizenship and deviant behaviors. Journal of Management 40: 1098-1122.

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