Machiavellian intelligence: the new emotional intelligence?

Machiavellian
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This article was co-authored by Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford.

The concept of emotional intelligence (EI or EQ) as a different and arguably more important kind of intelligence than the long-established intelligence quotient (IQ), was popularised by the psychologist Daniel Goleman in his best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ.

Psychologists still debate whether EI should really be called an ‘intelligence’ or whether it is actually a set of skills. It doesn’t matter. EI is a highly useful concept, and we all know what it means. We readily accept that anyone who hopes to succeed in the modern workplace will need high levels of emotional intelligence.

But there is another kind of essential intelligence that comes into play whenever the workplace situation becomes ‘political’ – especially when there are significant rewards available to people who get to the top of an existing power structure. This kind of intelligence is called ‘Machiavellian intelligence’(MI).

Machiavellian intelligence

In the 1980s, primatologists identified surprisingly complex ‘political’ behaviours in apes and monkeys that live in large social groups with hierarchies of social dominance. They described these behaviours as Machiavellian intelligence, named after Niccolò Machiavelli, the great political theorist of Renaissance Italy and author of The Prince.

Some primatologists argue that the success of these complex social groups in exploiting their environment was a key evolutionary force leading to the development of larger brains in social primates – a lot of brain power is needed to identify large numbers of individuals and their correct place in the social hierarchy.

Some argue that humans have followed the same evolutionary path towards large, complex, successful social groupings and greater brain power. On this reading, MI is one of our defining characteristics. Whenever we deploy certain behaviours to maintain or advance our social status, we are displaying Machiavellian behaviours.

Game of thrones

The hugely successful drama series, Game of Thrones, is a perfect example of Machiavellian behaviours, as are any of Shakespeare’s plays and the machinations of any aspiring modern politician. Unfortunately, another good example is offered by the internal politics of any sizeable modern corporation.

We strive – we really do – to create open, transparent, meritocratic workplaces in which talent is invariably rewarded. This aspiration can blind us to the realities of corporate life.

In most corporations, hierarchies are steep and the rewards for getting near the top of the power structure are high. In these circumstances, it would be naïve to imagine that people will not display Machiavellian behaviours in order to succeed – and that, just as with EI, some people have higher levels of MI than others.

Office politics

We strive – we really do – to create open, transparent, meritocratic workplaces in which talent is invariably rewarded. This aspiration can blind us to the realities of corporate life.

Imagine (this will be easy) that you are a talented, hard-working, emotionally intelligent executive, well-regarded by your colleagues, running a happy department and delivering good results.

It is tempting to believe that the corporation, in its constant search for the very best talent, will seek you out and reward you with promotion, so there is no need for you to run around blowing your own trumpet or to enter the murky waters of ‘office politics’.

Masters of the game

But now imagine that some of your colleagues are instinctive masters at the political game. Imagine that they always ensure that their own results are seen in the best possible light, and take efforts to bring themselves to the attention of senior figures in the organisation.

Imagine that these colleagues seem to be enviably well-connected, with a strong network of allies and supporters. Imagine that they have managed to create the impression they have much more to offer the organisation and that their many talents are being under-exploited in their current role.

Imagine also that these unnerving colleagues seem always to be in the right place at the right time, never getting stuck on some thankless project or bogged down in some worthy but unglamorous role.  

What these colleagues have is a high level of MI, and these career-enhancing things are happening, not because the organisation has sought them out, but because they have used their Machiavellian intelligence to make them happen.

Machiavellian behaviours and the dark triad

Machiavellianism has acquired negative connotations. Though Machiavelli himself merely recorded and commented on the political behaviours that he witnessed in his dealings with the rulers of Renaissance Italy’s warring city-states.

An early exponent of realpolitik, Machiavelli argued that the first duty of any prince was to sustain a stable and prosperous state while beset on all sides by potentially dangerous adversaries. And that cunning, deceit and real or threatened violence were as essential to the successful prince as the ability to form useful alliances and to win friends and influence by favour and patronage.

While our organisations have steep power hierarchies and offer significant rewards to those at the top of the pyramid, we must expect Machiavellian behaviours.

Machiavelli was happy to praise the behaviour of his employer, Cesare Borgia, as that of ‘a most perfect dissembler’, when Cesare tricked some mercenary commanders who had turned against him into attending a meeting at which they were overpowered and garrotted.

In modern psychology, Machiavellianism is used in this negative sense as one of the ominously named ‘dark triad’ of personality traits, alongside narcissism and psychopathy. This kind of Machiavellianism refers to the cynical manipulation, deception and exploitation of others to further one’s own selfish ends.  

You’ve probably worked with some people like that – but you will notice that this kind of manipulative behaviour is the very opposite of what we mean by emotional intelligence.

High EI and high MI

In our latest book, Machiavellian Intelligence: How to survive and rise in the modern corporation, we suggest that modern executives with ‘high MI’ are also highly emotionally intelligent: that the behaviours they exhibit are self-serving, but not cynically exploitative (in general), and that many hard-working and talented executives are disadvantaged by their tendency not to deploy MI in their own working lives.

‘Bad’ Machiavellianism certainly surfaces from time to time. Machiavellian Intelligence is illustrated with stories of real career incidents, and one of these involves a shocking betrayal – a very real ‘stab in the back’ by an up-and-coming executive who was prepared to turn on his long-term mentor to further his own aims.

It happens.

But our main focus is on the kind of urbane Machiavellian behaviour that we all know and rather admire. The kind of behaviour that top-ranking diplomats and skilled politicians exhibit. The kind of behaviour that high-ranking executives in large corporations exhibit.

One day, we may be able to create the flat, transparent, self-managed organisations that we dream of. In the meantime, while our organisations have steep power hierarchies and offer significant rewards to those at the top of the pyramid, we must expect Machiavellian behaviours – though, in the modern world, of the benign, diplomatic sort.

Hard-working, talented executives are advised to hone up their own MI, as well as their EI, and to ensure that they devote time, effort and Machiavellian Intelligence to the political business of advancing their careers. This is of course in addition to the essential business of running happy departments and delivering good results.

Read more here: Machiavellian Intelligence: How to survive and thrive in the modern corporation

About Jonathan Gifford

About Jonathan Gifford

Jonathan Gifford is a business author and speaker whose other books include History Lessons; Blindsided; 100 Great Leadership Ideas and 100 Great Business Leaders. Jonathan has a degree in philosophy from the University of Kent; his early career was spent in print media, working for The Guardian, The Sunday Express and The Mail on Sunday, and later for BBC Magazines, where he was the launch publisher of BBC History Magazine.

Jonathan is the cofounder, with Dr Mark Powell, of The Human Energy Organisation, a consultancy in the field of employee engagement and leadership development. Jonathan and Mark are the co-authors of My Steam Engine Is Broken: Taking the organisation from the industrial age to the age of ideas; Perform to Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for personal and business success; and Machiavellian Intelligence: How to survive and rise in the modern corporation.

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28th Feb 2018 11:09

Thanks, a really interesting article.

For me, to use MI purposefully, you need to have good EI. Whether and when you use your MI, is dependent on your personal values.

I like that your description of MI gives room to deploy your inner imperfections, often driven by your values.
One may be very attuned to others behaviours and attitudes, but have deliberate low regard for them. Most models of EI would say that this means your EI is lowered, but in reality you're just using your MI. It's an acknowledgement that most of us aren't perfect, phew.

Thanks (1)
avatar
28th Feb 2018 11:09

Thanks, a really interesting article.

For me, to use MI purposefully, you need to have good EI. Whether and when you use your MI, is dependent on your personal values.

I like that your description of MI gives room to deploy your inner imperfections, often driven by your values.
One may be very attuned to others behaviours and attitudes, but have deliberate low regard for them. Most models of EI would say that this means your EI is lowered, but in reality you're just using your MI. It's an acknowledgement that most of us aren't perfect, phew.

Thanks (0)