When work conditions are tough, Machiavellians thrive

When budgets are cut or time is short, watch out for those who excel at work. Their contribution could be admirable, but a new study suggests you may alternatively be witnessing a “Machiavellian” in action – someone exploiting the situation for their own interests.

Daniel Kuyumcu and Jason Dahling assessed the Machiavellianism of 110 psychology students, all of whom worked at least 15 hours part-time. Questionnaire items included: “I am willing to sabotage the efforts of other people if they threaten my own goals”. So-called “organisational constraints” were measured with items like “How often do you find it difficult or impossible to do your job because of lack of equipment or supplies?’’ Work supervisors also provided performance ratings for each participant.

When constraints were higher, the more Machiavellian participants tended to be seen as better performers. Given their nature, it seems these people were using politicking, social influence and manipulation to turn the circumstances to their own advantage. Such an interpretation is consistent with the fact Machiavellians tended to be more careerist, as measured by items like “I will do whatever it takes to enhance my promotion potential,” and this careerism was strongly associated with performance ratings. When constraints were lower, Machiavellianism no longer correlated with performance (in fact there was a trend in the opposite direction), suggesting that manipulative strategies are thwarted when time and resources are abundant.

This is a cross-sectional study so we must be wary of inferring causality, and we also can’t be sure whether the observed performance advantage is due to Machiavellian misdirection or is actually genuine. However, the study unearths a novel finding – that those least interested in furthering organisational goals, and most interested in looking good (psychologists describe this as a motive to perform “illegitimately”) actually do better under conditions where legitimate performance is considered hardest to achieve.

Under tough working conditions, we try to knuckle under and hope for their passing. But this research suggests that some people may thrive under these conditions. Indeed, the researchers speculate that Machiavellians may even exploit the scarcity of resources by starving out rivals and setting them up to fail.

____________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Kuyumcu, D., & Dahling, J. (2013). Constraints for Some, Opportunities for Others? Interactive and Indirect Effects of Machiavellianism and Organizational Constraints on Task Performance Ratings Journal of Business and Psychology, 29 (2), 301-310 DOI: 10.1007/s10869-013-9314-9

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.