The wise words of Machiavelli are equally applicable to the campaign trail and the sales floor. They aren’t regulated to the shadowy subterfuge of the Renaissance era Florentine Court. After all, The Prince is the work that transitioned us from unconditional virtue to pragmatism. In the hierarchical folds of a corporate office, pragmatism prevails over virtue. Your happy hour drinking buddy may superficial appear to be a friend. However, if it is between your well being and their promotion. Rest assured they will betray your “friendship” for the promotion. When your livelihood is on the line the incentives to do what’s practical are high. To some extent, the ends justify the means. The only restraint is your local human resources office.
Part 2 of this series is more geared towards management as we address the issue of flattery. Flattery can assume forms. Ranging from compliments to subordinates hanging out with their boss after work. How sincere are the motives of the brown-nosers and yes-men that surround you? Every apple-polisher as an ulterior motive. The unfortunate facts are there is a significant number of those in management that seek the approval of their subordinates. It hinges on a similar principle of presidential approval polls. Your employees under your leadership assume the role of a constituency. However, you can’t let the prisoners run the prison. That’s why it is imperative to superficially appeal to the biases of your employees, but do so in a manner that can provide you leverage. Perception is everything. It is important to remember your employees are not your friends. Due to many in management longing to feel expected they often blur this line. This is a trap that strong leaders adroitly sidestep.
I do not want to leave out an important point and error from which princes defend themselves with difficulty …. the flatters of whom their courts are full; for men take such pleasure in their own affairs and so deceive themselves there that they defend oneself from it risks the danger of becoming contemptible. From there is no other way to guard oneself from flattery unless men understand that they do not offend in telling the truth..
(Machiavelli, 1532, Trans. Mansfield (1985) P. 93-94) .
The quote above from The Prince provides some straightforward advice to anyone in management. Hire people that are honest. The facts are not everyone is going to like you. Especially considering any leadership position requires you to make tough decisions. It is best to look towards your subordinates that provide forthright feedback than those who blow smoke. If you distort the social dynamic between boss and employee it is a treacherous path. Employees stop respecting you as a boss. Which means you are no longer able to command any authority. Beyond that flattery is generally illusory in nature. Merely smoke and mirrors. Odds are if Bill is having a 30-minute conversation complimenting you about your new BMW, isn’t just trying to be friendly. He is utilizing flattery as a tool to gain leniency or consideration for a promotion. The fact that John all of a sudden wants to go out for a drink with you on Friday, should be held in suspicion. In contrast, it is wise to listen to Jim’s feedback on the new invoicing process. Rather than hold his constructive criticism against him.
Not only does flattery blind us to the reality of the motives of others, but it also erodes respect. Being wary of flattery is a natural corollary of Machiavelli’s most famous principle of “it is better to be feared than loved”. I will directly address that concept directly in another essay. As I mentioned earlier about the distortion of the social dynamic, once esteem is lost it is difficult to be regained. Psychologically we are wired to remember the negative more so than the positive. It may be impossible to revive your image after slamming down shots at the local bar with all of the bootlickers in your office. It is prudent to distance yourself from such situations. Focus on the employees that provide valid criticisms. Set aside your ego and realize that you are not always right and that no one is Mr.Popular. This isn’t High School and it certainly isn’t a popularity contest. It is more important to command some respect without being too draconian. That will also have some adverse consequences. The Law of Dimmishing Returns applies to just about anything. Whether tanigble or conceptual.