Prisoner’s Dilemmas- VI: Job Interviews & Telling the Truth

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

The game-theoretical concept of a “Prisoner’s Dilemma” applies to situations where no overt defection has occurred. Many readers may be perplexed by this assertion since, by definition, Prisoner’s Dilemmas entail “players” selecting uncooperative strategies. However, there are scenarios where the selection of a specific approach could lead to non-optimal outcomes. But such a strategy would not be considered a direct form of defection. These strategies are analogous to a defecting because the participating economic agents are moving away from a given focal point; rather than converging upon it. Even though the participants are not directly undercutting each other but inadvertently select noncooperative strategies. One salient example of this is any situation in which both parties choose to lie to the other. Both agents believe it is in their self-interest to obscure the truth, but doing so will only engender more problems.

A novel application of this theory would be in job interviews. Why? The hiring manager and the applicant concurrently have incentives to distort the facts. The prospective employee stands to benefit from embellishing their credentials. Likewise, the hiring manager might think it is shrewd to exaggerate or overemphasize the company culture when it is difficult to find a qualified candidate. When used in unison, the consequences are disastrous. The new employee will not be unqualified for the position and will also have unrealistic expectations for the job role. Ultimately, creating more issues for the hiring manager and the jobseeker. Telling a lie may not be a direct form of uncooperative behavior, can often yield similar results.

Bootleggers & Baptists: XXXIV: The Supervisor Spot at Work

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

Everyone is familiar with the concept of soft power in office politics. An individual lacking any formal authority but has the ear of management. The author of this brief essay has found himself in this peculiar situation. While I may have a relatively meager position at our company, my manager still seriously regards my input. If I have a concern, he is quick to find a remedy. The evidence of my implicit influence became evident when my boss was looking to fill a supervisor spot for our team. After a candid off-hand conversation, I expressed my preferred co-worker for the position. Then was subsequently told, “I like your logic”. Fast forward two weeks later, my preferred candidate was announced to be the new supervisor. 

It is possible I misconstrued the events that transpired in the supervisor selection process. My perception of having any influence over my manager’s decision could merely be a delusional illusion. Irrespective of my impact on this decision, this was a clear Bootlegger and Baptist (1983)  dynamic. At this point, it should be evident who the Bootlegger and who the Baptist is. My manager possessing the moral advocacy for the favorable candidate for the supervisor makes the Baptist. He seeks to hire an individual with the best potential for success within the position, the most qualified person. I hate to admit it; I was more motivated by self-interest. I am the salient Bootlegger in this coalition. I based my advocacy on wanting a supervisor that would not micromanage me. I had little concern for the candidate’s qualifications.

Prisoner’s Dilemmas-IV: Having Sex with the Boss

Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com

At the center of every social interaction is some variant of exchange. Whether it be friends trading pleasantries or vendors and clients exchanging money for goods; every social interaction is an exchange. For this very reason, it is perplexing how once money enters the picture the interaction has been ethically tainted. Surely, examples of bribery have many moral considerations to address. However, the disdain expressed for people who monetize a hobby is devoid of any justifiable logic.  In a sense, even the exchange of nonmonetary goods such as ideas and goodwill can be abstractly viewed as a form of commerce. Much like bartering goods and services, the trading of ideas tends to make people better off. Why should the exchange of ideas enjoy the moral high ground while trading tangible goods for money is treated with ethical inferiority? Odds are that will be a question for another day.

It should be noted that nonmonetary interpersonal exchange extends well beyond interchanging nontangible ideas.  It can also apply to displays of affection. One form of interpersonal exchange that seems to be most salient in the minds of people would be sexual intercourse. Outside of the deeply ingrained biological proclivity to crave sexual contact, such acts have been mystified by being shrouded in a mystique of societal taboo. Only serving to make anything about sex more alluring; sex being nothing more than “..forbidden fruit..”.  Especially when it is outside of the contexts in which is societal prescribed is being permissible. Irrespective of the context in which sexual intercourse takes place, if it is consensual, it is a form of exchange.

Even in instances where sexual relations are consensual, such interactions among co-workers operate in a moral grey area. Most Human Resource departments frown upon such conduct, but rather ever outright condemn it or impose disciplinary action. However, once the exchange is between various tiers of management and their subordinates any appeal to the morality of such an interaction becomes more dubious. Not fixate on equalitarian concerns, but there is an institutional asymmetry of power. An individual’s boss has quite a bit of authority over them. After all, having the power to sever someone from their ability to earn an income is a lot of power to wield. An individual’s boss can also influence the trajectory of one’s career. Introducing sex into the mix spells a recipe for calamity.

An hourly employee having a sexual relationship with their boss is a prime example of a prisoner’s dilemma. Ideally, both parties or either individual would decline to engage in any sexual conduct. As we all know the world, we live in is far from ideal. Even if it were to happen, to not allow the incident to influence any aspect of their professional lives. Again, humans are emotional creatures.  When David Hume described the servile relationship between people and their passions, he was correct. Unfortunately, such an incident cannot remain neutral, almost always bleeds into other the work life. Regardless of whether the exchange occurs on or off company property.

It would be in the best interest of both individuals to move on from their regrettable tryst (or chronic series of amorous activities). That would defy human nature, even if it would be the rational course of action.  There is the ill-fated inclination of people to weaponize such situations for their interests.  Falling into the categorical definition of a Prisoner’s Dilemma.  The manager could threaten to demote their subordinate or even fire them if they tell anyone about their affair. The same penalties could also be applied if the subordinate decides that they are no longer interested in continuing the sexual relationship. Reciprocally the subordinate could also fight fire with fire. Deciding to use the sexual encounter as a point of leverage for either reprisal or career advancement. Opting to seize this opportunity and continue this unethical relationship with their boss. Even in some cases using past encounters as the focal point of an extortion or blackmail attempt. Either individual using their past rendezvouses in a manner that will harm the other is an unquestionable noncooperative strategy. The key factors of lacking trust and the institutional/moral disapproval of such engagements are conducive to defection. If you can’t rely on the other to be cooperative and work in everyone’s mutual interest, you might as well save yourself.

Prisoner’s Dilemmas- Part II: Workplace Training

Photo by MART PRODUCTION on Pexels.com

The social dynamics of the workplace often provide ample examples of applied Game theory.  Whether or not individual co-workers are deliberately implementing strategies based upon research in the field is questionable. For people who possess opportunistic proclivities, it seems as if they have an implicit understanding of game theoretical strategies without being familiar with the formal concepts.  Most of the ambitious employees posed to ascend the corporate ladder are always making calculations.  Like the political process the aspiring network and form alliances. They tactfully engage in subterfuge to place another contender vying for that prized promotion at a disadvantage. Sometimes the professional “gamer” will even leave a subtle calling card. I once encountered a manager who inserted a quote from the Art of War into his signature. Feeling particularly brazen I decided to ask him if he has ever read the book. He did. It came highly recommended and was told that he likes to apply it to business.  I quickly distanced myself from this gentleman. I prefer to avoid Machiavellians.

The unfortunate reality of maintaining gainful employment is that it is a game. Even to remain employed never mind advance within the company, you will need to adhere to the rules of the game. You must adapt to the social norms of your employer. Each decision we make at work can constitute a strategy. Co-workers are merely our fellow players. The results whether it be obtaining a promotion, getting Jim fired, or flying under the radar would function as a payoff. Completely comprising the core variables of a game-theoretical definition of a game. Once we consider the incentives structure of the workplace it becomes quite clear that from an individual’s perspective it is frequently a noncooperative game. Yes, we do need to cooperate to get the process improvement project done. However, there can be various terriers of games simultaneously occurring at one time. It is important to remember only one person can fill that manager spot! The work-related “game” may be cooperative and productive while the interpersonal exchanges could be hostile.

Since there is a high potential for the implementation of noncooperative strategies, there is also a high probability for Prisoner’s Dilemmas. An individual being consumed by their agenda can make them blind to the fact that cooperation could be more effective than working against one another. Hostile strategies tend to waste resources and time. This example of misallocating resources is in of itself suboptimal. An individual’s effort and time could be re-direct completing a concrete goal. Rather than delving into the darkest depths of psychological warfare or other manifestations of non-cooperative strategies. The typical office environment is an environment rich with examples of Prisoner’s Dilemmas.

A prevalent example of a common Prisoner’s Dilemma that occurs in the work environment is job role training. It is evident that if you properly train a new co-worker that it is all around beneficial for everyone. It would even be fair to categorize properly training new employees as a positive-sum strategy. It creates less work for the trainee down the road to have an efficient and competent co-worker. It provides the trainee with a strong procedural foundation and will alleviate their frustration later. However, both “players” are prone to acting in a shortsighted manner. The trainer frustrated having the task of training the new person to their workload may do a cursory job explaining the intricacies of various processes.  There may even be a deeper-rooted rationale behind the trainer’s apathetic approach, latent hostility. The trainer may perceive the new guy as a potential threat. Either due to him exposing tactics utilized to mask a light workload or even his natural aptitude. The idea of the new employee excelling and surpassing the trainer could be a possible concern. There is also the situation of the trainer having to train their replacement in the event of layoffs (yes, it happens). The reasoning for hostility in this scenario is self-evident.

Once the trainee is faced with the less than welcoming disposition of their trainer, odds are they will also adopt a noncooperative strategy. Even going so far as to retaliate against their trainer by reporting the aggressive behavior to their manager or H.R. department. The trainee has little incentive to work with the trainer as they have already committed to being uncooperative for arguably petty reasons. Only serving to create a quid pro quo series of personal or institutional retaliations. The trainer could start a rumor about the trainee, in an attempt to damage their reputation. The trainee could continue to escalate the involvement of various tiers of management and H.R. personnel. Regardless of which methods of retaliations are deployed by either party, no one is truly better off. Time and effort have been squandered through the course of the petty bickering. The new employee still is lacking adequate training. The trainer being too shortsighted to see that properly training their new co-worker would effectively lighten their workload downstream.

Gresham’s Law Applied to Human Capital- Career Stagnation

Photo by August de Richelieu on Pexels.com

The premise behind Gresham’s Law is that money of a higher intrinsic value will be hoarded while the money of a lower substantive value but legally recognized as having the same nominal value will be circulated throughout the economy. Succinctly put, “..bad money drives out good money…” pithily sums up this economic phenomenon. However, is this occurrence solely confined to the commodity of money? Doesn’t the observations convey in Gresham’s Law applicable to other goods? For example, unless a baseball card collect is presented with an astronomically large monetary offer, odds are they will be unwilling to part with a limited-run rookie card of a legendary major league player. This scenario reflects many of the assumptions regarding commodity value implicit in Gresham’s Law. Generally, rare collectibles are held on to, while mass-produced memorabilia is readily available at the local garage sale or swap meet. Most collectors will hang on to the items that are considered valuable unless another interested party can provide a commodity in exchange that exceeds the perceived value of the collectible held by the hobbyist in possession of the coveted item.

However, how does Gresham’s Law interact with the intangible commodity of human capital? A firm or a business unit within a firm would want to retain top-level talent and let go of the mediocre/poor performers. Before we can delve into this analysis we must distinguish what human capital is. Human capital is the economic value that the employee brings to the firm. Typically through their experience, education, certifications, knowledge of company procedures and policies, position-specific “tribal knowledge”, critical thinking skills, and other pertinent soft skills. For readers who have never worked in a corporate environment before tribal knowledge is the informal and unwritten knowledge of best practices of how to perform within a specific job role. It stands to reason that a potential employee possessing all of these attributes would be a hot commodity on the job market. If currently employed by a company would be an employee of a high value.

If human capital is valued in a similar sense to other commodities such as money, how do businesses act in a manner to retain this high-quality talent? The answer most human resources representatives would give is that their organization creates an environment that fosters career advancement. Stressing the perks such as tuition reimbursement, possession of company stock options, and opportunities for placement in vertical job positions. While these factors may play a role in some employees choosing to work long-term for the same company, there is another variable that HR will not be forthright about. That is oftentimes exceptional employees with a high degree of human capital end up getting pigeonholed to the same role. Oftentimes these individuals are blocked from transferring to other business units or positions within the company by the request of middle and executive management. The reason behind limiting this MVP’s potential is quite pragmatic, the business unit cannot afford to lose this individual. Their skills and knowledge are essential to the day-to-day operations of the business. It would be nearly impossible to fill the void if they were to get promoted or transition to a lateral position within the firm. In the corporate world, this individual may be referred to as a subject matter expert or colloquially known as a SME.

It should be noted that the desperate attempts of management to relegate this individual to the same job role has the propensity to backfire. Why? Because this individual gets fed up with their limited job prospects and ends seeking career advancement at another firm. In a free market for employment, a high-quality employee has many prospective options when it comes to their career. If a firm stubbornly, confines them to a shallow career path they will simply look for employment at another company.

Workplace Rent- Seeking Honorable Mention

 

gold coloured human statue
Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

 

 

In my previous blog entry, I discussed the topic of rent-seeking in the office. I detailed three common forms of workplace rent-seeking. However, there are several other notable forms that I feel are worth mentioning.

 

Withholding Information:

 

This is more so applicable in the training process.  The specifics of internal procedures are often colloquially referred to in an office setting as “tribal knowledge“.  Individuals who are either paranoid or not confident in their position with the company will withhold information in the training process. They may refuse outright to properly train new hires. They may only provide a portion of the correct information. They may monopolize specific train materials. Through creating artificial information asymmetry they make themselves look more valuable and decrease their chances of being terminated. Making themselves the default team subject matter expert.

 

Candy Bowl: 

 

As the old saying goes you attract more flies with honey than vinegar. There is some validity to this statement. The candy bowl can be seen as either a trap or a peace-offering. Either way, it detracts from the true nature of the individual who maintains it. Typically, they are a very disagreeable and temperamental person. To soften their image they attempt to appear charitable by proving communal bowl filled with sweets.  If your peers like you, you can get away with a lot. More accurately if you can bribe your peers after being nasty to them you can continue to get away with a lot. If your co-workers don’t have any lingering issues with your boss will keep you around. Why? If you aren’t disturbing the group dynamics there isn’t any reason to deliver punitive actions.

 

Plastering Your Cubicle With Positive Quotes: 

 

Anyone plastering their cubicle walls with quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi is someone to avoid like the plague. If you make your workspace a billboard for inspiration quotes you most likely have a few skeletons in your closet. To be so extreme with advertising one’s proclivity towards positivity should be a red flag. An indicator of someone attempting to manipulate human psychology for their gain. It is meant to distract from their overt from their negative behavior. It falls into a similar behavioral category as self-promotion. The objective is to have others focus on what is most salient and not what is factually true.

Workplace Rent-Seeking

 

 

architectural design architecture blue sky business
Photo by Juhasz Imre on Pexels.com

 

Introduction:

One of the core principles of Public Choice Theory is the concept of behavioral symmetry.  Behavior symmetry can be best defined as

“… the same behavioral model of human action must apply to all decision-makers regardless of institutional setting (public or private).” (Shughart II & Wardle, 2020, P.594)

This conceptualization firmly reflected in James M. Buchanan’s proclamation of  Public Choice Theory being ” politics without romance“. Meaning whether you work in for the government or a private corporation your incentives generally don’t change. Working as a bureaucrat doesn’t dampen the allure of a high salary or generous benefits. Many people tend to view politicians and government employees as working towards the common good. Ignoring the fact that their decisions are not immune to self-interest. Demonstrating that this faulty assumption about civil servants is nothing more than a halo effect. The belief that government employees are striving towards a higher moral good than individuals employed by a corporation is illusory. People respond to incentives regardless of their occupation.

 

Considering the previously described application of behavioral symmetry, it wouldn’t be outlandish for a phenomenon that transpires in the public sphere to occur within a private institution. To take it a step further, to even claim that it takes place on an individual level. As in actions taken by a single person versus a solitary institution.  Could the principles of Public Choice even be applied to the individualized interactions of workers in an office environment? Certainly! After all, incentives do not change. We are merely changing the environment and the scale of transactions.

 

The concept of rent-seeking tends to be commonly reflected in the behavior of office workers. What is rent-seeking? It can be described as a person or organization attempting to secure wealth without creating generating any productive output. Generally, this is done so by seeking an institutional advantage. Gordon Tullock, the theorist who developed this theory, utilized the example of tariffs to demonstrate a practical application for this concept. Governments typically do not impose tariffs on their own, but rather due to lobbying pressure from interest groups. Tullock referred to this variety of behavior as “wasteful” (Tullock, 1967, P.5). As a side note, Tullock may have been the architect rent-seeking, however, it was economist Anne O. Krueger who coined its name’s sake back in 1974.

 

Based on my observations of working in a corporate office there are three prevalent forms of workplace rent-seeking. This list includes: self-praise/  verbal demolition of co-workers, brown-nosing, and creating busywork. Any action or omission of action in the workplace is overtly economic. No one works for free. The only difference is scale. Many of these behaviors are anti-competitive. At work, your co-workers are your competition. All of these behaviors are attempts to secure gains without creating any additional wealth. Through damaging the image of co-workers or the individual improving their image, they are gaining potential job security which protects their paycheck. Typically, at the expense of the employer because this behavior does not distract from employees doing their jobs.

 

Self-Praise and Verbal Demolition of Co-Workers:

As the saying goes talk is cheap. Unfortunately, empty words have carried more clout than they should out on the sales floor. Anyone can pat themselves on the back and expound upon the “superior” customer service they provide. Especially when the boss is present. Much of this bluster, whether it is factual or not, skew popular perception. It is easier to take things for face-value than to look below the surface. If someone is persistently selling their skills and value to the company, it is easier to believe them than to validate their claims. Even when faced with contrary metrics many managers still fall into the folly of accepting the shameless self-promotion of these under-performing employees. This acquiescence is generally also reflected in the perceptions of this subpar employee’s peers. Despite all of the opposing evidence they will express a favorable opinion of this individual. Making the manager less inclined to terminate this individual. The manager would not want to jeopardize group dynamics. However, baseless self-promotion does is nothing but counter-productive and a waste of company resources.

 

The devious foil of Self-praise is the verbal demolition of co-workers. Portraying co-workers in a bad light to distract from an individual’s performance deficits. One common example is proliferating gossip and rumors. Even to be so brazen to fabricate formal complaints regarding interactions with individuals. For example, a false sexual harassment complaint filed with human resources.  Gossip being on the lower end of the scale and fraudulent human resource reports being a more extreme form. Going to great lengths to assassinate the character of your co-workers requires a great deal of time and effort. It could be suggested that it would even be easier to just do your job. Versus wasting everyone’s time and resources with such puerile and sophomoric attempts at subterfuge.

 

Brown-Nosing:

 

Complimenting the boss, attending all of the social functions you are invited to, pretending to be his friend, laughing at all of his lame jokes. Brown-nosing, sucking-up… this behavior goes by many terms. No one every engages in brown-nosing without having a specific set of ends. Whether it would be the boss overlooking poor performance or giving other forms of preferential treatment. Such as being picked over more qualified candidates for a promotion. Why work harder when you could just work smarter? It is easier to go get drunk with your boss at a happy hour and pretend to be his best friend than to do your job. It is astonishing how many people in management fall for these naked attempts to curry favor with them. Then again an entire encyclopedia could be written about the psychology behind this mystifying phenomenon.

 

Creating Busywork:

 

The image of busy workers is synonymous with productivity.  Is this always the case? Not always. Sometimes workers will generate work or purposely utilize inefficient methods to complete tasks to create the perception of productivity. Some employees will go so far to create arbitrary tasks they will intentionally do their jobs incorrectly. Their pointless busywork would be correcting their own mistake. As perverse as that sounds, I have seen it with my own two eyes! Unfortunately, perception tends to carry more weight than substance.  Even if that perception is illusory.

 

A more traditional example of this rent-seeking tactic is to intentionally procrastinate and then do all your work at the end of the day. To create the illusion that you are busy and working hard.  Versus addressing action items as they come in throughout the day. Generating the image of having a mountain of work to do makes it look like you have a heavier workload. Making you less susceptible to being ousted out in the next round of layoffs. While counter-productive these methods aim to mask the fact that their position is nothing more than a redundancy.

Machiavelli in the Office – Part IV: The Folly of Neutrality

 

 

 

photo of woman using her laptop
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Machiavelli was arguably one of the most dynamic minds of the Renaissance era. Some scholars argue that was the first pragmatic philosopher. Lending his contextual morality to thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand. The righteousness for its very sake can prove to be an impediment. Even stray us away from the greater good. This for any ruler would be to protect and defend their principality/kingdom. Being the first pioneer to venture into the dark waters of practical utilitarianism has made Machiavelli a symbol of moral impropriety.  Forever staining his legacy as an intellectual and writer. To such an extent some are bold enough to claim that he was not even a philosopher.

 

The pragmatically-minded Niccolo Machiavelli provided some deeply profound insights into the study of politics. However, many of these insights are quite transcendent and shed light on the inner mechanics of human nature. Applying to more than the grisly and hallowed halls of the 16th-century Florentine royal court. Realizations that can be applied to better survive the duplicity of the boardroom or sales floor.

 

As in any work environment, disagreements are invariable. They are bound to happen regardless of workplace dynamics. The defining difference between successfully navigating such situations and being trapped in a spider’s web of drama is simple.  Do not be neutral! I would also innovate upon Machiavelli’s point by including do not play both sides of the conflict. Remaining neutral or being a “double-agent” has several adverse effects. All will damage your reputation at work. It will make you appear to be dishonest, disloyal, indecisive, weak, and disconnected.  None of these attributes will convey any leadership potential or valuable soft-skills. Rather it makes you look pretty foul professionally.

 

A prince is also esteemed when he is a true friend and a true enemy, that is when without any hesitation he discloses himself in support of someone against another. This course is always more useful than to remain neutral, because if two powers close to you come to grips, either they are of such quality that if one wins, you have to fear the winner, or not. In either of these two cases, it will always be more useful to you to disclose yourself and to wage open war; for in the first case if you do not disclose yourself, you will always be the prey of whoever wins, to the pleasure and satisfaction of the one who was defeated, and you have no reason, nor anything, to defend you or give you refuge. For whoever wins does not want suspect friends who may not help him in adversity; whoever loses does not give you refuge, since you did not want to share his fortune with arms in hand. (Machiavelli, 1532, P.89. Transl. Mansfield. 1985) [1].

 

Staying neutral or switching sides above all damages trust.  As conveyed in the wise words of Machiavelli. If there are ongoing issues between a co-worker you are friends with and another co-worker. Your work pal is expecting you to stick up for them and have their side of the conflict. Anything else will damage your relationship. Granted, we are only talking about one co-worker, but the image is everything. If you appear as disloyal, dishonest, or fake word will spread. Typically you will not be the wiser. The true irony being many of the individuals proliferating gossip about you being fake are the same people that fall into this very same trap.

 

If you are neutral in an inter-department conflict the negative consequences are only magnified. If others cannot rely on you for support, how can you expect them to do the same? That is precisely Machiavelli’s point. Beyond appearing to be fake, you are burning bridges. People who may have been willing to help you through various conflicts or issues will be less inclined to. Like anything else in life, reciprocity is key. That doesn’t matter if it is a key ally being attacked by hostile forces or a dispute over the delegation of responsibilities at work.  We all make cognitive assessments about our relationships. Everyone whether consciously or subconsciously is keeping a proverbial scoreboard. Similar premise to a bank account, if you don’t contribute anything the well will eventually run dry. It is best to bring what you can to the table. Whether or not you intend to protect a true friendship or solidify an alliance is another story.

 

To expect the benefits of a relationship regardless of its nature, without out reciprocating anything beneficial is presumptive. Very well could put you on the road to creating a new adversary. Machiavelli, the dark philosopher himself, recognized this. He understood to achieve anything you need the assistance of others. We are not marooned on a  desert island like Robinson Crusoe. If you appear to be disloyal or to manipulative, you will eventually hit a brick wall. Leaders need the support of their subordinates. If you are under leadership you need the support of your leader and peers. Marring these ties with being the office gossip or being too timid to declare sides, is only a detriment to yourself. Wanting to keep the peace in the office is a laudable goal. However, it is far too idealistic and not within reach. If a dispute is unavoidable, you need to pick aside. The consequences of not doing so are much more profound than those of staying neutral. Having only enemies in the office is a lonely and treacherous road.

Machiavelli In the Office-Part III: This Isn’t a Popularity Contest

photo of people holding each other s hands
Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

 

 

 

The principles detailed in Machiavelli’s flagship mirror-for-prices book The Prince are quite versatile. Concepts that can be applied anywhere from the bedroom to the boardroom. Ideas that possess utility beyond the treacherous halls of the 1500’s-era Florentine courts. They may very well be useful to you in your daily life. May even be able to help you navigate the minefield of climbing the corporate ladder.

 

In the third installment of this series, we will examine one of the most well-known quotes from The Prince.

It is better to be feared than loved when either is to be dispensed with. (Machiavelli, 1532. Transl. Mansfield 1985) [1].

 

The meaning quote appears to be quite linear. Many variations of this concept have circulated throughout history and popular culture. This premise was first captured in print by Machiavelli. Presents a pragmatic truth that is applicable anywhere. From the schoolyard to the prison yard. It even has its utility on the sales floor. All because you enter adulthood doesn’t mean that “bullies” become a thing of the past. Unfortunately, individuals looking to victimize others is all too real of a problem in the workplace.  Whether you are in management or are an entry-level employee you need to be to cope with this aspect of work. There will always be people looking to undermine and tear you down. Outside of the emotional stress, it can cause, it also can be detrimental to your career. Sometimes rumors can take on a life of their own, you wouldn’t a damaged reputation to sully any opportunities for advancement.

 

To some extent this advice from Machiavelli is counterintuitive. Growing up we were always told, “you get more flies with honey than vinegar”. There is some truth in that to a degree. Like with most things in this world, kindness is not exempt from the Law of Diminishing Returns. If you are too kind, those with a proclivity for predation will see a potential target. Not to mention, another point shrewd point that was made by Machiavelli. People are fickle. You can be exorbitantly kind and friendly to them one day. The next they will be stabbing you in the back. Trying to be everyone’s friend may be a luxury you can’t afford if you are serious about your career.

 

Often excessive kindness is viewed as a weakness. If due to dynamics within the work culture you are not well-liked, kindness will only be a noose around your neck. Even pretending to appear kind will be too much of a liability. You will have to cultivate a tough exterior. One that conveys you will put up with any nonsense. Sure everyone will appreciate you bringing in donuts for about 15-minutes. Then less than an hour later you are back to being the office doormat. The weak link that can be used and abused. More domineering and aggressive co-workers will recognize this and will try to test you. Give them a run for their money. Let them know you are not intimidated!  The shock of that alone will have them reeling. Underneath it all, they are weak people. They are lazy people. In order to make themselves appear productive, they need to degrade others. This is nothing more than grade A sophistry. Nothing of substance. Just tawdry and cheap tricks. Do not let these prime examples of dishonesty, banality, and mediocrity get to you. If they were more capable they wouldn’t need to stoop to such lowly tactics to discredit others. Gently push back, they will not expect it. Their reaction will be priceless.

 

Crafting a resilient facade and be able to defend yourself from the office “bully” does have its limitations. While you don’t want to seem like a pushover, without constraint aggression can backfire. Even the master of statecraft and subterfuge understood that if you become known for superfluous acts of cruelty you will become hated (Machiavelli, 1532. Transl. Mansfield 1985, p.72) [2]. This would defeat the whole purpose of making yourself appear intimidating. Once you cross certain lines, your co-workers will relish taking you down. Not due to perceived weakness, but due to your actions appearing to be unjust. Per unwritten and unspoke social conventions, there are certain norms that are to never be violated. Defending yourself from the predator by becoming the predator is rarely ethically justifiable. Machiavelli acknowledged this indirectly. The informal restraints of excessive cruelty are other people. Whether codified in formal law or in informal normative values. If others sense injustice in your actions, they will put you in your place.

 

That is one of many examples of why labling Machievlli as “amoral” is a misnomer. There was a loose moral code implied in The Prince. A general message of pragmaticism above all. If you fail to protect and effectively rule your principality, you have failed as a ruler. While this brand of philosophical thought is not grounded in the grandiose conception of idyllic morality, doesn’t mean it is devoid of morality. Pragmaticism may seem cold and mechanical there are natural constraints. If as a ruler you implement a grotesquely inhumane policy, public outcry and the threat of rebellion will swiftly prove as a check on your power. The same applies in terms of inspiring cautious respect among your co-workers. Act in a manner that will persuade people to not take advantage of you. However, the perception of your co-workers also operates as a restraint on how menacing you can be.