Can Leadership Style “Solve” Machiavellian Employees?

Topic(s): leadership
Publication: Journal of Management, 2015
Article: Leading Machiavellians: How to Translate Machiavellians Selfishness Into Pro-Organizational Behavior
Authors: F.D. Belschak, D.N. Den Hartog, K. Kalshoven
Reviewed by: Beth Melillo

Is your organization having trouble with Machiavellian employees? Personality can have a dark side, or as researchers say, a “dark triad.” These dark traits include psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. Machiavellian (or “Mach”) employees use deceit and duplicitousness to achieve personal gain. They can be charming but manipulative, and they believe the end justifies the means. Mach employees may damage team spirit by acting selfishly, for example, by keeping score on who owes them a favor.

Contrast this with employees who display organizational citizenship behavior (OCB). This is behavior that goes beyond performing minimum job requirements. Researchers have found that OCBs can include “affiliative” forms, such as interpersonal cooperation, as well as “challenging” forms that emphasize contributing ideas, initiative, and voicing issues that may challenge the status quo. These challenging OCBs are often rated highly by managers and strongly contribute to the organization overall, but may involve losing face and social capital, so Mach employees can be reluctant to perform them. However, could Mach employees be led to perform these challenging OCBs? If so, how?


The researchers (Belschak, Hartog, and Kalshoven, 2015) propose transformational leadership as the key to unlocking Machiavellians’ contributions toward suggesting change and taking initiative.

Transformational leaders enhance morale and job performance by using inspiration and vision to guide followers through times of change. They are able to link an individual employee’s goals to the organization’s goals and paint a compelling vision that all employees desire, including Mach employees. In fact, these transformational leaders make questioning the status quo and presenting novel ideas something that is expected in order to succeed.


The researchers administered two sets of anonymous surveys to pairs of managers and employees at 71 different companies. The surveys revealed that Mach employees who have transformational leaders do display more challenging OCBs. But, to drill further into their understanding of why, the researchers also examined the methods of providing that leadership.

Transformational leaders provide a sense of empowerment, which may affect how likely Mach employees are to perform challenging OCBs. These leaders allow followers to determine how they will complete their own work, and give them opportunity and latitude to explore. When these work characteristics are present, it is known as providing employees with autonomy.

Overall, the study demonstrated the following: Providing high Mach employees with an environment that allows them to determine how they will achieve their goals has certain benefits. In this instance, the high Mach employees will be more likely to use challenging OCB behavior to contribute.


Short of administering an employment screening for Mach before making a hiring decision, employers may not always know how Machiavellian their employees are. And it is likely not a question of if an employer has Mach employees, but how many. Successful leaders need to know how to best motivate these Mach employees.

For high Mach employees, this research indicates that transformational leadership techniques, such as increasing autonomy and providing clear specific goals, can develop Mach employees and get them to display challenging OCBs. Leaders could change their own behavior accordingly and monitor the resulting impact on Mach employees—albeit not too closely, so as not to compromise autonomy. This should inspire high Mach employees to contribute to the goals of the organization and not damage team relationships.

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Belschak, F.D., Den Hartog, D.N., Kalshoven, K. (2015). Leading Machiavellians: how to translate Machiavellians selfishness Into pro-organizational behavior. Journal of Management, 41(7), 1934-1956.