Wolves at Work: Machiavellians

Part I: Who is most likely to bully and why.

Posted Sep 28, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

Victims of workplace bullying face devastating consequences that range from financial instability in the form of lowered job security, satisfaction, and engagement, to physical manifestations including sleep deprivation, PTSD, headaches, chronic neck pain, fibromyalgia, depression, and anxiety. These ailments, both physical and mental all culminate in absenteeism, a greater likelihood of disability, and a significantly higher propensity to leave the workforce. In essence, wolves at work, while they may be depicted in a glorious light in Hollywood, tend to, on the whole, lower the quality, ability, and drive to work for those around them. 

When it comes to bullying in the workplace, research shows that those who are most likely to be ‘bullies’ or exhibit behaviors typically defined as bullying tend to be on what clinicians or researchers deem ‘the dark triad’. This refers to three primary personality constructs that are centered on malevolence, (hence the inclusion of the term 'dark'). Within this triad exist Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy. Each of these 'dark' disorders holds in common behaviors defined by disagreeableness, dishonesty, and manipulation. Beyond the commonalities of these traits, those with a Machiavellian personality disorder (named after Niccolò Machiavelli, author of the infamous 16th-century politically instructional book, 'The Prince'), share an uncanny ability to influence and convince others of whatever is needed to manipulate them for a specific outcome.

Specifically, Machiavellians are shown in the research literature to be the greatest bullies of all. They tend to be very reputation-oriented, they tend to focus on amoral strategies and tactics to get what they ultimately want, combined with barely-there, if not fully non-existent ethics or principles. It's important to note that when we speak about both Machiavellianism, it is nonbinary, and rather scaled, meaning some people will exhibit many highly Machiavellian traits, while others only present some personality and behavioral traits.

What makes a Machiavellian a bully?

While not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), people who would score highly when being tested for Machiavellianism, for instance, are very motivated by money, power, and competition, and winning, and less so on community building, for instance. You can see, then, why bullying in the workplace would come easily for Machiavellians. Let’s take the example of a newly opened promotional spot between two colleagues. The Machiavellian, who has perhaps had a healthy working relationship thus far with his or her colleague, which is possible for a Machiavellian until they see them to be of no use and may turn on them with no remorse, stealing every idea their colleague has had, spreading harsh rumors about their colleague hence cheating their way to the top, or even causing their colleague harm to gain that promotion, which fulfills all motivational attributes that are usually attractive to someone high in Machiavellianism. Although most people would consider those actions incredibly immoral, for the Machiavellian, in essence, the ends justify the means, and they are done with no emotional empathy.  

Within the workplace specifically, Machiavellians will try to flatter, deceive, or intimidate others to obtain their goals. They can also work well with colleagues, and be friendly and charming, so, for victims, it can be difficult to deal with the outcome of trusting a Machiavellian at first, only to have them turn on them in an incredibly malevolent and unanticipated way.

When it comes to coping with narcissists or Machiavellians in the workplace, one of the most valuable things to know is that it isn’t personal; though the workplace bullying may feel devastating and never-ending, it isn't you—anyone in your position would be treated similarly. Accepting this fact, which is difficult for most because of the sheer foreignness of dealing with individuals on the dark triad, will help set reality straight and hopefully have a lessening effect on the self-esteem of the target. 

Because Machiavellians thrive on getting ahead for goals surrounding power and materialism, try as much as possible to set up a work situation that is advantageous to both you and the Machiavellian, creating a win-win scenario where it is actually in the Machiavellian’s best interest to work well with you.

Another way to cope with either type of bullying is to establish and maintain a strong network of individuals, who know your work ethic and accomplishments, as well as maintaining interests outside of work.

Check back shortly for Wolves at Work Part II, where we explore narcissism. 


Djurkovic, N., McCormack, D., & Casimir, G. (2003). The physical and psychological effects of workplace bullying and their relationship to intention to leave: A test of the psychosomatic and disability hypotheses. International Journal of Organization Theory & Behavior.

MacIntosh, J., Wuest, J., Gray, M. M., & Aldous, S. (2010). Effects of workplace bullying on how women work. Western journal of nursing research, 32(7), 910-931.

Hoel, H., Cooper, C. L., & Einarsen, S. V. (2020). Organisational effects of workplace bullying. Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace: Theory, Research and Practice, 209.

Pilch, I., & Turska, E. (2015). Relationships between Machiavellianism, organizational culture, and workplace bullying: Emotional abuse from the target’s and the perpetrator’s perspective. Journal of Business Ethics, 128(1), 83-93.

Pilch, I., & Turska, E. (2015). Relationships between Machiavellianism, organizational culture, and workplace bullying: Emotional abuse from the target’s and the perpetrator’s perspective. Journal of Business Ethics, 128(1), 83-93.

Wisse, B., & Sleebos, E. (2016). When the dark ones gain power: perceived position power strengthens the effect of supervisor Machiavellianism on abusive supervision in work teams. Personality and Individual Differences, 99, 122-126.