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When a crisis brings out the Machiavellian in us

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When a crisis brings out the Machiavellian in us

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I’ve written a few times about the role of a crisis in pulling people together within an organization and prompting a fresh course of action.  Of course it doesn’t always pan out smoothly, as a recent blog highlighted all too well.  It chronicled research that explored displaced aggression theory.  This basically suggests that when we are in a tight spot, we can often take out our frustrations on vulnerable people around us rather than the source of the pain.

Another recent study provides an additional cautionary note.  It’s tempting to think that in a crisis situation, your star performers will be the ones you can rely upon to help rectify the situation and get you back on track.  The research suggests that might not always be the case.

The researchers studied over 100 participants and attempted to measure their Machiavellian qualities via a questionnaire. This included agreement with statements such as “I will do whatever it takes to enhance my promotion potential”.  Each participant would also have their work performance rated by their immediate boss.

It emerged that when times were tougher, and more constraints were imposed upon employees, that the Machiavellian ones were seen as better performers.  The implication of course was that these folks weren’t actually performing better, but were using their political wiles to create that perception, and using the situation to their advantage.

When the situation was not so dire, the opposite tended to occur, with the Machiavellian crowd not being rated anywhere near as highly, suggesting that their antics tend to fall on deaf ears when times are good.

All of which presents us with something of a dilemma doesn’t it?  After all, in a crisis, you will need employees to pull together and focus on achieving the goals of the organization in order for it to pull out of the crisis.  This study suggests that that kind of situation can however, encourage those with the least interest in the organizations goals, and the most interest in their own.

Hopefully, it’s a case of forewarned is forearmed, and as I’m sure you’re measuring performance effectively, and using social performance reviews to solicit feedback from lots of sources, you won’t fall into the trap of believing the Machiavellian types, but it’s something to be aware of nonetheless.

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