Is ruthless self-interest the only way to reach the top?

Piers Cain discovers the dark arts of getting ahead


How far would you go to get a promotion? Would you take credit for another’s work? Steal their ideas? Double-cross someone who has gone out of their way to help you? Lie? Betray a friend? Leave jobs half-done, only doing the minimum needed to get noticed?

Maybe you should consider all of the above. Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford, authors of Machiavellian Intelligence, have a bracing message: modern organizations are inherently inhuman. They are ungrateful, heartless, amoral and duplicitous. The organization is a legal person and its senior officers are duty bound to do whatever is necessary to ensure the survival and growth of that legal person, even if it means sacrificing everyone that works for the organization along the way. It is as true for public services and not-for-profits as corporations.

This world view sees the modern office as Game of Thrones, with uglier people: it’s all about power. The higher up the ladder you get, the safer you will be; plus, there is better compensation on offer should you fail. But as Powell and Gifford emphasize, for you to succeed, others must have failed. You can’t beat the system, so it pays to act accordingly.

What does this mean in practice? First, recognize that the habits and beliefs you regard as virtues could be holding you back. You work hard every day. You give your all. But that only works up to a point. Unless you spend at least 20% of your time networking and promoting yourself with potential sponsors within the firm, the odds are that you will be overlooked. And one day, someone more senior, who may have contributed less than you, might just decide you are surplus to requirements.

Corporations want loyalty, but they won’t be loyal to you. They want people who are committed to the values they espouse and behave in the ways prescribed by the company culture. If you don’t comply, at best, you won’t be promoted; at worst, you will be let go. It is imperative to give the appearance of being fully signed-up, even while recognizing in a secret part of your heart that none of this will last.

One of the most striking observations from Powell and Gifford is that seeing a project through to its conclusion could damage your career. Even if you deliver the promised benefits, your sponsor may have moved on, having taken the credit for themselves. Or, having completed the project,  the organization may decide you are no longer needed. After all, organizations promote and recruit on the basis of potential – what you might do for them in future, not what you have already done. If you are working on an eye-catching project, consider whether it would be better to cash in your chips early.

At points, Powell and Gifford seem rather uneasy about their conclusions and the strategies they recommend. Some readers will find the picture they paint too bleak: yet it is true that modern organizations are structured and incentivized in ways that reward self-seeking, antisocial and heartless behaviour. No one should be surprised when people act accordingly. Indeed, it is a tribute to the positive side of human nature that many choose not to do so. Many business leaders complain that they get little recognition or respect. If they will not change the rules of the game, why are they surprised?

Machiavellian Intelligence: How to Survive and Rise in the Modern Corporation by Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford, LID Publishing

— Piers Cain is a management consultant