The following is an excerpt from the new book, Machiavelli for Women: Defend Your Worth, Grow Your Ambition, and Win the Workplace. The author, Stacey Vanek Smith (@svaneksmith), is a longtime public radio reporter and host. She currently hosts NPR’s The Indicator from Planet Money, a daily podcast covering business and economics. She has also served as a correspondent and host for NPR’s Planet Money and Marketplace. Stacey is a native of Idaho and a graduate of Princeton University, where she earned a BA in comparative literature and creative writing. She also holds an MS in journalism from Columbia University.
Niccolò Machiavelli. Today, he is probably best known as a ruthless power monger, devoid of ethics and compassion. The phrase most often associated with him, “The ends justify the means” (which Machiavelli never actually wrote but probably would have heartily agreed with), has turned him into an apologist for sociopaths, tyrants, and megalomaniacs the world over.
I think this is a gross misunderstanding of both the man and his work. The Prince does not condone random cruelty or tyranny or violence. It is a remarkably sober look at how people take power and how they can best hold on to it and grow it. Machiavelli was an incredibly clear-eyed original thinker who might just be history’s first true champion of real talk. For that reason, there could be no better guide for the workplace.
In the five hundred years since Machiavelli wrote The Prince, a lot of things have changed: We have electricity, the combustion engine, computers, and antibiotics. We’ve even split the atom. People, though, haven’t changed one bit. And for that reason, Machiavelli’s advice about navigating the workplace has proven to be quite timeless.
Machiavelli’s strategies are powerful tools in the modern workplace, especially for women, people of color, and other often-marginalized workers. Here are 7 of my favorite Machiavellian power tips.
#1 — Always Get the Truth, Even If It Hurts
Part of seeing a situation clearly is having people you trust who can offer their outside observations. They can help you see what you don’t want to (or can’t) see. This means helping you assess different situations and colleagues and also giving you feedback. Machiavelli was big on feedback. “A Prince,” he writes, “ought always to take counsel” (Chapter XXIII). Machiavelli saw honest feedback as the primary way a prince could protect himself against flatterers and yes-men. (Machiavelli was death on flatterers and yes-men) “There is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you” (Chapter XXIII). Feedback feels like risky exposure, but Machiavelli saw it as powerful protection for a prince and a way to get necessary information. The ability to hear the truth—or the “truth” of people’s impressions and opinions—will make you stronger and smarter and help you succeed. Machiavelli was careful to say that you should not open yourself up in this way to just anybody. Ask the people who are key to enabling you to move up within a company; ask people you respect; ask the people you trust.
#2 — Cultivate Your Network
Having people you trust and people who can help you in the workplace is crucial (in life, too!). Building a network of people at work or in your profession is absolutely essential to building a career. You should have a mix of people: people who are high up in the company, people who are colleagues, and those who are more junior—also people at other companies who can make you aware of opportunities that come up outside of your bubble. Machiavelli preached the importance of a network hard. The smart prince, he writes, “is defended by being well armed and having good allies” (Chapter XIX). Having a strong network is essential to rising in any profession. Wall Street CEO Sallie Krawcheck says she always remembers advice she got from her friend Carla Harris (a senior banker at Morgan Stanley): “All the important decisions about your career are made when you’re not in the room. People decide to hire you, fire you, promote you, fund you, send you on the overseas assignment, all when you’re not there. So how do you ensure that you have someone in the room fighting for you? I would strongly argue that you need to have in place your Personal Board of Directors. Those are your mentors, your sponsors, your confidantes.”Continue reading “Machiavelli for Women: 7 Power Strategies for the Workplace”