Machiavellianism: The Truth of What Works


The myth of emotional intelligence postulates that the more emotionally intelligent you are, the more money you will make, and the better of a career you will have.

This article contends that emotional intelligence only helps you up to a certain point at work.
And, if you truly want to reach the top, emotional intelligence as it’s most often described, such as high in empathy and tending to relationships, can actually be harmful.

What’s Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EI), measured as “emotional quotient” (EQ), is an umbrella term that could be loosely defined as:

The capacity to be aware, control, and appropriately express one’s emotions, to understand other people’s emotions, and to empathetically handle interpersonal relationships.

Daniel Goleman, who popularized the term, divides emotional intelligence into four components:

  • Self-awareness (personal competence 1)
  • Self-management (personal competence 2)
  • Social awareness (social competence 1)
  • Relationship management (social competence 2)

The first two elements of personal competence refer to being aware of your emotions and managing your behavior.
The second two elements of social competence refer to the awareness of other people’s feelings, moods, and behavior in order to improve the quality of your relationships.

Obviously, those competencies are important.
But how important are they when it comes to career progression, compared to other skills?

The Myth of Emotional Intelligence

This quote made “emotional intelligence” popular:

As much as 80% of adult “success” comes from EQ

That was Daniel Goleman.
Since then, emotional intelligence entered the collective imagination, more supporting “evidence” emerged, and seminars teaching emotional intelligence have sprung out around the globe.

And the craze quickly entered the world of business.

Goleman, in his sequel book “Working With Emotional Intelligence” restates that IQ does not determine career success, but EQ does.

Travis Bradberry in his book “Emotional Intelligence 2.0” and in this Forbes article says that EQ predicts salary, and that “one-point increase in EQ leads to an increase of 1.300 dollars of annual salary” (which doesn’t make much sense by the way, because it cannot be a linear progression to infinity).

But is it really true?

Empathic Nice Guys Might Not Finish Last, But They Do Get Stuck in The Middle

In brief:

From all the evidence I have gathered, it’s not true that emotional intelligence is a key contributor to career success.

It matters, in a way, yes, but it’s not a linear progression.
It doesn’t help you in all types of jobs and, most importantly, it doesn’t seem like it helps you reach the top.

One single chart, plotting the EQ results by job titles, should suffice to put the theory to rest:

chart plotting EQ results by job titles
Data from Travis Bradberry, “Emotional Intelligence 2.0”

Bradberry computed the results of his emotional intelligence survey from more than 100.000 individuals, across multiple industries, and on five continents.
Plus, Bradberry is one of the pundits for emotional intelligence, selling emotional intelligence training. That means: Bradberry’s interests are in direct contrast to what his own survey shows (so big kudos to him for releasing discordant data).
Both the numbers and the inverse conflict of interest make the results very telling, in my opinion.

And the results say that emotional intelligence is only high up until mid-level management.

Bradberry, in this Harvard Business Review article poignantly titled “heartless bosses”, asks:

How could it be that the very people who need emotional intelligence the most seem to have it the least?

Well, to me, an obvious reason looms in the distance: because, it seems, you don’t need a high EQ to be promoted to the executives rank.

What does the author of the original survey have to say about it?
In this article, Bradberry acknowledges that executives might have lower EQ because their job “erodes” EQ, and because companies don’t take EQ into account when deciding who to promote.

My answer is somewhat different.

It’s not that CEOs are (necessarily) emotionally stupid. They probably aren’t. But they just have different priorities.
CEOs are more concerned with power, winning, and getting things done than with what helps you score high in emotional intelligence -things such as understanding what others feel, protecting people’s egos, nurturing relationships, and “social harmony”-.

CEOs are able to doggedly pursue their goals, independently of what others think and feel. CEOs aren’t too touchy, and they don’t care if others get offended.
Those traits make your EI score tick downward. But, at work, they help you move upward.
Says psychologist George Simon in his best-selling book “In Sheep’s Clothing“:

CEOs most often have inflated self-esteem (…) and are undetered by adverse consequences or societal condemnation.

Simon is basically saying that a thick-skin and feeling great no matter what others say or think is a trait that, albeit potentially anti-social, helps you advance in life.
This is the equivalent of dialing empathy down, not up.

So, if being able to dial down one’s own empathy and sensitivity is useful, might it be possible that not having empathy and sensitivity at all could be an advantage?

Well, there is indeed much evidence to suggest that the opposite of empathy and emotional intelligence can help you get to the top.
Enter, the psychopath, the individual with no empathy and no conscience.

The Harsher Truth: Psychopathy Beats Empathy

Jon Moulton is a famed British private equity investor.

Asked by the Financial Times what his 3 best features are, he replied (italic is mine):

Determination, curiosity and insensitivity

Why insensitivity?
Moulton says that insensitivity “lets you sleep when others can’t”.

That doesn’t sound like a man high in empathy, does it?
It sounds much closer to psychopathy than to an empathic leader.

In my own experience in business and start-ups, I saw similar examples.
Of the ones I can share here, I once had a CEO who said we’d “throw bodies at the operations department” -he loved repeating that in his previous company he handled the breakneck speed of growth by “throwing bodies at operations.”
The venture was going to be a slam dunk, he loved repeating (grandiose view of self), and the prospects who didn’t want to work with us were “stupid” (demeaning towards others).

Another founder, a speed metal singer who told me he fancied himself a “warrior”, invited me to pre-launch meetings with the goal of wooing me in. How did this one refer to the guys running operational tasks in his future business?
He called them “monkeys”.
And had the same braggart, grandiose sense of impending, easy victory as the previous example. His company was going to be raking in money, and for the easy task of actually getting the work done, “we’ll just hire monkeys” (I left in mild disgust that day and never saw him again).

The Goldwater rule says you shouldn’t diagnose people whom you haven’t professionally examined. But if I had to bet money, I’d bet that those two would score quite high in psychopathy.

This should not be a shocker to anyone in the social sciences.
The idea that psychopathy -or certain traits of psychopathy- can help individuals climb hierarchical organizations and acquire power is nothing new in the field (Dutton, 2012; Hare & Babiak, 2006)

Data and evidence are not forthcoming in this field. We can understand why: few business leaders would be happy to be measured and identified as high in psychopathy.
But some data does exist, and it points to interesting conclusions.
Babiak and Hare administered the psychopathy checklist to a group of 203 American business executives.
The results?
While luckily the median psychopathy score was not high, the prevalence of psychopathic traits among business executives was far higher than among the general population.
3.9% of the business executives had a score of 30 or higher, which is the minimum threshold to be clinically considered a psychopath. That means that there were 2 to 3 times more psychopaths among the business executives than in the normal population (that’s a lot).

And we’re not talking about extreme cases like “Chainsaw Al” or Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos.
We’re talking about random samples of successive businesspeople.

sociopath elizabeth holmes liesHolmes’ Machiavellianism allowed her to be hailed as a role model for females entrepreneurs while she bullied her way to unlimited power

There is a very interesting caveat to the Hare’s study, though.
The caveat is, in part, worrying. But in part, it also holds the keys to a solution.
Here it is: the psychopaths from Hare’s study received poor evaluations from their superiors. And they were correctly identified as poor team players and as having poor management styles.
So it seems like it’s not true that psychopaths can go up undetected. They do are recognized as some sorts of a-holes -which makes sense-.
Yet the obvious reality remains: being correctly identified as poor leaders of people didn’t stop psychopaths from climbing the corporate ladder.

Equally worrying, some of their psychopathy traits did indeed help them get near the top.
Says psychopathy expert Babiak in that same study:

Even those traits that reflect a severe lack of human feelings or emotional poverty (lack of remorse, guilt, empathy) can be put into service by corporate psychopaths, where being ‘‘tough’’ or ‘‘strong’’ (making hard, unpopular decisions) or ‘‘cool under fire’’ (not displaying emotions in the face of unpleasant circumstances) can work in their favor.

And he adds:

In sum, the very skills that make the psychopath so unpleasant (and sometimes abusive) in society can facilitate a career in business even in the face of negative performance ratings.

That’s not the only study to link psychopathy with business success.
Board and Fritzon had a smaller sample of just 39 business managers, but it emerged that a number of histrionic and narcissistic attributes such as charm, egocentricity, and lack of empathy were more common in business leaders than in so-called disturbed personalities.

The difference was that the business leaders’ group was less likely to display the more “antisocial aspects” of psychopathy, such as physical aggression, instability, and hostile defiance.
So, yes, violent psychopathy won’t get you far. But the Machiavellian aspect of it, might.

The Future Trend: Less EQ, More Ruthlessness

What’s the trend?

Will EQ be more rewarded, or will psychopathy traits be more rewarded?

It’s difficult to say.

World-renowned psychopathy expert Robert Hare says that psychopathy is on the rise. And the general corporate environment, with its faster pace and more frequent job changes becoming the norm, is generally becoming more suitable for psychopaths.

From Hare’s writings, it also seems to me that many high-earning professions are more likely to downplay the role of emotional intelligence and to instead reward psychopathy.

Investment banking seems to be a popular industry for individuals high in psychopathy.
And Robert Hare is often quoted as saying that:

“if I wasn’t studying psychopaths in prison, I’d do so at the stock exchange”.
-Pyschopathy researcher Robert Hare

The 2008 financial crisis has also been linked with psychopathic behavior (Boddy, 2011). It’s not a mystery to anyone that plenty of executives made lots of money and walked away from the mess while leaving the taxpayers on the hook.

The Darker EI That Helps You Advance

So, is EI useless?

Quite the opposite.

From Bradberry’s and Goleman’s work, plus further menta-analysis, it seems true that emotional intelligence is positively correlated to job performance (except for non-people facing jobs Newman et. al, 2010), and makes for better leadership.
Such as, emotional intelligence is important for good governance and good leadership.
It just doesn’t seem to be so important for personal advancement and selfish ends.

Unless… Unless we enlarge the definition of Emotional Intelligence.
Emotional intelligence can help you advance. But it’s not the emotional intelligence as it’s often understood to be, such as caring and empathizing with your team.

The 2 Types of Empathy

There are two main types of empathy: emotional, and cognitive (Cox et. al., 2011).

Emotional empathy allows you to feel what other people are feeling, feel sympathy and compassion for their pain, and possibly feel bad about it at a more or less deep level (sometimes referred to as “somatic empathy”).
Cognitive empathy instead helps you to understand what other people are feeling, but without being emotionally affected, and without caring for people’s suffering.

As psychopathy researcher James Fallon says, psychopaths have little or no emotional empathy, but they can be good at understanding what others are feeling. And they use that information strategically, and for selfish ends only (sometimes referred to as “tactical empathy”).

The same can be said for emotional intelligence at large.
As organizational psychologist Adam Grant shrewdly notes, EI can be used for good or for less good purposes.
And the type of emotional intelligence that helps you make a good career is a different type of emotional intelligence.

Such as:

The type of emotional intelligence that helps you advance at work is more Machiavellian in nature. You understand how people feel, what behaviors are more likely to be rewarded, and you put that information to the service of career strategies that get you promoted.

Just to be clear: emotional empathy does not necessarily hurt your personal career and success potentials. It’s just that it’s not strictly needed, either. And too much emotional empathy can also become harmful, leading to paralysis and the inability to act (Sapolsky, 2017). At work, that would mean not firing people when you should fire people.
What does matter when it comes to promotions, is cognitive empathy for effective social strategizing.

This is the high-EQ that helps you advance:

  • Knowledge of human psychology (including your own psychology)

It’s people who decide who advances and get promoted.
And knowing how people work underpins any effective decision and career strategy.

Some psychopaths actively research psychology and power dynamics to become better abusers.
Read here a shocking account of a psychopath’s sexual strategy.

  • Office politics mastery

Depending on the definition, office politics is either all the human element of work, or all the human element outside of the sanctioned rules.

But even if we adopted the latter definition, since most organizations don’t promote only on competence, office politics mastery is crucial for anyone who wants to make it to the top.

Office politics is about ingratiating bosses, finding mentors and sponsors, self-promoting effectively, and aligning interests.

And how about when those interests can’t be aligned?

  • When interests cannot align, the EQ that helps you advance is Machiavellian in nature

One study by David Buss and Liisa M.Kyl-Heku analyzed different career strategies.
And found out that a “manipulative strategy” was as effective as a strategy based on industriousness (ie.: hard work).

Frankly, I don’t think you can reach a scientific conclusion on specific career strategies. They’re too difficult to measure, and they overlap too much.

But I think we can all agree that Machiavellianism can help you advance.
This is a case where the scientific study simply confirms what most of us have seen with our own eyes.

The Machiavellian player knows that there are plenty of areas of conflicting interests between himself and the organization, and between himself and his colleagues.
And he is keenly aware of how to maximize self-interest while looking like he’s playing for the team.

This is the area of EI where psychopaths do quite well.
Psychopaths are indeed good at recognizing emotions in other people’s faces. And they do not always score low in emotional intelligence (Copestake et al., 2013). It’s “just” in the conscience and empathy side that they’re lacking.

  • Knowledge and mastery of power dynamics

Here is the big secret:

It’s alpha males and alpha females who get promoted.
You will rarely see a CEO who’s a wimp, a CEO who acts submissively, or a CEO who speaks with uncertainty.

The simple rule is that to make it to the top, you need to act like a top dog.
Also see this article on executive skills that get you promoted.

I Wish I Could Tell You Differently

I’m not happy to write this article.

And I wish reality was different.
So not only I’m open to change my mind, but I wish someone will change my mind (with evidence, and pragmatic realism of course).

But for now, from the evidence I have seen so far, career progression has less to do with empathy and emotional intelligence, and more to do with looking the part, smart politics and, sometimes, ruthlessness and unabashed selfishness.

Exceptions: The “Enlightened Companies”

Luckily, there are a few exceptions.

These are what I call “enlightened companies”.
Enlightened companies are strictly based on results and, often but not necessarily, also have a lower tolerance for assholes. That type of culture tends to screen-in more empathic folks while weeding out the most obvious sociopaths.
As we saw earlier indeed, the psychopaths were correctly recognized as poor managers and team players. So it would go a long way to fix the problem if companies refused to accept and promote antisocial behavior.

It also seems that enlightened companies perform better in terms of bottom line profits.
They follow the result-based organization style that billionaire and Bridgewater found Ray Dalio explains in his book “Principles“. Or the management style that former Googler Kim Scott branded “Radical Candor“, which is a mix of caring and radical honesty.

Other exceptions include companies that move slow (psychopaths aren’t good in stable environments), or that prioritize relationships or sustainable growth over turning a quick buck.
Costco, as described by Simon Sinek in “Leaders Eat Last” might be one such example.

If you work for one of these companies, great.
If you want to build one of these companies, even better: we need more of them.

Still, keep in mind there might not exist a company where political savvy plays absolutely no role whatsoever.
So some knowledge of how people work will always serve you well.
Furthermore, the most enlightened workplaces are the exceptions.
Between them and the stock exchanges of this world, there are plenty of grey-area companies where psychopathy and Machiavellianism can pay off very handsomely.
And in the grey-area workplaces, emotional intelligence and empathy are far from being an obvious asset.


Emotional Intelligence is crucial in life.
It helps you understand people and yourself, get along with people, and bond and connect with people.

It also helps you at work.
But not in the way it’s usually portrayed.

Emotional intelligence helps you to get up to mid-level management.
After that, at executive and board levels, different traits come to the fore.

Learning how to play politics, including sometimes in potentially Machiavellian ways, becomes more helpful.
And what I call “executive skills” matter more than emotional intelligence.

This, by the way, could be one of the main reasons why women are still struggling to make it to the very top.
Women take emotional intelligence more seriously. And more literally.

A Quote to Go By

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a quote from “The Good Psychopath Guide“:

There are two things that rise to the top. The cream, and the scum.

To which, I add: to be the cream, you need to know how the scum operates.

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