Machiavelli for procurement professionals – don’t be hated, and don’t steal your team’s women (men)!

Continuing with our series on Machiavelli, whose great book The Prince recently celebrated its 500th anniversary since initial publication. And today we’ll look at two contentious issues that are amongst the factors that have led to Machiavelli’s reputation (unwarranted in our opinion) as a scheming, evil individual.

One of the most controversial aspects of Machiavelli’s thinking is his attitude to truth and laws. Basically, he is all for a ruler being merciful, honest, and reasonable – until it benefits him to be otherwise! So he recommends that his ‘prince’ should act consistency and within the law, and keep his promises, until it is necessary for his to do otherwise.

His stance in this respect is not necessarily  immoral, but it is, we might argue, amoral at best. Yet we can still see how this works in practice today. Politicians value their image as honest people, but they don’t hesitate to break election pledges when it seems that it will benefit them – or indeed the country. No University tuition fees? A referendum on Europe? No more new taxes? Great promises until they no longer work politically.

And this is true of course in business. We might say to a supplier ‘we see our relationship as a long term partnership’  - and then move the business when a better offer comes along. Is that wrong? Well, it is not the highest standards of moral behavior, but Machiavelli would argue that if it helps to retain power, then it is necessary.

In our context, if we behave morally and our firm goes out of business, is that an acceptable outcome? Machiavelli would say not, and would suggest that as situations change, so should our actions, even if we have previously indicated or even promised a different route.

The second point today comes back to the discussion in our last post around being loved, feared and hated. Machiavelli had a pretty cynical view of the public. He suggested that the prince could get away with a lot – indeed, at one point he suggests it is easier to control the masses if they live in poverty. But he has strong views on how to be feared (which is good) whilst avoiding being hated (not good because you get assassinated)!

"Still, a prince should make himself feared in such a way that if he does not gain love, he at any rate avoids hatred; for fear and the absence of hatred may well go together, and will be always attained by one who abstains from interfering with the property of his citizens and subjects or with their women".

Basically, don’t mess with your subjects property or their women is the message! (I apologise for the sexism, but this was 1500). Now I hope not many Procurement Directors interfere with their subordinates’ women (or men if we turn it around). But what about taking the 'property of his citizens'?

If we extend property to salaries, bonuses, company cars, pension entitlements, then we can see that yes, these are still amongst the most sensitive aspects for management. I remember the agonies of allocating the NatWest Procurement bonus pool, knowing that it was much easier to disappoint people than motivate them. So do bear in mind how sensitive these things are, and how easy it is to become hated as a boss if you don't get it right or are perceived to have 'stolen' what belongs to others.

And we have at least one more Machiavelli discussion still to come.

Voices (2)

  1. b+t:

    I eagerly anticipate ‘Rochefoucauld for Purchasers’

  2. Emily Crews-Montès:

    It is clear that The Prince is still relevant today when it comes to the allocation of resources, at which point humans revert to their natural state! It’s lucky for me that in Peter Smith’s team I was but a lowly buyer – rather than a highly paid manager with the fortunes of my entire family riding on my annual bonus. I never heard any adverse comment about you on this though, Peter!

    In “Latin” countries, such as France where I live, it’s difficult to see any people in powerful positions concerning themselves in the least about being hated! They have less to fear from “assassination” (being sacked or voted out of power), because of three important differences: the maintenance of the status quo (outside scope here), the attitude to power – it’s OK to wield power without apology, and the relationship between “Truth” and power and tradition.

    In the English-speaking world, leaders are more benevolent, leadership is more consensual, and there is more pressure to appear, at least, benevolent. Over here on the other side of the channel, it’s no holds barred, and Might is Right is the order of the day. Those loud and macho street protests and strikes are a ritualised right of reply whose efficacy varies greatly (but is mostly fairly low).

    In the UK, then, I doubt that most managers, however senior, can rely upon the obedience of his reports, as the English-speaking world’s culture, relative to the Latin ones, gives obedience much less cultural context or currency. Individualism is highly prized, and I think that people would quickly spot a “Prince” who systematically undermines any team member who shows that he has interests of his own, provided that the individual doesn’t overdo the anarchistic, self-serving or destructive behaviour. In France, it would be seen as “normal” that anyone so much as speaking out of turn (not even acting) would receive a rap on the knuckles. It is interesting, however, to see that Machiavelli needed to deal the subject of “messing with citizens’ possessions”. The principle of “nobility” is also dealt with by Philippe d’Iribarne (“La Logique de l’Honneur”), a 20th century work that describes how a French leader should be. In this context, noble behaviour involves drawing a line of decency beyond which the wielding of power is unseemly. The difference, in my experience, is that this line is differently drawn in different cultures.

    Perhaps The Prince is most relevant in companies with a strong corporate culture, as the need to toe the company line has a lot in common with the conformist, “high power distance” (Hofstede) cultural context of this work. I have observed this in Novartis – not that this company had its origins in a Latin company, though some of its acquisitions and company bases find themselves in those locations – but that the common denominator in a pharmaceutical (highly procedurised), multinational, is the need to forsake most of one’s own ideas in order to maximise team effectiveness. This inevitably means that in the cultural melting-pot it’s the dogmatic style, rather than the Northen European collaborative way, that prevails. The business heads who adopt Princely ways would fit this model.

    As for “the Truth” and the law, this is valued highly in the States, fairly highly in the UK, and progresses along a continuum that sees it subject to variations in validity that become more extreme as one heads south. I don’t like to think of how far an ordinary person could expect to count on a leader of Renaissance Italy to keep his word! For anyone who thinks I’m being extreme, I urge you to pop over to France and try arguing a point with a “Fonctionnaire”!

    As with all social and political writing, context is important, however well a work has stood the test of time, and whose principles, as in this case, can be seen to hold true in the present day. For those who speak French, the radio programme below might be interesting:

    L’Art de gouverner 3/4 : le Prince de Machiavel – Idées – France Culture

    Jean-Louis Fournel, of Paris 8 University’s department of Languages and Foreign Cultures, explains in this radio programme the context in which The Prince was written. It was a time of political turbulence and Machiavelli an experienced middle-class public sector official who considered himself well placed to advise the Medici family on how to run Florence, and the influence and controversy that followed his work have borne out his confidence. Perhaps more significantly at a time when many other similar works were written, The Prince was written at the dawn of an age of writing – and significantly in Italian, rather than in Latin. Fournel identifies two stages of Machiavellism: the first of indignation at the “less than moral” ideas on how to obtain and to retain power, and the second of the protection of the people against tyranny. He raises a point, also much discussed, of whether The Prince was written principally for leaders, or for their people, as a warning of the tactics and strategies to which they might be subjected.

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