How to be Machiavellian Without Being a Machiavellianne
[a near transcript of Episode 23 of The Uplift podcast]
I’ve been thinking about the workplace for a long time, and how it is that some are so memorable: we love our colleagues, we chase our curiosity, and we feel fulfilled doing meaningful work, all while serving the larger purpose of the organization. Other workplaces are not so memorable – or they’re memorable for less wonderful reasons: we work with colleagues who promote toxicity through gossip or backstabbing. We report to bosses who disempower us through micromanagement, through neglect, or through general assholery. Or worse: we are silenced, policed, harassed, or even are discriminated against with no repercussions for the perpetrators. We can be mistreated so subtly that we are “constructively discharged,” the term for making an employee’s life so miserable that she chooses to leave. Or we can be fired outright, sometimes illegally, and sometimes inexplicably. (PS: my heart goes out to those Twitter employees who were fired with no notice just last week.)
When I decided to devote a series of episodes to the ways women can support each other through supervising and mentoring, I envisioned talking about these strong relationships against this backdrop of the many ways women suffer in the workplace.
And I knew I would take some grief for saying the ugly stuff out loud. There are folks in my network who consider it unprofessional for me to talk this bluntly, and consider it unseemly and indiscreet that I share actual stories of the ways women leaders mistreat those around them.
And I’ve decided that’s fine. Because not speaking up? That’s not fine.
The ways women suffer, and are steamrolled into silence, and policed into submission, are worth talking about because not talking about it only serves to cover up the bullshit nonsense that perpetuates that abuse.
But even though the suffering needs to be faced head on and spoken aloud, it’s not what I want to dwell on. So for the rest of this month I’ve invited guests to join us and share real stories and examples of how women can use their positionality to promote, empower, make space for, and lift the women around them.
To set the backdrop for all that though, in today’s episode I’m exploring the intersection of power and authority for women, and how we imagine, define, and negotiate our various roles as leaders at work.
And I’m looking at all that through what might seem like an unlikely lens: Machiavelli’s, The Prince.
I first read The Prince as a teenager and I hated it. I re-read it more than twenty years later when I took my first role as head of an organization, thinking I would learn something useful from it. Nope! Still hated it. It’s just so damn brutal, and seemed totally irrelevant to who I am and what I do and how I want to be in the world.
I’m not a scholar of political theory, or philosophy, or Italian history, and so I don’t have anything super insightful to say about The Prince that hasn’t been said before, and said better.
But someone else does. Her name is Stacey Vanek Smith, and she wrote the book Machiavelli for Women.
Like me, Stacey first read Machiavelli’s The Prince when she was a young student and hated it. But unlike me, Stacey returned to The Prince as an adult, as a woman building a career with curiosity about power dynamics in the workplace. And she interprets Machiavelli through that lens, which has given me a fresh appreciation for his work.
In Machiavelli for Women, Vanek Smith takes Machiavelli at his word: that to lead we we have to stare truth in the face and be unflinching about what we see, and then based on the lay of the land in front of us, devise our machinations. She makes the case that this is exactly how women need to approach the workplace.
Gender discrimination is real. The gendered wage gap is real. The mommy tax is real. As real and as unfair and awful as all this is for straight white women in the US, it is so much worse for women with brown and black skin, for lesbians, for queer, bi, and trans women, for women whose first langauge is not English, for women who are entering professions as the first in their families or social circles and don’t have allies to support them.
Vanek Smith wants us to take Machiavelli’s advice, look those realities in the face, and instead of turning away, face the monster head on and respond in kind. At first this may sound ruthless, but in Smith’s hands it’s not ruthless, it’s reasonable. As she points out, “the workplace isn’t fair and it’s not OK. But that’s the situation we’re in.”
So let’s do something about it already.
Her advice throughout the book is fascinating. She is direct about the ways women are punished for being either too masculine (assertive, forceful, decisive, etc.) and also for being too feminine (soft-spoken, kind, helpful, and so on). Women in the workplace find themselves constantly navigating what she calls “the hotbox”: the space between two options where no matter which direction you turn you can’t win.
What I hate most about the hotbox is the way some women, in their pursuit or exercise of power, will force other women to suffer. Vanek Smith devotes an entire section to this, charmingly titled “Women and The Dark Arts.”
So let’s start there, with the four “archetypes” of terrible women in the workplace Vanek Smith identifies.
The Highlander: The Highlander believes that power is limited, and in order to hold it herself she has to eliminate all female competition. She does this by buying in: she enacts femininity and does not threaten the patriarchy, making her likeable and safe. Just not for other women – because while she’s busy being a good girl for those in power, she’s targeting other women – typically women who have, or who seek, a position she herself wants. (157-160)
Next up is The Queen of Hearts: The QoH is “a smart, quick-witted woman who is arrogant, erratic, and a little bit unhinged, which is where a lot of her power comes from.” The QOH can appear charismatic and magnetic, but their inner life is something of a hellscape: Vanek Smith describes Queens of Hearts as “deeply insecure, unbalanced, and toxic.” She goes on to say “A QOH is extremely status-conscious and will often abuse those below her and do whatever she can to ‘erode the victim’s self-confidence or leave her feeling humiliated.” A colleague of mine refers to this as the “shame and blame game.” (160-165)
Third is The Machiavellianne: Unironically named, the Machiavelliane earns her title from the formal psychological personality type, “Machiavellianism.” The Machiavelianne is just as vicious and conscienceless as a QOH. she’s a master manipulator and uses other people’s emotions to control them. But she’s even more dangerous than a QOH: this type often has “… high levels of emotional intelligence and will use vulnerability, anger, and hurt as a way to create loyalty, extract information, and bend people to their will. They’re typically charismatic, clever, and charming and often have a “little gang of ultra-loyal minions. But Machiavelliannes are not loyal to anyone. They are looking out for exactly one person. Everyone else is a chess piece and Machiavelliannes play to win.” (165-169)
Lastly, the Darth Mentor: a mentor or manager who, once they’ve championed and supported you, feels ownership over you. This ownership then leaves the mentee unable to move forward or move on without breaking or damaging the relationship. The Darth Mentor is particularly insidious because the whole purpose of mentoring is guiding and supporting someone else. But the Darth Mentor makes the mentor relationship all about her and her power, and the unsuspecting and initially grateful mentee is the one who ends up suffering instead. (169-174)
As awful as all this is for women at work, it’s made even worse by white supremacy. Because honestly: as much as straight white women are not holding the majority of positions of power in colleges and universities, we hold more of those positions than do lesbian, queer, non-binary, brown-and-black skinned women.
Even more: my personal, unscientific observations are that the younger the workforce on a college campus, the more diverse it is. And yet I’ve seen, at more than one institution where I’ve served, those younger women punished, policed, and pushed out – which, statistically speaking, means our young and diverse workforce is being pushed out by older, more established, straight white women.
So the odds are that if you know a highlander, or a queen of hearts, or a machiavellianne, or a darth mentor – then you know her as a white woman. It is so incumbent on white women in leadership positions to knock. this. shit. off.
And even here we can learn something from The Prince. Smith tells us:
Machiavelli greatly admired good leaders, and the way he measured good leadership was by how well the people did under that leader. Were people happy? Did they prosper? Ultimately, Machiavelli thought an ideal prince created a place where people could do their best work, live their best lives, and feel the support of their prince contributing to their prosperity and dignity. “Collectively they will be better,” he writes, “seeing themselves commanded by their own Prince, and honored and esteemed by him.” (109)
Smith offers up a range of behaviors you can engage in to deter, unsettle, distract, or redirect these awful behaviors. In fact, her chapter on Women & The Dark Arts is chock-full of practical strategies you can employ when you encounter women of these sorts at work.
But for now, I’m going to assume that if you’re listening to this, you’ve not only seen some of this in action, but you want very much NOT to be one of those women yourself. We have very little control over how we are supervised. But we have 100% control over how we treat and support others.. And given how Machiavellian the workplace can be, it is crucial that we provide top-notch mentoring to the women around us. So let’s turn to what you can actually and intentionally do as you build your leadership practice to create an environment where these kinds of toxic personalities would wither on the vine.
First, let me say you have to do something, and what you do will probably be uncomfortable. It’s not enough for white women leaders to just show up as our well-meaning selves, believing that our good intentions and good hearts are enough. We have to work every day to improve the professional paths and experiences of the women around us, especially those who less-privileged than we are – no matter whether that privilege comes from job title, length of professional experience, the number of letters at the end of our names, the color of our skin, our ancestry, or anything else. If you are a woman in a leadership position you owe it to other women to protect them from bad actors. If you are a woman with the power and authority to shape policy, I will go so far as to propose that you have an especially important role to play in improving the workplace itself for all of us.
My guests for the rest of this month will share insights into how they go about this in their daily practices. As we wait to hear from them, however, let me offer a few guideposts you can begin adopting now.
Be an ally.
Look around you at meetings. Look in particular for the women in the room. Support them when they speak up. Chime in if they get talked over or interrupted. Here are a few phrases you can keep handy:
“I liked where Susan was going a few minutes ago, and think her idea is worth exploring. Susan, can you take us back to your idea?”
“That’s an interesting idea. It sounds like what Janelle was saying earlier. Janelle, what do you think?”
“I don’t think Maria had a chance to finish her sentence. Maria, what were you saying?”
Notice the key here: don’t blame the person who interrupted, talked over, or redirected the conversation. Instead, stay focused on the woman who was speaking and her ideas. Acknowledge her, use her name, and simply open up the space so she can step back into it.
Be a mentor.
There are lots of ways to be a formal mentor, and there’s lots of good advice out there. Being a formal mentor is a significant time commitment and requires establishing effective relationships where both parties have something at stake, and have a say in how the relationship goes. So there’s a lot to mentoring.
But you can be an informal mentor just by modeling new ways of being that support women at work. Here are a few things you can do, possibly even this week, to behave in a way that mentors through modeling:
I’m going to stop there because the rest of the month is devoted to particularities about building strong intersectional relationships with women at work. For this week, though, my challenge for you is this:
Find one situation where you can extend support to another woman by making space for her to be herself. I am, sadly, quite confident you’ll have multiple chances to see women being silenced, unappreciated, underutilized, or unacknowledged. Simply do one thing to correct that when it happens. I know from experience this is uncomfortable, and that it gets easier with time. And then drop me a note to tell me how it’s going – I’d love to hear your stories!
And stay tuned for the coming weeks. My guests are all women leaders who actively seek out intersectional professional relationships, and they’re sharing inspiring stories as well as practical advice for extending your leadership practice in a wide array of settings.
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