Machiavelli for Women: 7 Power Strategies for the Workplace

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.

Enter Stacey…

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.” 

#3 — Stand Up for the Less Powerful 

This might sound like the antithesis of Machiavelli. After all, shouldn’t you suck up to powerful people and mercilessly crush those who have less power? I mean, NO OF COURSE YOU SHOULD NOT DO THAT! But, also, Machiavelli advised against it. 

One of Machiavelli’s main pieces of advice in a situation where you don’t have a lot of power is to stick up for other people who also don’t have much power. “The prince,” he writes, “ought to make himself the head and defender of his less powerful neighbors, and to weaken the more powerful amongst them.” The reason? Not only are you weakening the powers that be and creating a potential opening for yourself, but also the people you speak up for will be loyal to you and will fight for you and your ideas in the future. As Machiavelli puts it, “By arming them, those arms become yours” (Chapter XX). 

In fact, Machiavelli advises against speaking up on behalf of people who have more power than you. Don’t jump in if the boss gets interrupted by the intern in a meeting. The benefits of smacking down the intern are minimal, and you risk being seen as a suck-up and a bully. Also, your soul would probably die a little, and that’s never good. 

#4 — If It Comes Down to Being Liked or Respected… Choose Respect

This is a situation that happens to women at work a lot. Often, women in the workplace end up in a double bind: caught between qualities people associate with a “good woman” (being modest, compassionate, putting others first, soft-spoken, nurturing) and the qualities people associate with a good leader (being independent, firm, outspoken, assertive, not caring too much what people think). 

Machiavelli addresses this particular bind many times in The Prince. As it turns out, the prince is in a similar situation: it’s crucial that he be loved by his people, but the prince also needs people to fear his wrath, follow his laws, and, of course, pay his taxes. “Here comes in the question whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved. . . . We should wish to be both; but . . . if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved” (Chapter XVII). 

Still, this approach comes with real consequences, especially for women. Where harsh or domineering men might be respected or tolerated in leadership positions, people often react very differently to an assertive or domineering woman. But sometimes getting the job done correctly involves being blunt, direct, and assertive. It might not be easy, and you will likely get pushback, but do it.

#5 — Watch Your Back

I can’t talk about Machiavelli without addressing some of the advice he gives about guarding yourself against nemeses. Machiavelli wrote a LOT about nemeses in The Prince. He thought the ability to spot troublemakers and toxic people was crucial for a prince: “The ruler is not truly wise who cannot discern evils before they develop themselves, and this is a faculty given to few” (Chapter XIII). Truly, it is not always easy to spot a troublemaker or a toxic person. But Machiavelli does point out a couple of things to watch for.

Beware the flatterer: Machiavelli saw flatterers as very dangerous to a prince. He even has an entire chapter in The Prince titled, “How Flatterers Should Be Avoided” (Chapter XXIII). This is not to say that if somebody compliments your work, you should respond with grave suspicion. But flattery can often be used to manipulate people, so make sure that’s not happening to you.

Beware the Debbie Downer: If someone you work with is extremely negative, it’s probably a good idea to keep your distance and to be careful what you say to them. “As soon as you have opened your mind to a malcontent,” Machiavelli warns, “you have given him the material with which . . . he can look for every advantage” (Chapter XIX). 

#6 — Avoiding Risk Is Risky — When in Doubt, Take Action

Asking for a raise or a promotion or applying for a new job or launching a new project requires enormous risk and vulnerability. Wanting to avoid that risk and the possibility of rejection is a big reason people (especially, statistically, women) shy away from negotiating or asking for more. But avoiding risk and waiting for “the perfect moment” is not a safe choice.

Machiavelli’s advice: when in doubt, take action. This advice probably came from his own frustration with the Florentine council’s constant waffling (they were his bosses). They never wanted to choose sides in the countless skirmishes and battles going on around them. It was, in fact, partially due to that very waffling that Florence lost its republican government and ended up back in the hands of a despot.

“I know that many say a policy of neutrality is the safest option,” he wrote in a letter to a friend. “I believe to the contrary that neutrality is an exceedingly dangerous path.” And for a prince, Machiavelli declares that waffling will lead “in most instances to their destruction” (Chapter XXI). 

#7 —  Embrace the Struggles that Arise; They Are Setting You Up for Success 

The professional world can be incredibly difficult and unfair, especially for women and other marginalized workers. It can involve an incredible amount of perseverance and struggle. That’s not okay or fair, but it does offer its own kind of gift. Machiavelli observed that princes who had to struggle for their kingdoms actually did better in the long run than the princes who had everything handed to them. “They who . . . acquire with difficulty . . . keep with ease” (Chapter VI). 

That might sound trite or saccharine, but Machiavelli was neither of those things, and he felt so strongly about the value of overcoming difficulties in helping to shape a prince, he has a rare Zen moment in The Prince of the “Things happen for me not to me” variety. “Fortune,” he writes, “especially when she desires to make a new prince great . . . causes enemies to arise and form designs against him, in order that he may have the opportunity of overcoming them. . . . Princes become great by vanquishing difficulties and opposition” (Chapter XX).


Excerpted with permission from Machiavelli for Women: Defend Your Worth, Grow Your Ambition, and Win the Workplace.