The ‘Machiavellian’ worker revealed in new study

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Research identifies new 'Machiavellian' worker

There are different kinds of workers that are recognizable in the workplace – moaners or hard workers for example – but researchers have identified a new “Machiavellian” type. These appear to throw themselves into group work while actually behaving as lone wolves.  The said study by Ashridge Executive Education sought to explore how to boost engagement at work.

Amy Armstrong, who led the study, said,

Engagement levels in this country remain anaemic. They have been stubbornly flat for many years, and we have some of the highest levels of active disengagement in western Europe.

The study found that disengaged employees were vocal, took more time off than engaged staff and took up most of managers’ time. The researchers turned their attention to teams. They studied 28 teams of employees across seven sectors, from the NHS to transport, with up to 15 people in each team. Four teams were compared across each organisation.

Based on measures such as answers to staff surveys, half of these teams were rated by their company as “highly engaged” – in other words, going the extra mile for their job – while half of the teams were flagged as “disengaged”. However, Armstrong and her colleagues found not all was quite as it seemed. By talking to team members the researchers found that two of the 14 supposedly engaged groups were in fact simply contented and doing the bare minimum. One group was actively disengaged, and four of the groups were “pseudo-engaged”.

Armstrong describes these [pseudo-engaged] teams as Machiavellian. These teams, the report found, say and do things to look good but are in fact pretending – in fact, they have a negative atmosphere and the participants are more worried about their own interests than those of the group. Team leaders, the report notes, often resort to “organised fun” to bring try to build relationships – although the leaders themselves are criticised for primarily being concerned about how they are viewed by management.

Amy Armstrong said,

When it comes to day to day work, stretching the workload to fill the time was one thing that we observed. They were quite proud of the fact that they were playing the system and getting away with it. So if teams, for example, were doing shift work over a six-hour shift, they would boast that they were able to get the work done in four hours and spend the other two hours in their work chilling and drinking tea.

Armstrong added that there were knock-on effects,

You might get a new entrant into the team who actually comes in engaged but within a short space of time sees these dysfunctional behaviours around them and thinks, well, why bother?

As well as flagging problems with engagement surveys, Armstrong said the findings could help organisations to find ways to boost workers’ efforts.

Armstrong said organisations should do more to reward teams rather than just individuals, and that team leaders and line managers should get the message across that there is only a certain amount you can accomplish alone and that it is actually through collective and shared goals that productivity can be reaped. But how can organisations ensure every employee is contributing, and the right people are rewarded?

Dean Forbes, CEO at CoreHR, comments,

Providing teams with the right support and the right opportunities is a continuous balancing act, which is why the type of employee identified by this research raises big questions for management. The ‘self-promoters’ described here might be front of mind when considering promotions and new opportunities, but that approach means the real change-makers remain untapped.

Our own research revealed that 7-in-10 companies fail to unleash the full potential of their most driven, ambitious employees – their smart talent. These workers have the right ideas and skills to push an organisation forward, yet feel unable to contribute their full set of skills and strengths. That’s usually down to one thing – outdated ways of identifying and nurturing talent. It’s time every organisation binned assumptions about age, gender and demographics and focused on attitudes and capabilities instead.

The right technology can help management do this in a meaningful way, as the ability to track and assess all employees means everyone has the opportunity to succeed. That benefits everyone, from high-performers with the ability to shine, to those needing more support to improve. Getting this right means organisations can harness the full potential of their workforce, rather than being steered by whoever speaks the loudest.

Interested in employee engagement? join our Job Design for Good Work and Increased Productivity training course

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