Thinker and politician Niccolo Machiavelli ignited a 16th-century moral controversy when he condoned political murder in The Prince, his guide for the Italian noblemen that surrounded him. Of course, the murderous conduct of Renaissance noblemen is well behind us, but Machiavelli’s insights on human behavior remain relevant. His realistic, tough, but fair approach to leadership still has much to offer modern-day managers and team leaders.
Reward Versus Punishment, Love Versus Fear
What is the value of punishment and reward, or “cruelty and mercy,” as Machiavelli calls it? A merciful leader who relies on reward might be loved, says Machiavelli, but that love can come with a loss of respect, causing a subsequent loss of control. A cruel leader who relies on punishment might maintain control through fear, but they can lose trust.
The stakes were high for Machiavelli’s princes. Mercy could be considered a weakness. Fear could lead to hate. Either approach could land them on the wrong end of an assassin’s knife. So what to do? Well, as a realist, Machiavelli calls for a mixed approach, if possible.
Consistency in leadership and decision making is better than love or fear alone. A perfect leader has team members that value their leader’s stability but still fear the consequences of laziness, mistakes, and insubordination.
However, failing perfection, Machiavelli advises fear and punishment above love and reward. It is easier to maintain control through fear than to be both loved and feared. But you must make sure that the consequences are consistent. Your team should fear firing or demotion if they perform poorly, but you must apply these punishments consistently.
Balancing Mercy and Cruelty
Despite accepting murderous methods in politics, Machiavelli still advised against becoming hated without reason. Tough but fair should be your goal. People respect consistency and hate uncertainty.
Do not jump immediately to the worst punishment. Keep the situation in mind, and keep the punishment in line with expectations. For a Machiavellian prince, this might mean the mercy of simply hanging a man instead of cruelly cutting him into quarters. For the modern business leader, this may mean not demanding excessive overtime on Fridays or a second chance instead of immediate firing.
Team members that come to hate their leader will throw up barriers to good work and engage in insubordination. Unhappy high-performing team members will consider leaving for better work environments at the competition. Worse, they may start devoting their time to schemes designed to replace you, ingratiating themselves with higher management and other team members instead of putting in their best work for you.
Trust Versus Hate
A leader must be seen as fair to avoid hate. That does not mean some freewheeling, let-it-slide, nothing-gets-done policy. Instead, team members should feel that their work environment is consistent and reasonable. They should think that all actions lie within acceptable, knowable bounds. Even if you’re strict, your team will maintain respect and trust if you enforce standards consistently.
Arbitrary actions quickly destroy morale, and a leader who fires or promotes based on moods and emotions will lose respect. Arbitrary actions make people nervous when they never know what to expect. In time, their nervous stress will turn to hate. No snap decision is better than a few minutes, or even a few seconds, of logical consideration.
Machiavelli may have intended his advice for 16th-century noblemen, but humans don’t change. They respected thoughtful, decisive leadership then, and they appreciate it now. Be tough, but fair, and your team members will want to work well for you, fearing the consequences of slacking, but also trusting the stability provided by your leadership when they perform well.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. “The Prince.” The Portable Machiavelli. Ed. Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa. New York: Viking Penguin, 1979.