If you are thinking about negotiating your salary or a new role, it’s helpful to think through the decisions that have led people in similar situations to succeed. If you’re not sure what Machiavelli would do, ask this question of yourself and compare the results with his advice.
A 500-year-old book that is often prescribed reading for college freshman may provide winning job advice to anyone hoping for increased compensation or a promotion.
That is the thesis of Stacey Vanek Smith’s new book, “Machiavelli for Women: Defend Your Worth, Grow Your Ambition, and Win the Workplace,” which teaches readers how to win and maintain power in a freshly conquered nation, or in this instance, the contemporary workplace. Ms. Smith went back to “The Prince” in search of fresh ideas for addressing racial and gender wage inequalities at work, and she thinks Niccol Machiavelli’s advice—observe what works and then do it—was liberating.
The Italian ambassador who traversed the political hierarchy of 16th-century Florence has some startling advice for professional women—and men, too. She said, “He stripped emotion and morality out of the scenario and evaluated it like a chessboard.”
Not all of Machiavelli’s strategies are applicable. (Unlike Machiavelli, Ms. Smith does not advise killing the family of a defeated rival to prevent retribution schemes.) However, she claims that many of the other tactics discussed in “The Prince” may be beneficial to anybody who is willing to confront persistent issues with compromises and flawed solutions.
Ms. Smith addressed how modern employees might benefit from Machiavelli’s ideas in a recent interview. Excerpts that have been edited:
WSJ: Can you provide an example of when you might have used Machiavelli’s guidance in your professional life?
Ms. Smith: I discovered that a male colleague with less years of experience and generating about the same amount as I was earning much more money—say, $20,000 more per year—than I was. I walked into my boss’s office completely unprepared and began bawling. It was the worst strategy imaginable.
I had every right to be upset. “How can I utilize this information?” I would have wondered if I had been more Machiavellian. I would’ve gone in prepared, saying something like, “Listen, I know how much my colleague is paid.” Given my years of expertise, my compensation must obviously reflect that.” I would have regarded it as a chance rather than a stomach blow.
Machiavelli is often associated with ruthlessness. You don’t agree with that aspect of his worldview.
Although Machiavelli is linked with evil, the thing that struck me when I read “The Prince” was that it wasn’t wicked. Maybe ruthless. He simply sat there and examined everything. “This is not an ideal situation. But what do you do if you’re in it?”
Is it possible to use these ideas incorrectly?
Yes. The most difficult aspect of authoring the book was that some of the information seemed to be out of date. If you’re a woman, one piece of advise [in the book] is to smile during a job interview; people will react to you better. That isn’t to say you have to grin; it’s just a suggestion.
However, there comes a point when your identity becomes a bit compromised, and I would advise individuals to simply do what seems right to them. Dr. Tina Opie, one of the individuals I spoke with for the book, discovered—and it rang true for me—that when you behave in a manner that isn’t honest, you take a hit. It has a negative impact on your personal and emotional well-being.
When you’re still looking for work, how forceful should you be?
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The manner you establish yourself is critical. Consider how much power you have against how much power the corporation has. Are there tens of thousands of individuals vying for your job? Do you possess highly specialized abilities? It’s always about gathering as much information as possible. When you provide statistics in this manner, it comes out as less aggressive and more like “I’ve done my homework.”
There’s a lot of evidence showing if you inject fresh factors into a negotiation rather than having it just a one-sided battle, it’s far more likely to succeed. “I’m looking for $75,000, but I really want this title.” I’d love to be a part of this effort. I’d love to have the whole month of August off. On Fridays, I’d love to work from home.” It shifts the negotiation from an emotive to a more logical, verbal, and Machiavellian mode.
Although the book is geared at women, may guys benefit from the advice?
Anyone can attest to the fact that working is not easy. It’s competitive even if you’re the wealthiest person on the planet. Many of the males I’ve spoken with express extreme apprehension when it comes to bargaining. It’s for everyone who has a hard time asking for more for themselves.
What is the book’s most significant message for job searchers right now?
I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a moment in my 15 years of monitoring the economy when employees have this much influence. Companies compete fiercely to maintain or recruit employees. In addition to money and a title, this might be a critical time for individuals to ask for scenarios that would make them happy.
Not being able to juggle child care and employment is one of the factors that has kept so many women on the sidelines. Now that remote work has lost its stigma, it’s the ideal time for individuals to ask for anything they need to get the job they desire.
What kind of employment would Machiavelli be doing today?
He was effectively Florence’s secretary of state, but I believe companies today have more influence than the government. Because of all the personal information, he would be Google’s head of strategy. He’d be working with a lot of data. You know what they say: walk lightly and carry a lot of info.
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Kathryn Dill can be reached at [email protected]
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