Archives for July 2013

Game of Thrones – A Study in Machiavellianism

headshot of actor Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister and quote: 'when you've known me longer, you'll learn that I mean everything I say'

Image credit

It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.

Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

Whatever you are working on, and whoever you are working with, open and authentic communication is ultimately the best way to establish trust relationships and work collaboratively over the long term.

But what if you encounter people who you suspect may be presenting themselves in one way and acting in another, maybe working against you, or who you feel may not be genuine?

One way of describing these people is ‘Machiavellian’ – but what does that word mean, and how can you know if someone is using Machiavellian tactics?

The Oxford Dictionary definition of ‘Machiavellianism’ is ‘the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct.’

The word ‘Machiavellian’ is derived from Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), an Italian politician and philosopher. He was a strategic adviser to the Florentine Republic in the early sixteenth century, and author of Il Principe (‘The Prince’), a treatise on how to acquire and use power.

book cover of The Prince and portrait of Machiavelli himself

‘Machiavellianism’ is now inextricably linked with the author of The Prince, yet the translation and intent of his original text, especially given the circumstances under which it was written, means that what Machiavelli originally meant and what we understand of the concept that bears his name may not align:

It’s from Machiavelli that we get the notorious phrase ‘the end justifies the means’. A much more accurate translation from the original Italian is something more like ‘one must consider the end’.

And then there’s this – it appears that unravelling what the first Machiavellian truly meant is beyond the scope of this post!

Bearing this in mind, what we call ‘Machiavellian’ can be summed up as follows:

…a leader must know how to be deceitful when it suits his purpose, but he must not appear that way. Because, while it is better to be feared than loved, the best way to avoid being overthrown is to avoid being hated. A Prince must know how to do wrong, and when to properly use this to his advantage, often in secret. Princes that use cunning are generally more successful than those that could be fully trusted.

Machiavellianism is not only the preserve of leaders of course, and in popular culture, Edmund Blackadder is a classic example of being highly adept in his capacity to influence events, manipulating leaders like queens and generals (even if his ‘cunning plans’ often go comically awry).

Rowan Atkinson as Edmund Blackadder

Machiavellianism can be found anywhere there is a group, whether in formal political structures, companies, sports clubs or among a group of friends.

Reality TV shows like Survivor and Big Brother are excellent places to observe Machiavellian behaviour under a microscope, but there is one current example that trumps all others – the television series phenomenon that is Game of Thrones (note: this post contains no plot spoilers, but some links from it do).

Among the many reasons this fantasy medieval drama has developed such a following, whether fans realise it or not, is that it is a study in Machiavellianism.

AndPhilosophy has produced a book which examines the series from a philosophical point of view, drawing on the works of Machiavelli and other philosophers including Hobbes, Descartes, Augustine, Plato and Aristotle as a way to analyse characters and plot lines and explore themes such as war, honour, morality and gender politics.

cover of Game of Thrones & Philosophy book

Although there are a number of Game of Thrones characters of both genders who engage in Machiavellianism (Lord Tywin Lannister, Queen Cersei and Daenerys Targaryen stand out), the three most intriguing characters to me (when not distracted by Jon Snow) are those who have made it into an art form by being far more subtle with their machinations:

  • Tyrion Lannister, youngest son of Lord Tywin of the House of Lannister, one of the families vying for the crown and the Iron Throne of Westeros.
  • Petyr Baelish, aka ‘Littlefinger’, the King’s Master of Coin who gathers intelligence on political rivals through his network of brothels. His spy network is rivaled only by that of Varys‘.
  • Varys, aka ‘The Spider’ or ‘Master of Whisperers’, who maintains a web of informants across continents.

Remember the Character Alignment charts, derived from Dungeons and Dragons? There is no consensus on where these characters fit (in fact it is a raging debate online – Google ‘Game of Thrones character alignment’), and it is very difficult to pin these three down, however I would call Tyrion Lannister ‘Neutral Good’, Petyr Baelish ‘Neutral Evil’ and Varys ‘True Neutral’.

It is curious that some identify the dry-witted Tyrion as ‘Evil’ as although he does engage in Machiavellian behaviour, his manouvering is not always for himself, and it is sometimes designed to protect others.

Interestingly, none of these characters are ‘chaotic’, two of them are not ‘evil’ per se, and all of them have a ‘neutral’ aspect to their characters, according to my assessment.

Is remaining neutral a key aspect of Machiavellian behaviour, allowing that person to switch sides as situations shift?

The storms come and go, the waves crash overhead, the big fish eat the little fish, and I keep on paddling.


It would also be interesting to ‘map’ character alignments of real and fictional people who could be called Machiavellian, and see how many have a neutral element.

If forewarned is forearmed, then it would be useful to be aware that you are dealing with such characters – but how can you know?

1. know their motivations & characteristics

Machiavellian-types are motivated by self-interest, self-preservation and extrinsic goals. They are likely to be detached, cool characters who willingly manipulate others for their own benefit, and are adept in exploiting circumstances to their advantage. The main thing that sets them apart is that they are – or appear to be – devoid of emotions.

In their Journal of Applied Communication research paper ‘Machiavellian’s Motives in Organizational Citizen Behavior’, Joanne Becker and Dan O’Hair identify characteristics which may be present in those with Machiavellian tendencies, including:

  • saying things others want to hear
  • hiding personal convictions well
  • being sensitive to information about others
  • changing position in argument readily
  • being able to change strategy in response to a situation
  • resisting social influence
  • being exploitative, but not viciously; exploiting more if others can’t retaliate
  • being suspicious of others’ motives
  • never being obviously manipulative
  • not assuming reciprocity
  • preferring a fluid (changeable) environment

Ticking one or few of these characteristics does not necessarily mean someone is Machiavellian – for example, being able to change one’s view can also be a sign of good leadership.

Contrast these with characteristics of non-Machiavellians, which include:

  • being vulnerable to others’ opinions
  • believing others ‘ought to’ act in certain ways
  • assuming reciprocity
  • accepting others’ motives at face value
  • wearing their convictions on their sleeves, clinging to convictions
  • becoming locked into a single course of action
  • reacting in socially desirable ways
  • being sensitive to others’ efforts
  • appearing unreasonable in negotiations
  • preferring a stable environment

2. know their tactics

There are plenty of tactics in the Machiavellian’s toolkit, but examples include:

  • misdirection – where people are fooled into willingly disclosing valuable information; or into acting on information which they later find is incomplete or inaccurate
  • white-anting – subverting an organisation or group from within by ‘leaking’ information designed to undermine the group’s goals
  • ‘dog-whistling’ – using coded language with one meaning for a group in general, and another for a specific subgroup (hence the name, because high-frequency dog whistles can be heard by dogs, but are inaudible to humans)

Aside from observation and intuition, another way to identify Machiavellianism is by testing for it.

In the 1960s, social psychologists Richard Christie and Florence Geis created a survey from statements in Machiavelli’s writings, asking people how much they agreed with each. They concluded that Machiavellianism is a distinct personality trait, and published this research as MACH-IV in 1970. Those with a ‘high MACH’ rating are more disposed to use Machiavellian tactics.

Test yourself by clicking on the image below, taking the short 20 question MACH-IV survey, and see how truly Machiavellian you are!

b+ w cover of old version of Il Principe in Italian

Now you know your own MACH rating, perhaps you can find a way to test your colleagues for this tendency, without them realising.

…oh, did I just say that?

Maybe I should reveal that my own Machiavellian rating is 56 – the tipping point for ‘high Mach’ people starts at 60.

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Amplifying Your KLOUT For Change

screen shot of my Klout score (currently 53)

Imagine what difference could it make to your work if you could find, engage with and influence the influencers in your organisation or community.

This will be easier if you’re in a smaller organisation/community, if you are somewhere with low turnover of people, or if you’ve worked in the same organisation for some time. Yet even in smaller groups, it’s not always clear where the spheres of influence are.

KLOUT is a measurement tool that works out who the most influential people are across the social web (although as an online measure, it does have its flaws, as a result of the nature of the web).

A play on the word ‘clout’, meaning social or political influence, the different types of influencers have been captured in a matrix by KLOUT that could also be useful for offline/real world application in organisations and communities.

Finding the influencers can help you to better disseminate and amplify your messages, and encourage buy-in and involvement.

Let’s look at each quadrant of the Klout matrix in detail.

screenshot of Klout matrix, organised into quandrants

Image credit – click and then click again to enlarge

The top half is plotted along an x axis of sharing-creating (those who disseminate-those who produce content or ideas), and the bottom half is plotted along an x axis of casual-consistent which relates to the frequency of input to the communication that shapes group culture.

The y axis of the left half of the diagram is along participating-listening (those who are involved-those who are tuned in to various interactions) and the y axis of the right half is along broad-focused, in terms of areas of interest or expertise.

To me, there seem to be two distinct groups of types, so I’ve included another code of my own to further identify how each could help the change agent – D (disseminating information) and I (influencing opinion) and allocated them where I think they fit.

Of the following types of influencers plotted in the KLOUT matrix, you may have many, few, one or none of each in your organisation/community.

The Broadcaster (D) – they circulate a lot, about a lot, which is shared a lot. They are likely to have a greater, more diverse reach than those who provide a source of information more focused on their own area(s).

The Curator (D) – they sort through enormous amounts of information, filtering and unearthing the most useful stuff which they share widely. They could be found producing an internal publication, but they may be lurking elsewhere.

The Syndicator (D) – they provide the latest news ‘worth watching’ on a specific topic, or to a specific audience. They are useful if trying to connect with a ‘subculture’ in your organisation.

The Feeder (D) – generate a consistent stream of updates of useful, focused information.

The Celebrity (I) – the pinnacle of influence in terms of referent power, these folks have ‘make or break’ power, so make attempts to connect with them on a personal level and get their buy-in (or at least keep them neutral).

The Tastemaker (I) – the trendsetters and style-makers of any group, they turn heads and attract attention. They have the potential to leverage buy-in from others.

The Thoughtleader (I) – they are on the cutting edge of new ideas, thinking and connections in your organisation’s field. People look to them for insight into current and long-term approaches.

The Pundit (D, I) – they are leaders and do-ers and their opinion is deeply trusted and widely accepted. Look to pundits as champions for your initiative.

The Conversationalist (D) – adept at drawing out information through friendly interactions with others, these folks have ‘the good oil’.

The Dabbler – not highly influential, but although they may not have much organisational clout right now, don’t discount them altogether – they may still be building their capacity.

The Observer – similar to the Dabbler, they are less powerful as influencers, however as silent watchers they may be a good source of intelligence about goings-on.

The Explorer (I) – looking for new ways to do things, new ways to interact, they are the innovators and so by definition, an ally of the change agent.

The Networker (D) – they have good networks and are willing to leverage them to help others, they are effective in disseminating information through, and beyond, your organisation/community.

The Socialiser (D) – the hubs of ‘what’s happening’, they are able to connect to people on a personal, social level – which can often carry more weight than working through a purely professional connection. Who do people gather around at get-togethers, morning teas or after work drinks?

The Activist (D, I) – your advocates. If you can get them on board, they will be committed in their support for your initiative. However be aware that others may find these people over-exuberant or irritatingly earnest. Choose the support of an activist wisely, else your ‘activist’ becomes someone else’s ‘eco-nazi’.

The Specialist (I) – the go-to people for technical assistance on an issue. They may not be high-profile in your circles, but their opinion in their area of expertise is likely to be accepted by others, and therefore they are credible messengers.

There are a variety of potential influencers around you who can help support your initiatives. If you are unsure of who they are, you could ask others you trust for help. There may even be influencers around you who fulfil one or more of the above types.

What would you find if you took the KLOUT matrix and mapped who they are in your organisation or community? Give it a go!

You don’t have to be ‘big’ to create an impact – you just need the right amplifiers.

Michael J Fox in Back to the Future - about to plug his electric guitar into Doc's mega-amp

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Lenses, Language and Engaging People

stack of seven pairs of eyeglasses with red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple lenses

Have you ever had a conversation with someone where you thought you were not in agreement, and then after some discussion you realise you’re both actually on the same page, it’s just that you were just approaching the same thing from a different starting point? It can be amusing when you both get to that ‘a-ha!’ moment!

In the last week I’ve had some interesting discussions with Transition folks about how to get more people engaged in Transition and other change movements, and what role perception and language plays.

An observation made by one of my colleagues was:

We tend to confine ourselves by the words we use – transition, transformation, sustainable. From my experience there are many young people doing stuff without putting any of those labels on it.

Coincidentally, one thing I’m doing right now is research with Google’s AdWords Keyword Tool to make sure the right terms are in my meta data for this site, so that Google can find and return in the results when people are searching for content I offer.

When I use the Keyword Tool to search on a phrase eg. ‘sustainability communication’ I find all the associated phrases people are searching on as an average global monthly search. This not only helps you with keywords to include in the metadata of a website (which helps you be ‘seen’ among a crowd), but gives you vital intelligence as to what people are looking for. 

One of the top searches associated with how I perceive people might find my site is (believe it or not) ‘sustainable sustainability’. People are actually plugging that into Google? Who knew?!

The same applies to change initiatives. People might not know that they are looking for ‘transition’. They might not yet know to look for ‘sustainable communities’. They might not grasp ‘sharing economy’. They may have a number of things they are concerned about, or want to see change in their communities or their own lives, but aren’t yet able to articulate it.

They use the words and concepts THEY know, not the ones sustainability change agents use, whether its online or offline.

So although you are singing a beautiful song of change, others may not be quite tuned in to your frequency.

screen shot of U2 sheet music to I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

For example, my keyword research has revealed that while I will include ‘sustainability communication’ in my meta data because I see that is what my site is about, from my potential readers’ perspective, I will be found more easily if I use ‘behaviour change’ which is what people are searching for.

When Adelaide hosted US producer and author John de Graaf last year, there was an overwhelming response in the RSVPs from the health sector, because the talk was framed not as sustainability, but ‘wellbeing’.

As the person ‘running’ John during an afternoon talk at the University of Adelaide and an evening talk on the same day at the University of South Australia, I was astounded to note that there were *none* of the faces I would expect to see at such a session had it been framed with ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ language.

cartoon images of people all speaking in different coloured cartoon bubbles (no words - different colours show different 'dialects')

Another colleague was speaking to her interstate counterparts recently, and discovered they were engaging in what they called “Secret Sustainability”. Having discovered that about a third of the number of people would turn up to a ‘Fair Food Week’ event (or similarly framed environmental or social justice get togethers) as they did to cooking events, they now run ‘cooking demonstrations’ attended by many more people – and at which fair food, food waste etc messages can be easily incorporated.

Further, while it is important for all the ‘green’ groups to know what each other is doing and work with each other where there are opportunities to do so, I see it as just as important that they are building relationships with other groups where there are commonalities; for example connecting with a local school or sporting club around energy saving or health themes, or with migrant groups who have food growing or ‘maker’ skills (which is also good way of helping to integrate these groups into the wider social fabric), or engaging with the local chamber of commerce on how transition-style relocalisation might support small business.

As the cooking demo anecdote reveals, one of the best ways to people’s hearts is through their stomachs – and bringing people together around food is through something that Transition is already great at doing! At the very least, sustainability incognito may well be the means to the ends.

In organisations, consider whether the language of ‘kilowatt hours’ and ‘tonnes of C02’ resonates with the different audiences you need to influence to gain support for sustainability.

For accountants and financial managers, present a business case that shows short term cost savings (such as energy bills) and also speaks to longer term value, such as insulating the organisation against future shocks as resources become more expensive or scarce.

For business development folks, demonstrate how sustainability could drive innovation and create new opportunities – and highlight the risk of inaction such as loss of competitive advantage.

For marketing and PR-types, show how sustainability can help with brand/reputation and market positioning, such as when large organisations are looking to ‘green’ their supply chains – early adopters in those chains will be in the box seat for selection.

pied piper followed by Mickey Mouse, Mighty Mouse, Speedy Gonzales, Stuart Little etc

If you want others to hear your tune, then sing the song of your intended audiences.

Go forth with ‘Transition’ or ‘sustainability’ in mind, but if you can connect to a wider base of groups with approaches that use their language, and address their interests, then you start to build some traction with mobilising other latent sources of time and energy.

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Brand Management, Russell Style

russell brand with his 'fag pimp brand' sign, a gift from the WBC

In all my years scouting out the best examples of communication, leadership and tools for sustainability change agents, I never dreamt that I would be featuring UK comedian Russell Brand as a case study.

Perhaps this is not so unusual as I have already tipped my hat to Jon StewartJimmy Fallon (and that other guy in the clip with Fallon…) and others, for whom comedy well done becomes a powerful tool for communicating so much more:

Comedy is a way of ‘reaching around people’s walls’, because those endorphins (released during laughter) bring down the walls. This works in exactly the opposite way to anger, fear and panic – the fight or flight responses that release adrenalin, which raises our walls of self-defence. Through laughter, comedy enables us to question the validity of ours and others’ views on issues without becoming defensive.

The Fool, or Jester, was considered an important part of public life in past centuries – through humour, they could breach taboos and challenge conventional wisdom, whereas such actions may have been a dangerous tactic for ‘serious’ discussions.


Like all exceptional comedians, Brand is not only very funny, he is a social commentator, highly intelligent, articulate and able to run rings around those who are wrong-footed on encountering him because they are expecting The Fool.

Brand created a viral internet sensation when he interviewed leaders of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) on his TV show ‘Brand X’ late last year.

First, a little bit of context as to why this was an interesting scenario in terms of communication.

The WBC, who subscribe to a literal interpretation of the Bible, have gained notoriety for their extreme homophobia (their web site URL is godhatesfags dot com) and hate tactics in general – among a string of provocative actions, they had most recently planned to picket the funerals of victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting and Boston bombing. Some sources claim that the WBC’s ‘hate’ tactics are to offend, and incite people to sue them, so that they can counter-sue on the grounds that their First Amendment rights (right to free speech) have been infringed.

Russell Brand, on the other hand, is an outlandish comedian, actor and author whose public image has been in large part shaped by his wild reputation. Marvellously sharp-witted, Brand holds views that could be described as diametrically opposed to those of the WBC.

Watch the clip (11 mins):

After I’d finished laughing until I cried at this unlikely scenario, I saw a deeper value to this example than comedy.

Regardless of what you think of Brand, the WBC or religion, what played out here was an interesting example of being open to the views of others where they do not agree with yours, withholding judgment, and stomaching hostility so that you can hear what they have to say.

This situation could have quite easily gone all Jerry Springer very quickly at any moment – but notice how Brand manages both his own reactions and potential conflict.

On introducing his guests, he makes a point of saying ‘please welcome my guests, with love…’ and follows it up by dampening the adverse reaction of the audience with ‘don’t be mean, don’t be mean!’

His guests then promptly present him with a large red sign depicting himself with three words in large capitals: ‘FAG PIMP BRAND’.

Rather than taking offence, which would be the natural reaction of the ego, he approaches the situation in a detached manner, as if the poster is referring to someone other than himself.

Instead of reacting to the ad hominem attack, he deflects the intent of the poster’s abusive message by choosing to take issue with something different – pointing out that the picture of him used on it was ‘…not a very flattering photograph’.

Did Brand create this situation for comedic purposes? Of course. Is he taking the mickey out of his guests? Yes, though cheekily rather than insultingly.

But he was also being genuinely respectful in the face of what at times was open hostility and rudeness, working to allow his guests to get their message across, no matter how abhorrent he or members of his audience may have found it.

In response to his audience’s reaction, Brand announces:

Thank you, I appreciate your vocal respect, but these people are here to explain something to me, and it does take courage and bravery to come in front of a room full of people you think almost certainly aren’t going to agree with you, but let’s hear what they have to say, because I’m actually very interested.

Here, Brand adopts a position of ‘curiosity without judgement’ in order to hear another’s point of view. After being cast as a ‘promoter of sin’, he listens patiently and without interruption as his guests explain:

When the Lord Jesus Christ said to ‘love your neighbour as yourself, you love your neighbour as yourself by warning them when their sin is taking them to hell. And as a matter of fact, if you fail to warn your neighbour, you hate your neighbour in your heart. So by a Bible standard, we love you all, and I know you can’t believe that from your goofy Hallmark standard, but from a Bible standard, we love you. And by a Bible standard, he (Brand) hates you (the audience). And, you probably hate each other.

In his Essex accent (which makes what he says all the funnier), a bemused Brand looks directly into the camera and exclaims:

‘Bloody ‘ell! It’s like a really, tricky, quiz of hate!’

Later on, he offers a view counter to those of his guests, pointing out that although they are ‘good on the scripture’:

Have you considered that the Bible, like all religious doctrine, may be allegorical and symbolic, to direct us toward one holy entity of love, as opposed to a specific, litiginous text to direct the behaviour of human beings?

Notice how unlike his guests, Brand puts forward his view not as a forceful statement of position but as a question, an invitation to converse. At this point the following exchange occurs:

[RB] The Bible wasn’t literally written by a cosmic entity, it was written by people! People!

[WBC] It was written by the Holy Spirit.

[RB] The Holy Spirit – ain’t got a pen!

screen shot from the clip where Brand is telling the WBC that the Bible was not literally written by a cosmic entity

This last comment generates peals of laughter from the audience, and some conflict with the WBC. Brand then attempts to find common ground, without yielding his position.

There were several moments in the segment where Brand managed to get both his audience and his guests laughing for the same reason, at the same time – either by his persona or by making himself the object of amusement. Watch the WBC guys’ faces at 2:20, where even they lose their composure in the face of Brand’s irresistible eccentricity.

Imagine being able to sustain for longer those instances where deeply opposed groups found, momentarily, a commonality through laughter.

Ironically, Brand was far more the embodiment of the Christian values of tolerance and turning the other cheek than his guests.

He was able to maintain a fine balance between being inquisitive and non-reactive, and squeezing comedy gold out of the clash of values.

And he showed far more ability to be open to conversing with others ‘not-like-me’ than many people and groups in society.

Russell Brand’s leadership skills, intellect, wit, empathy and command of English in this exchange are admirable – this sets a standard for those in positions of power, who, if they really want to pimp their brand, would do well to learn from his example.

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