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Machiavelli, Sociopaths and the Difference Between What’s Right and What’s Correct

by Donna Fitzgerald  |  August 31, 2011  |  Comments Off on Machiavelli, Sociopaths and the Difference Between What’s Right and What’s Correct


“Appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.”


I found this quote from Machiavelli in something I was reading this morning.  I generally like to focus on positive management behaviors but this one hit too close to home.  Many years ago I worked for a man who I later found out used The Prince as his personal management bible. 

When I first met this gentleman I reacted the way everyone did when they met him.  I was captivated and delighted that I would be privileged to work for such a terrific individual.  He was brilliant, he was funny, he knew everyone in the company and he was a master glad-hander.  He also promised me that I could go out and do my job with the complete understanding that his job was to have me back and that he wouldn’t let me down. 

Two years later I had finally figured out that everything he said wasn’t even close to the truth. If you are tempted to laugh at my naiveté – let me ask you to hold those guffaws.  I am not, nor have I ever been politically unsophisticated.  I never trust easily and I can spot a liar a mile a way.  What I couldn’t spot was a sociopath.  And make no mistake what Machiavelli is advocating in his quote above is sociopathic behavior. 

I admit that I was warned.  A few people in the company came up to me and said “Watch your back – you really can’t trust him” .  Being prudent by nature I promptly began quietly asking the opinion of others who knew my sponsor.  When I got back nothing but praise I decided that the warnings were a result of unique circumstances and wouldn’t pertain to me.  Was I wrong. 

Over the next year and half little things happened that seemed strange (randomly finding that I’d been knifed in the back over small things) and then one day the mask slipped.  I was facilitating an offsite meeting and 20 people had flown in from all corners of the globe to work out some issues we had.  Essentially no one in the field was happy with the way corporate was doing things and this was the meeting were we hoped to work out a plan to resolve the issues.  I was running the meeting because in theory I was the one person who both sides (the field and corporate) trusted. 

As meetings sometimes do – this one quickly started to go downhill with the corporate senior VP basically telling everyone he didn’t give a d*** what they wanted – he was in charge and everyone could live with the service he chose to provide.  Just before the meeting reached the boiling point my sponsor stepped in and pulled rank on the corporate VP.  He told the field that he had heard and appreciated their difficulties and that he would personally work with the corporate VP to make sure that the changes that needed to happen happened.  The tension level dissipated and the buzz in the room immediately became how lucky everyone was that they worked with a man of the stature of my sponsor.  Except….

Five minutes later I was in the hall (away from the meeting) with my sponsor and the Corporate VP when my sponsor turned to the corporate VP and said “Do whatever you want.  I’ve got them calmed down and as soon as we get them on their airplanes and away from here it won’t matter what you do.”

I admit I was shocked.  He had just assured 20 people that he would make things right and five minutes later he had effectively sold them all down the river, while leaving them singing his praises.  I transferred from that project three weeks later and six months later was working in another division (as far away from my former sponsor as possible). 

What’s the moral of this story?  A lesson that it took me years to learn.  There are sociopaths working in organizations.  As PMs our job is to identify them early and avoid them as much as possible, even if it means that we have to deliberately chose to de-scope part of the project.  Even writing these words makes me crazy.  In my heart of hearts I still think I was doing the right thing and on the surface it worked exactly as planned (if you weren’t privy to the hallway conversation) but doing the right thing only lead to a pyric victory. 

Running projects and programs is some of the most difficult work I’ve ever done in my life and doing it perfectly requires almost prescient judgment and a deep understanding of the difference between what is right and what is correct.  The right things to do was have the meeting.  The correct thing to do was to avoid the confrontation especially since 8 months later the organization was dissolved and the corporate VP retired.

Sharing stories of lessons learned – especially the painful ones is risky for the teller of the tale, but I wish someone had been honest with me about this subject earlier in my career. Whether acknowledged or not there are people in corporations who behave exactly as Machiavelli suggested.  Your job as a PPM professional, if you chose to accept it, is to identify them and work around them with craft and guile equal to their own.  It won’t be easier and it won’t be comfortable but you can do it and still preserve your own integrity if you are smart.

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Category: pmo  program-management  project-management  

Tags: difficult-people  leadership  lessons-learned  politics  

Donna Fitzgerald
Research Vice President
5 years at Gartner
31 years IT industry

Donna Fitzgerald focuses her research on strategies and approaches for using program and portfolio management as a way to create unique business value. Read Full Bio

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