Whenever someone is described as a Machiavellian genius, it can be a compliment, a sign of grudging respect, or a five-alarm warning.

In the IT workforce, personality profiles run the gamut. Some CIOs end up in positions where they don’t have much power, they take punches each day, and they are the very definition of lambs. Others are a bit like Eddie Haskell — wolf-like bullies to their staff underlings, but they put on a polite facade when dealing with the chief executive.

During this week’s Fusion CEO-CIO Symposium produced by WTN Media, Gartner’s Tina Nunno spoke of workforce personality profiles and how they impact management strategies. The “Machiavellian CIO,” and the extreme office politics they sometimes must practice was the focus of her keynote.

When CIOs find themselves in extreme political situations, and they are the target of manipulative tactics and power plays, they could be at professional risk. Nunno, author of the Wolf in CIO Clothing, explained how to apply the cunning wisdom of Niccolo Machiavelli to tilt the office in the CIOs direction.

Nunno, a Gartner vice president and Fellow, focuses on three major areas of research: board and executive presentations, IT governance, and IT organizational politics. The latter is where Machiavelli and his book, The Prince, comes in. The Prince, which Nunno described as a guidebook on how to be a dictator, is the most commonly read work of Machiavelli.

Nunno has done some work of her own. In her research, Nunno asks CIOs to rate level of politics in their organizations from one to 10. The average score is 7, indicating a fairly high level of organizational politics, while the lowest score ever given is 3. Others asked, what do you have that’s larger than 10?

Often, organizational politics goes unrecognized, but leaving it unaddressed is a mistake because managers are then less capable of improving the skill sets necessary to deal with it. “Politics is normal in an organization,” Nunno says, “especially as we’re going through a lot of change. My research is based on the premise that sometimes you are in extreme situations. In these situations, normal management practices often don’t work.”

Machiavellian nature

One of Machiavelli’s dominant principles is: above all else, be armed. He might have added: Be armed in case you need to be because there is a light side and a dark side to effective management of human capital. The light side’s leadership tactics include openness, honesty, and transparency, while dark side leadership tactics include force and coercion. The tactics you most employ often depend on the type of organization you’re in.

Nunno’s favorite Machiavellian quote is: “Men generally decide upon a middle course, which is most harzardous; for they know neither how to be entirely good or entirely bad.” Translation: Be really good or, as a leader, you become unremarkable, forgettable, and malleable because “others know the more they push you, the more you give,” she said.

She used the example of whether a basic automation project is good or bad. If you’re a CEO and you must deliver profits and shareholder value, it’s a good thing. If you’re a union official and worried about the impact on jobs, it’s a bad thing.

“Machiavelli believes you’re often in position to make a bad or worse decisions,” Nunno said. “His view was always make the bad decision because it’s the job of leader to make difficult decisions. Lets face it, we don’t admire leaders who are not willing to make the tough decisions.”

She advised embracing conflict not as inherently negative, but as a natural element of change. A normal CIO tends to believe that within the organization, he has certain number of supporters who’ll work will with IT, a smaller number of detractors who don’t support IT, and a larger group, about 50%, that are potential friends.

In contrast, Machiavelli believed you have a tiny sliver of friends, many more enemies, and a lot more potential enemies. It was his way of preparing for the worst.

Machiavelli wanted to think like an animal, and he looked to animals for inspiration. Nunno said the best animal for IT leaders is the wolf because the wolf is a pack animal and very social. It can lead a large group in an organized fashion and command a large territory. The wolf inspires loyalty, but for those who are not loyal to the wolf, the so-called “leader of the pack” becomes a predator.

Nunno advised IT managers to strike a balance between the dark side, represented by animals like the lion, the snake, and the shark, and the light side, represented by the lamb, the dove, and the dolphin. That’s why the wolf is ideal because it can strike an adaptable balance, depending on the workplace situation encountered.

Spend too much time on light side, and “you end up looking like lunch,” Nunno stated. Spend too much time on the dark side, and you’ll handle some situations the wrong way, even in a so-called “dark side” organization.

Tactical decisions

There are also different disciplinary tactics to consider: power, manipulation, and warfare.

With regard to exercising power, Machiavelli famously said: “If you’re going to assassinate some one, do it in public square.” That means you have to make an example out of them, or you will have to assassinate too many. The modern day equivalent might go something like this: An underling refused to do the work the CIO asked him to do,

so the underling was either fired or transferred to an equivalent position in another division. Be forewarned about power because one of challenges of having to do tough things is that it “takes a piece out of you,” Nunno cautioned.

Manipulation is critically important when power does not work, especially when someone is more powerful than you. The second time power does not work is when dealing with a stakeholder who is irrational; use power against such a person, and the situation escalates.

In the CIO context, warfare might occur in stressful situations where an organization launches a business process improvement or has to integrate an acquired company.

With each discipline — power, manipulation, and warfare — it’s sometimes important to go to extremes so people know you’re capable of it, Nunno says. In the past, IT departments have been viewed as having a service provider mentality, which means it has been a soft target. In the new era, IT is increasingly viewed as a corporate partner, but it’s still important to watch your back.

“I like to believe is best defense is not being a soft target,” Nunno stated. “Build strength, allies, and tactics so they don’t view you as soft target.”

A classic wolf-like tactic is where the CIO cuts down a project list in dictatorial way. When confronted by the employee who was assigned the project, the CIO says, `Well, if you had come to the governance meeting, I would assumed the project was important to you. Let’s talk about re-establishing it under certain parameters.’ In this example, the CIO exercised dark-side power, and then went “light” by offering the employee a second chance.

Nunno was asked how Machiavelli would respond to revenge — what goes around, comes around. “He’d believe that’s true, and you have to be ready for it,” she explained. “Often when we make hard decisions, there is collateral damage. Machiavelli and the wolf accept there will be collateral damage, and prepare to deal with it.”

Contributing writer Joe Vanden Plas is editorial director of In Business magazine in Madison.