The Machiavellian test

03 October 2014 | Tim Phillips

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Tim Phillips

Blog Author | Freelance writer


“Power can be gained through appearances: people who exhibit behavioural signs of power are often treated in a way that allows them to actually achieve such power,” says a recent academic paper, investigating how leaders communicate. Cheryl Wakslak and Albert Han of the University of Southern California, and Pamela Smith of the University of California, San Diego, performed seven experiments on how the words we use allow us to appear powerful to others.

“Power can be gained through appearances: people who exhibit behavioural signs of power are often treated in a way that allows them to actually achieve such power,” says a recent academic paper, investigating how leaders communicate. Cheryl Wakslak and Albert Han of the University of Southern California, and Pamela Smith of the University of California, San Diego, performed seven experiments on how the words we use allow us to appear powerful to others.

Manipulating power is routinely described as Machiavellian. Though, while Machiavelli understood the usefulness of words when you want to be perceived as powerful, in his time managers had to go the extra mile: in his book, The Prince, he writes approvingly of Pope Alexander VI, who despatched Remirro de Orco – his fixer – to clean up the Romagna province. Orco showed he was the boss by using widespread torture and punishment. When the job was done, the Pope showed Orco (and everyone else) who the real boss was: “Alexander had him cut in half, and placed one morning in the public square.”

There are a limited number of wholesale carriers at which Alexander’s approach would flourish, although most of you will have worked for at least one of them. But Wakslak, Smith and Han (WSH) have a more modest proposal for executives who want to impose their will on others: use more abstract language and jargon.

The paper – which, unsurprisingly, is a bit of an arduous read – details the results of the seven experiments. Broadly, the more that subjects used abstract language and broad concepts, the more they were perceived as powerful. This business-speak “seems to reflect both a willingness to judge and a general style of abstract thinking”, they add.

Only the powerful do this: the rest of us actually have to be understood, or are employed in jobs in which we need to describe real things in detail. The authors also speculate that one of the inhibitors for women in the workplace when they desire more power might be a willingness to engage in detailed and nuanced discussions, when they could be blue-skying their way to power instead.

Note that WSH don’t suggest that people who use abstract language are better managers, or more successful in the broader sense, or create more sales, or are liked more. I’m speculating here, using my willingness to judge and a general style of abstract thinking, but I’m guessing that over-using jargon might be negative or neutral when it comes to actually getting stuff done.

A few years ago I ran an experiment on the published marketing material of thousands of businesses, using a list of seven jargon terms that a survey had discovered were the most despised in business. Between one in 25 and one in 50 documents used each of the terms, which included such classics as “next-generation” and “cutting edge”. A document that had one jargon phrase had about a 10% chance of using a second. Once it used five pieces of jargon, the chance of finding a sixth was about a quarter.

This shows that jargon is clustered. But is it clustered in the telecoms business? Technology is certainly a nexus of the unintelligible: it’s a technology company that, according to my research, is the only one in history so far to use the word “operationalizational” in its communication; which, if it is language at all, is certainly abstract. On the other hand, technology in general deals in concepts and abstractions, so sometimes it goes with the territory.