Is your business coach really a Machiavellian narcissist?

Could the business coach you follow on social media really be a Machiavellian narcissist? Find out what you need to look out for to save you being manipulated into giving them your money.

Last week we published an article about virtuous victim signaling, and shared research that showed how people with ‘Dark Triad’ traits were more likely to use it – especially Machiavellian narcissists.

We also explained how we had noticed that business coaches and MLM reps were particularly fond of using virtuous victim signaling in order to win over trust, and sell their services or recruit and retain people in their downline.

This has become such a commonly-used tactic over the past few years – with many victims counting the cost – that we thought it might be helpful to share signs to look out for that a business coach may be a Machiavellian narcissist.

What is a Machiavellian narcissist?

Machiavellianism and narcissism are two elements of the Dark Triad (the third is psychopathy). Here’s what to look out for in people with these traits:

  • Narcissists are driven by ego. They have a delusional vision of self-grandeur, and believe themselves to be special and superior to others, with an exaggerated view of their abilities and achievements. They thrive on the attention, admiration, and praise of others. They cannot bear criticism, and if they face criticism, or even views that differ from their own, they can get extremely defensive and dismissive.
  • Machiavellians prioritise their own gain above everything else, and will control and use anyone who is helpful in achieving their goals. Winning is their ultimate aim, and they don’t care if this is at the expense of others; they only care about their own achievements. Machiavellians crave wealth and power, and will pursue them without moral or conscience.

Individually people with narcissism and Machiavellian traits are tricky enough if you are unlucky enough to come into their orbit, but when they are combined they can be particularly dangerous. And people who possess them can be very adept at manipulating and deceiving others to achieve their own personal goals – with zero conscience or remorse.

How to spot signs your business coach may be a Machiavellian narcissist

The bad news about Machiavellian narcissists is that, to the untrained eye, they can be hard to spot. They are charming and persuasive, and adept in pulling the wool over the eyes of people. They are also especially brilliant at bullying people into believing that any lack of success or results is YOUR fault, and attacking or threatening anyone who dares to speak out against them.

So if you come across a Machiavellian narcissist on social media, they will appear to be a successful, popular person with thousands of worshipping fans and followers (many of which will be bought in the early days).

However, there are some giveaway signs to look out for. And one of the biggest is the use of virtuous victim signaling. Virtuous victim signaling combines two strategies:

  • Virtue signaling
  • Victim signaling

When someone uses virtuous victim signaling they will position themselves as a victim by sharing something bad that has happened to them (usually at the hand of someone else), and they’ll also let you know that they are a ‘good’ person.

The reason why this is such a powerful technique is that we naturally feel more empathy to a victim (especially one who is a good person) and want to help them achieve retribution/justice. Their claims of virtue, especially in the face of attack, also increases their trustworthiness.

Virtuous victimhood enables people to get away with more too, shielding them from criticism. Their ‘good victim’ status means they can morally justify the use of deceit and intimidation to achieve their goals.

It’s such a powerful strategy when used by someone who lacks empathy as they will have no concerns about manipulating people with lies, and taking money (and hope) from them, knowing that they can’t deliver what they promise. Narcissists also enjoy the attention and moral superiority it gives them.

Please note: as we state here, we aren’t talking about people who honestly, and without ulterior motive, share a genuine experience that has traumatised them or may help others. There are occasions when it is important to voice negative experiences. Virtuous victim signaling however is very different.

What are some examples of virtuous victim signaling?

A virtuous victim signaler will always take the moral high ground. They’ll also either directly state that people are attacking them, or make vague references to this happening. Here are some examples of typical virtuous victim signaling posts from people who show traits of Machiavellian narcissism:

  • Why are people I don’t care about so obsessed with me? I hear reports of this all the time.⁠ We’re never going to like everyone, so why not just move on and focus on those who you respect, admire and like?⁠ Use your energy for positivity and actions that will make you happier and more productive.⁠
  • I will never follow the crowd just to get more likes or follows or popularity.⁠ I stand up for my own values and beliefs, and if some people don’t like that, or want to tear me down for it, let them. I’m happy that those who travel the journey with me share my values, and let those who don’t find their path.
  • It seems like every day I read a cruel or belittling comment on social media written by someone who usually knows nothing about the person they’re talking about. If you don’t like someone, then don’t follow them! And if you can’t be kind then say nothing. ⁠
  • While I always celebrate the success of others – there’s plenty to go round, right? – it seems my success makes others feel uncomfortable. Maybe if people spent more energy on THEIR business they’d be celebrating a seven-figure launch too?
  • Yesterday someone shared a post they’d found about me on social media, and I was horrified. I don’t even know the woman who posted it, but apparently she knows all about how ‘awful’ I am. I will never understand why some women feel the need to tear others down. Thank goodness we’re not like that, right?!

You can read more here about virtuous victim signaling and why it is so problematic here.

Why you shouldn’t trust someone using virtuous victim signaling

Not only is virtuous victim signaling manipulative, it’s also incredibly unprofessional. Can you imagine a bank using this kind of ‘marketing’ strategy? A supermarket? An accountant? Any professional business?

No, they plan proper marketing strategies that grow their brands and promote their products and services without the need to complain that someone said something mean about them. Or worse, invent petty grudges and slights.

It’s also unusual to receive criticism of this type from strangers if you run an ethical business. In the nearly nine years I have run Talented Ladies Club, with almost a hundred thousand social media followers and millions of visitors to our website, I can count on two hands the number of abusive messages I have received (and funnily enough, all were connected to our exposes on MLMs).

And even on the highly rare occasion when I do receive one, I don’t feel the need to broadcast it. Why? Because it’s unprofessional and not connected to what my business does. I am also an emotionally healthy adult, and I can rationalise someone else’s behaviour and/or opinion, and process negative emotions without needing to gain attention or sympathy.

So the next time you see someone frequently posting something similar to the examples above, ask yourself why they are receiving so much criticism, and how good they must be to need to use it as a marketing strategy. And what they really have to teach you about growing an authentic, ethical business with long term success.

Please also note: we are aware that some social media campaigners can be targets for appalling bullying and abuse. That should be called out and is not what we are talking about here. We are referring specifically to people who use their platform as a business tool to sell or recruit, and use virtuous victim signaling as a covert sales strategy.

Other signs of Machiavellian narcissism to look out for

Machiavellian narcissists have other tricks up their sleeves, besides virtuous victim signaling. Here are some other signs to look out for:

  • Showing off the material rewards of success – Their social media feed will be filled with business class flights, exotic holidays, expensive meals out… anything that screams, ‘I have serious wealth’. The narcissist has an insatiable ego and loves superficial demonstrations of success through materialistic consumption.
  • Talking about their ethical credentials – Narcissists love the moral high ground, so they’ll claim to be a champion of the underdog and talk about how they stand up for victims of bulling etc. While alone this isn’t a huge warning sign, when accompanied by other traits of Machiavellian narcissism it’s definitely a red flag – especially when not backed up by actual evidence of them doing good without reward.
  • Drama – Machiavellians know that drama gets them noticed, and encouraging people to unquestioningly take their side helps separate those with critical thinking from those they are more easily able to dupe. They also know that, like a soap opera, drama keeps people glued to their posts. Hence the need for constant ‘enemies’ and ‘jealous competitors’.
  • Personal tragedy – Any personal loss or tragedy is used to gain sympathy and trust. And while everyone naturally feels grief and may feel the need to share it, a Machiavellian narcissist will weaponise and monetise their tragedies endlessly – from sickness and disability, to bullying, abuse and even, shockingly, bereavement.

The occasional use of any of the above is not itself a worrying sign. As we mention, it may be natural for some people to want to share a personal experience or tragedy with their online audience. And they may proudly share an achievement from working hard.

But if someone’s social media feed or online content regularly cycles through these themes, then you could have stumbled across a Machiavellian narcissist – especially when coupled with signs of virtuous victim signaling.

An example of how a Machiavellian narcissist can use virtuous victim signaling to get what they want

A Machiavelian narcissist using virtuous victim signaling will usually be surrounded by drama; drama which they will orchestrate and weaponise to achieve their aims.

I witnessed an example of this a few years ago. The drama started when a member of a Facebook group accused the owners of the group of deleting a post they had made about a new business they had started. The member claimed they had started the business so they could support their chronically sick husband, and said they had been unfairly treated by the group owners.

They posted their accusations widely on social media and said they had set up an alternative Facebook group of their own for people who didn’t like the ethics of the owners of the original group. Within a week hundreds of sympathetic people had defected from the original group to this new group. And shortly after this former member of the first group managed to get many of these people to sign up for their new business.

If they had not used virtuous victim signaling, this person would never have established a large fan base so quickly, nor managed to convert so many customers. Indeed, this strategy worked so well for them they used it again (very successfully) less than a year later on another unsuspecting business owner.

Ironically, the business owner who used this tactic was selling the secrets of their successful sales technique. However, only a short time before this happened they were struggling to win business!

Had this person not used virtuous victim signaling they would never have built a following so fast, nor been able to sell so easily without a track record or proven product.

Another business coach who has established themselves as someone who calls out poor ethics in others, and continually uses virtuous victim signaling to cement their position, is in fact disqualified from being a director of a company after effectively defrauding customers at a failed business they ran.

This coach now charges hundreds of pounds a day for their live online coaching courses, and can be easily found making a very convincing case of their abilities and ethics on many blogs and podcasts. (Including claiming that they are a “trusted” leader and that one of their key values is “truth”!)

And this is my issue with using virtuous victim signaling to recruit and sell to people: it bypasses all the usual evaluation stages that people go through in a professional, ethical, marketing strategy. And rather honestly and logically assessing whether a business is right for them, people are manipulated into handing over their money to an unproven person – and even a disqualified fraudster.

As a result, the Machiavellian narcissist is catapulted to a position they are sometimes not experienced enough or qualified in any way to occupy. Which will inevitably lead to unhappy people who don’t get what they thought they had paid for.

How victims are bullied out of sharing their negative experiences by Machiavellian narcissists

So what happens then? Surely if these Machiavellian narcissists are so terrible, why aren’t their victims speaking out? Why can’t you find critical reviews about them online?

The answer is because Machiavellian narcissists are very adept at bullying their victims into silence. So don’t take an absence of any negative reviews of a coach as evidence that they are honest and ethical, and can be trusted to deliver what they say.

Machiavellian narcissists feel no empathy for the people they have duped, and their use of virtuous victim signalling effectively silences any critics. If anyone does dare to question them or share a poor experience they are either directly or indirectly threatened and bullied by the coach themselves. Their fans and followers are also often mobilised against the victim.

I have spoken to several people who lost money and had horrific experiences at the hands of business coaches with Machiavellian narcissist traits. One lost £15,000 to a coach, and when she dared to question why she hadn’t received the standard of training she was promised, the coach threatened to ‘destroy her’ if she spoke out.

Another simply queried with a coach if the basic course she was on would eventually cover what she needed (she was led to believe the course was more advanced when she signed up). She was then publicly vilified by this coach and threatened with court action. She was also targeted and bullied by the coach’s followers.

This woman, who had built up a successful social media following removed herself completely from social media after this experience, and when I spoke to her a year on was still traumatised.

These are just two of many experiences that have been privately shared with me. And the coaches involved have glowing testimonials online. If you were to Google their names you would not find a single negative mention. But as you can see, that is simply because their victims are too terrified to speak out.

How to find a coach who isn’t a Machiavellian narcissist

So how do you find a business coach who isn’t a Machiavellian narcissist? As a basic rule, we recommend avoiding anyone who uses virtuous victim signaling. If someone is surrounded by drama, give them a wide berth.

Another rule is to avoid choosing a coach just because you like them. This may seem an odd thing to say, given that you need to be able to get on with your business coach, but the worst way to choose a business coach is because they seem nice. Coaches are very good at letting you feel you know them through strategies like virtuous victim signaling.

But it’s just that: a strategy.

They know how to appear to be likeable, and how to lower your defences so you warm to them, and feel like you can trust them.

But how true are the claims they make? They may say they have earned eye-watering amounts of money, but is that really true? If so, how much of that is actual profit? How much was earned honestly? And is that success even replicable by you?

Despite their claims, some ‘business coaches’ have never actually run a successful business. I know of coaches who have had businesses close with large debts. Others who have never actually had a business at all.

What they do often have in common is that they have usually paid another coach to learn the secrets of setting yourself up as a high ticket coach, and selling your services – usually by using strategies like those above to gain trust. So the only thing they can really teach you is how to do the same. And as we now know, you need to have a healthy dose of Machiavellian narcissist traits to carry that off!

Six questions to ask about a business coach before giving them money

To help protect yourself from falling for the manipulations of a potential Machiavellian narcissist, we recommend asking these six questions before you pay a business coach any money:

  1. What’s their background? Do they have a track record in the area they claim to be able to help you with? Can you verify this independently? Do thorough due diligence on someone before handing over money to them based on their promises.
  2. Who else have they helped? Are these people like you? What do these people say? Do they give specifics about the changes they saw? And are these reviews from the exact product or service you are buying? Beware glowing testimonials – these are easy to acquire if you are a Machiavellian narcissist!
  3. How do they sell themselves? Do they sell a lifestyle and show off their successes? Or do they demonstrate their techniques and knowledge? How much of their ‘marketing’ is envy marketing, with them showing off the fruits of their success (luxury holidays etc). The most successful – genuinely successful – business owners we know prefer to spend their earnings on wiser investments than expensive cars and five star mini breaks.
  4. Are they consistent? The business coaches we respect spend time building a consistent brand and business. They don’t chop and change their brand or offering because they don’t rely on the veneer of an image to sell and they know what they do works.
  5. Have they achieved organic growth? It’s highly unusual for a small business or solopreneur to come from nowhere and earn millions within a short space of time. It takes time to bed down your offering and learn lessons. And this is especially important if you want to teach business skills to others. So ‘instant’ success or success that seems disproportionate to the length of time they have been established (especially when accompanied by other signs here) is a big red flag for us.
  6. Are they promising extraordinary wealth (if you work hard)? For us it’s a huge red flag if anyone is promising to teach you the secrets to great wealth (as long as you do the work). There are no guarantees in business, and simply ‘acquiring wealth’ isn’t the most ethical motivation. This is the classic fake carrot that MLM reps use to lure you in.

If you are looking for help to start or grow a business, or get help with some aspect of your business, find a coach who’s not surrounded by drama. Someone who has slowly built an ethical business over time and who isn’t claiming to be able to help you turnover six or seven figures fast, like them.

Why are we writing about this?

Our business mission is to unlock the potential of women, and for us it is as important to warn women (and men) of problematic behaviours and risks of being duped and manipulated, as it is to share advice on how they can achieve the goals they desire.

It’s why we we continue to campaign against the MLM industry and why we wrote this article on the six-figure business con many years ago. It is only by highlighting and talking about issues like this that we can inform and (hopefully) protect people, and enable them to get the opportunities and help they really need from ethical, authentic businesses.

Photo by Matheus Ferrero