Article: The Faustian Triad

Life @ Work

The Faustian Triad

The Corporate race is not for the faint-hearted. Nice guys – who are unwilling to hit back, practice deception or abandon 'has-beens' – generally finish last.
The Faustian Triad

Ever since Paulhus and Williams described the three undesirable personality traits of Narcissism, Psychopathy, and Machiavellianism as the Dark Triad1 there has been considerable research on the subject. It shows that those scoring high on these traits are more likely to commit crimes, cause social distress and create problems at work. They exhibit several characteristics, including disagreeableness, callousness, deceitfulness, egocentrism, lack of honesty-humility, and tendencies toward interpersonal manipulation and exploitation." 2

What if there were a triad of behaviors, morally perhaps equally reprehensible, but which are almost essential for getting ahead in the corporate world?

What if even perfectly decent executives have no choice but to enter into a Faustian pact that requires them to display a significant level of Vindictiveness, Deception and Abandoning in return for becoming the top dog or make it at least to the top pack? The decades that I have observed the corporate world (and I am sure anyone who has been a C-suite participant in a reasonably large company will agree) tells me that there is such a triad and this column will explore each of these distasteful traits in turn. 

An Eye for an Eye

In the days when Manufacturing was king and organization charts simply followed geography (matrix being pronounced 'mad tricks' then) two huge production facilities within a single company were headed by barons who we shall call S (as in Sweet) and V (as in Vindictive). The rivalry between the plants was fierce and the stakes for the barons were high. They both hoped to succeed the aging monarch. While each had much going for (and against) him, one characteristic differentiated them utterly: that of holding a grudge. While S would allow a slight or jab to pass or be forgotten (especially if followed by an apology), V would invariably retaliate in one form or another. The cumulative effect was telling: S, Succumbed and V was Victorious.

Revenge has a long, long history. Many of our epics (the death of Duryodhana or of Penelope’s suitors), plays (Medea, Hamlet), novels (The Count of Monte Christo, Murder on the Orient Express) and movies (Munich, Kill Bill) would be both literally and figuratively bloodless without this vital ingredient. Vindictiveness is the internal choice to respond to an injury by taking revenge rather than, say, display forgiveness. " 'Do good unto them that hurt you' is an ethic for saints; to refrain from doing disproportionate harm would seem to be difficult enough counsel for most human beings to follow." 3

The historical lineage of vindictiveness is not surprising considering its evolutionary roots According to Evolutionary Psychologists, revenge serves three adaptive functions: "First, the mere possibility of revenge deters potential transgressors. Individuals with reputations for being vengeful are less likely to be victimized because the potential costs are high. Second, if a transgression does occur, revenge deters further harm by penalizing wrongdoing. Finally, revenge fosters cooperation by preventing individuals from taking advantage of the work carried out by others (free-riding) ... Using computerized tournaments, Axelrod demonstrated that a tit-for-tat strategy (cooperating after one’s partner cooperates, defecting after one’s partner defects) was the most effective way to establish and maintain cooperation."

Societies that have primitive legal frameworks or are weak in their abilities to enforce laws are also rife with blood feuds, revenge killings or violent vendettas. Large corporates, where the top management is too distant or has allowed its eyes and ears to be blocked or beguiled, presents a similarly unpoliced landscape for senior executives.

In such scenarios (and the proportion of these in the general population of corporates is far from negligible) the only safeguard against a stealthy stiletto in the side is the fear of a retaliatory rapier in the ribs. A reputation for vindictiveness then becomes an essential part of an executive’s survival and progression toolkit. Of course, to make the threat of retaliation credible, executives need to have gathered sufficient power to launch at least an asymmetric strike against the transgressor. 

As in societies, the only way to reduce the general level of vindictiveness and political in-fighting within the organization is to have a functioning system of procedural justice that can correctly identify, pursue and effectively pull up or punish the initial transgressor. 5 It requires a politically aware CEO, who is cognizant of the undercurrents and personal agendas flowing in the top team, to nip conflicts, plots and stratagems in the bud and, most importantly, to avoid getting used in the games Cassios play. Tit for tat also remains within limits if the responders opt to play the corporate game with a modicum of decency. To do so they must hobble themselves voluntarily with no-first-use and non-escalation restraints. The reputation to aim for is being above-board and never picking a fight but not shying away from responding (only in equal measure) to encroachments or other forms of aggression. Finally, the players need to keep their responsibility to the organization uppermost (or at least midmost) and anticipate the consequences retaliatory games will have on it. Particularly when there is a substantial power asymmetry and internal redress is unavailable, the temptation for the weaker responder may be to exercise a nuclear option, such as going public. Choices like this inflict virtually irreparable damage on the organization and should not even be last resorts (as long we are talking of power plays and not serious value infringements). Once the only effective response is MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), there is no shame and much credit for abandoning that yuddha bhoomi and seeking fresh organizational pastures.

Don’t Know Thyself

What could possibly be the gain from upending the universally prescribed mantra that knowing oneself is the essential prerequisite to any other knowledge? Once again, Evolutionary Psychology provides us at least three good answers.

"… [B]y deceiving themselves, people can better deceive others, because they no longer emit the cues of consciously mediated deception that could reveal their deceptive intent. Self-deception can also facilitate the deception of others in a more general sense, in that it can help us convince others that we are better (e.g., more moral, stronger, smarter) than we really are…. [B]y deceiving themselves about their own positive qualities and the negative qualities of others, people are able to display greater confidence than they might otherwise feel, thereby enabling them to advance socially and materially. Finally, it is also possible that this system of self-deception that evolved to deceive others becomes applied in intrapersonal domains because of the good feelings that it brings the individual… [S]elf-deception evolved for interpersonal purposes, but people found a way to use it to enhance happiness when circumstances conspire against other methods. As with optimism, happiness has important interpersonal consequences; people experience increased social and financial success when they are happy."

For HR leaders, in particular, each of the facets of self-deception holds special attractions. Not only does it make pulling wool over the eyes of others less effortful but it provides seemingly honest deniability when one is found out. The appearance of confidence is especially vital to champions of initiatives and programs that are not ROI-defendable. And can HR really be an evangelist for people happiness7 without itself wearing a non-feigned version of the upbeat sentiment?

In many ways, self-deception can be the most self-injurious of the Faustian triad because, like any other distancing from reality, it has huge costs and risks, some of which are particularly disabling in HR roles.

Ignoring one’s personal, functional or organizational weaknesses may boost morale for a while but, when confronted with a capable opponent (a rival CXO, an irate internal customer, another normative function bent on finding fault or a hostile trade union) these pretentions are soon stripped away and, in reaction, the half-empty glass made to appear totally dry. Even before such a denouement, the effectiveness of HR is sapped if a self-deceiving leader is too confident to take warning signals (say, of dissatisfaction, safety risks or unrest) seriously and victimizes dissenting voices instead of listening to them. When such self-deceit pervades an entire organization, we have major catastrophes like the Challenger space shuttle disaster, which was brilliantly investigated by the physicist Richard Feynman. "… NASA chose to minimize the problem and the NASA unit assigned to deal with safety became an agent of rationalization and denial, instead of careful study of safety factors. Presumably, it functioned to supply higher-ups with talking points in their sales pitches to others and to themselves."8 Sounds familiar? O, for a Feynman-mind to examine the true causes of our own all-too-frequent industrial (and industrial relations) disasters.

Because most of our promotion systems select for confidence and optimism (among other traits), it is difficult to find senior executives who have below-average self-deception quotients. A lot of the burden for moderating this blindness must, therefore, fall on the process checks and balances (including Board supervision) that demand regular reality checks. Incidentally, this reality gap is one reason for the failure of start-ups which have yet to institute such processes (or where the Board is in too much awe of the entrepreneur’s brilliance and fire to carry out their oversight role). By definition, self-deception is not easily self-cured. There is some research, however, that indicates self-deception inhibits peoples’ sense of humor.9 It may not be an unwarranted inference to hope that activating the impulse to laugh (particularly at oneself) might have a mitigatory effect on self-deception. Permitting others the liberty to pull one down to earth is an option for those whose sense of themselves is too inflated to permit self-deprecatory laughter. Medieval monarchs often had court jesters whose role "was to upend logic, to relieve tension, to say the unsayable, invoking a kind of benevolent mayhem in order to restore the monarch, by means of laughter, to his full human nature – to sanity, in fact."10 HR people are often called jokers by the rest of the organization. From there to a jester’s role should not be too great a leap. Jokers apart, while self-deception may be curbed, it is not an easily cured member of the triad.

Abandon the Sinking Ship

As Secretary of State for the US from 1949 to 1953, Dean Acheson was one of the most influential people on the world stage. During the notorious Alger Hiss affair, despite knowing the damage he would potentially do to himself, Acheson stayed loyal to the former state department official by saying, during a press conference, "… I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss." It was not only personal opprobrium and the consequential stress Acheson suffered in those McCarthyite days, "He was damaged goods; he had exhausted his moral capital. [But] by showing his moral courage in the defense of Hiss … Acheson was true to himself, and brave." 11 

During the 1968 US Presidential campaign, Henry Kissinger, a close associate of the liberal Republican contender, Nelson Rockefeller, and occasional adviser to Democratic administrations, smartly switched sides to Richard Nixon, once he saw the latter headed for victory. "Kissinger, … used his contacts in the outgoing Johnson administration … to acquire information about the negotiations [between Washington and Hanoi], which he then passed on to Nixon’s campaign. In turn, Nixon’s people used the intelligence to preempt a possible truce [which would have helped Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate]. Nixon won the election and, in gratitude, gave Kissinger the job of national security adviser." 12 Kissinger went on to be Secretary of State as well.

Two people who held the office of Secretary of State displayed loyalties of very different kinds. Repugnant as the 'moral' of this story may be, it was the one who abandoned the sinking ship who gained substantially as a result. The corporate world (and, dare I say, the world of politics and the civil services) is so full of instances of shifting and self-serving allegiances being leveraged for advancement that they are part and parcel of every significant organizational change and, in particular, help both to determine succession struggles and the coat-tail holders that benefit or suffer as a result of the outcomes. 

Out of the Faustian triad, while self-deception may be the most likely cause of career or organizational disasters, disloyalty is by far the most morally corrosive. To make it a little less so one can at least stay aloof from the plotting and conspiracies to decapitate an incumbent and position an alternative. Not many of us command the high moral sense that Shakespeare attributed to Brutus of knowing when it is time to betray our mentors for the sake of the larger good and it is best not to enter the murky waters of corporate assassinations. At the other extreme, it is a quixotic and career-curtailing blunder (mea culpa) to let hero-worship of the departed or departing CEO become obvious to the successor while s/he is still insecure in the role. But this certainly shouldn’t preclude continuing to show respect and willingness to interact with a person who has become powerless to influence one’s fortunes. 

Devil To Pay 

Admittedly the palliatives that have been prescribed for each of the Faustian triads are just that – palliative. They are as effective as paracetamol (or prayer) in curing cancer. Make the antidotes any stronger and you risk losing the competitive advantage the triad provides for winning the corporate rodent race. Moreover, once you have entered the contest (as Johnny Cash concluded one of his best-liked songs), "you've still got the devil to pay’".

And let’s not be too harsh on the devil for our desire to push ahead either. As James Anderson wrote: "In all those stories about people who sold their souls to the devil, I never quite understood why the devil was the bad guy, or why it was okay to screw him out of his soul. They got what they wanted: fame, money, love, whatever – though usually, it turned out not to be what they really wanted or expected. Was that the devil's fault? I never thought so. Like John Wayne said, 'Life's tough. It's even tougher when you're stupid.' " 13



  1. Delroy Paulhus and Kevin M. Williams, The Dark Triad of Personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy, Journal of Research in Personality 36(6):556-563 · December 2002.
  2. Virgil Zeigler-Hill and David K. Marcus (Editors), The Dark Side of Personality: Science and Practice in Social, Personality, and Clinical Psychology , American Psychological Association, 2016.
  3. Susan Jacoby, Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge, Harper & Row, 1983.
  4. Karina Schumann and Michael Ross, The Benefits, Costs, and Paradox of Revenge, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4/12 2010.
  5. K Aquino, T M Tripp, and R J Bies, Getting even or moving on? Power, procedural justice, and types of offense as predictors of revenge, forgiveness, reconciliation, and avoidance in organizations, Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 653-658, 2006. 
  6. William von Hippel and Robert Trivers, The Evolution and Psychology of Self-Deception, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, February 2011.
  7. Visty Banaji, HR’s business should be happiness raising, People Matters, 24th September 2019.
  8. Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, Perseus Books Group, 2014.
  9. Robert Lynch and Robert Trivers, Self-deception inhibits laughter, Personality and Individual Differences, 53(4) February 2012.
  10. Simon Callow, Mocking their majesties, The Guardian, 8 September 2007.
  11. Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made, Simon & Schuster; Reissue edition, 2013.
  12. Greg Grandin, Kissinger's Shadow: The Long Reach of America's Most Controversial Statesman, Metropolitan Books, 2015.
  13. James Anderson, The Never-Open Desert Diner: A Novel, Broadway Books, 2016.


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