The VW Defeat Device

Accountability Authenticity Management


Key Point: Do you actively employ a “defeat device” in your life? I’ve never heard the term “defeat device” before, but I guess the idea has been around forever. It’s a fancy term for cheating, lying, manipulation and deception. That’s what Volkswagen, rated by many pundits as one of the most notable, green and socially responsible brands in the world, was caught doing: Employing a DEFEAT DEVICE. How clever of them.

Most of us have now heard reports that VW used a device which allowed diesel cars to achieve stellar emission tests in the lab, while failing miserably in the real world. According to the Globe and Mail, over 11 million VW diesel cars have been spewing out toxic emissions at levels approximately 35x greater than those achieved in lab results. The negative and far reaching environmental, health and financial impact is yet to be fully determined. The VW CEO was appropriately terminated and the overall impact to VW’s reputation still hasn’t hit the bottom. Further investigation hopefully will provide additional insights and impact assessments, but if one knows anything about the working of organizations, a lot of employees at Volkswagen had to know about this defeat device. I can’t imagine this work being the deceitful and manipulative project of a rouge engineer (or even a few). What makes people gag even more is knowing that VW is actively promoting itself as a leader in developing fuel efficient cars. It even launched the “Fun Theory” initiative a few years ago, where it encourages customers and the public at large to make suggestions on how to connect “fun and green” together. The theory is that people will want to drive environmentally friendly cars if it’s fun to do. Wow!

Why would VW knowingly allow this to happen? As Warren Buffett has famously noted, there is so much money to be made within the boundaries of integrity, why play at the edge? VW is the result of what a collection of actual human beings does. This deceitful behavior emerged from some VW people consciously deciding that a “defeat device” was acceptable. So the idea of a defeat device ultimately begins at a very personal and individual level.

Character Moves:

  1. We are of course all very human and fallible so it might be worth reflecting where we might be aware of or perhaps even be involved in applying a “defeat device” in our personal daily lives; portraying one result in the “lab,” while living another way in real life? Of course, as painfully demonstrated by VW, the “defeat device” eventually lives up to its name… It defeats us personally.
  1. We have an obligation to call out for help and seek counsel when determining the right thing to do in organizations. Defeat devices of any kind are a slippery slope of deceit. When we know it’s wrong in our gut, it likely is. And soliciting the help of others to check our thinking and call it out is necessary. I have to believe that VW wishes somebody or group would have vehemently protested applying a defeat device to trick the emission results. As proven time and again, it takes years to build a valued brand (personal or otherwise) only to have it trashed in minutes/hours based on the wrong behavior.  And intentional deceit is a true defeat device, personally, professionally and organizationally.

Against Defeat Devices in the Triangle,


One Millennial View: Despite working in the entertainment industry for years and covering every “cheating” scandal since 2011, I still get surprised that some people cut corners and play shady games when they can. Disappointingly, it’s usually people you hope and wish would never… Then, these stories are even worse when obviously people break their moral fiber in order to downplay their risk of negative consequences or legal liability. If you’re a leader breaking the rules, have the self-accountability to make sure you aren’t dragging down the masses with your scummy plan. Punch buggy, no return… I’m glad this VW Bug finally got squashed.

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis