This tactic works well on ambitious and “greedy” people that see the rewards first and consider the consequences of failure last.
An interesting addition to the history of the term, “Poisoned Chalice” is the book by the same name written by Jeffrey Freedman. The story tells of a long-forgotten criminal case where the communion wine of Zurich’s main cathedral was poisoned. The plot of the story is irrelevant but the concept is important. What matters to the tactician is that the victims drank willingly because they believed they were accepting something good (salvation) but were in fact being murdered.
The British newspaper, The Telegraph, ran a story on its website in July 2007. An extracts from this article is as follows:
Stamford Bridge job now a poisoned chalice
“They call the England manager’s position the impossible job but that description could quite as easily be applied to whoever tries to take what has become a poisoned chalice at Chelsea.”
And … another extract, this time from the Guardian Unlimited published in November 2004:
Poison chalice’ warning to NHS pay body
“NHS (National Health Service) managers have warned that the body representing NHS trust managers, has taken on a “poisoned chalice” by agreeing to take over the job of determining staff pay and conditions.”
As can be seen from the above, the concept of the “poisoned chalice” is, at the very least, well understood by the media but the truth is that most people are wary of challenging tasks and very alert to the possibility of being given something to do that may be destined to fail. There is an interesting aspect to this tactic where it is used in reverse.
In this instance a person is persuaded that a genuine task or mission is a “poisoned chalice” and pre-doomed to failure.
The person responsible for the task quickly begins to doubt the motivations of those that assigned it. They become suspicious, pay more attention to the politics than the job and may even abandon the task altogether. The task can then be “rescued” by the tactician who can then claim the credit for the success while exaggerating the failure of the previous person.
No description of the poisoned chalice is complete without a reference to the legend of King Arthur and the quest for the Holy Grail. In brief, it was for a time believed that the chalice used at the “last Super” or the “cup” used to catch the blood of Christ as he was crucified, would pass on everlasting life to any that should drink from it.
King Arthur sent forth his knights on a quest to find this most wonderful of objects. Most were destroyed or in some way injured in this quest. The story goes that, at last, one man, Galahad did find it and was taken with the chalice directly to heaven. For Galahad the grail was salvation but for most of the knights it was definitely a poisoned chalice.