Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Munchausen by Proxy in the Workplace

You’re the leader of a team working on some difficult ongoing problems when an even bigger problem suddenly presents itself out of the blue.  You’ve never encountered such a problem in the past and this particular problem wasn’t at all evident in all of the work leading up to the current state. One of your teammates suddenly swoops in with a solution to this vexing problem and quickly becomes the hero of the moment. All around him, bosses, peers, and people from other unrelated organizations stop by to congratulate him for his outstanding insights and technical expertise to so quickly recognize and come up with an elegant solution to such an unusual and potentially crushing problem. You join in the accolades, happy that a member of your team has the know-how to spot and fix such difficult problems.


But then you start to think about the situation a bit more deeply, and start to do some background investigation to understand where and how this problem arose, so you can be on the lookout for such outlier problems in the future to prevent them from arising in the first place. Only when you start to dig in to the problem you reluctantly begin to come to the conclusion that this difficult problem did not really come out of nowhere, but was purposely injected into the project by the very person who is now the hero of the moment. This person had actually caused potential harm to the project in order to become the hero who saved the day. Unbelievable!



There is a rare psychological mental health disorder called Munchausen by Proxy that involves exaggeration or fabrication of illnesses or symptoms by a primary caretaker. This is named after Baron von Munchausen (see drawing above), an 18th-century German dignitary known for telling outlandish stories. In Munchausen by Proxy, an individual, usually a mother, deliberately makes another person, most often her preschool child, sick or convinces others that the person is sick. This individual may exaggerate, fabricate, or even induce symptoms. As a result, doctors usually order needless and possibly painful tests, try different types of medications, and may even hospitalize the child or even perform surgery to determine the cause. Typically, the perpetrator feels satisfied by gaining attention and sympathy of doctors, nurses, and others who come into contact with her and her child. Some experts believe that it isn’t just the attention that’s gained from the ‘illness’ of the child that drives this behavior, but also the satisfaction in being able to deceive individuals that they consider to be more important and powerful than themselves. Because the parent or caregiver appears to be so caring and attentive, often no one suspects any wrongdoing.


A Georgia Tech professor, Nathan Bennett, wrote a Harvard Business Review article in November 2007 highlighting what he coined “Munchausen at Work”. Similar to Munchausen by Proxy, he describes, “a similar pathology occurs in work when employees create fictitious organizational problems, only to solve them.” He describes how this behavior “wastes managerial time and resources and can threaten morale and productivity.”


As an example, Bennett describes a person, ‘Philip’, who had a reputation for his ability to get people to work together, and who bragged of how, under his guidance, he was able to get people in vigorous conflict to rebuild productive work relationships. But over time it emerged that that the conflicts that Philip had so adeptly defused were of his own creation. In the early stages of a project, before the team had a chance to establish healthy relationships, he would target individuals in whom to plant the seeds of conflict, creating dysfunctional relationships between team members. Philip then became the hero by resolving the conflict (that he created) using his insider knowledge of its causes.


Where real instances of Munchausen by Proxy are rare, Munchausen at Work instances are less so. Bennett describes some examples:
  • An employee may embellish a real problem or make it appear that one looms on the horizon. Just as solving a problem of one’s own creation can generate rewards, so can bringing an inflated or predicted ‘crisis’ to the attention of others.
  • An employee may create some dependency within the organization by volunteering to mentor new hires and then threaten to give up the role, citing competing obligations. The perpetrator doesn’t necessarily want to withdraw, but does want to win the attention for remaining. Munchausen at Work perpetrators often engage in regular, destabilizing patterns of commitment and withdrawal.
  • An employee may constantly light small fires and then put them out. For example, first creating and then remedying shortages of supplies, information, or other resources.
  • An employee may gain praise for ‘fixing’ the continual mistakes of another troublesome organization, when the reality is that the mistakes never really occurred.


Phred Dvorak, in a Wall Street Journal article on ‘Munchausen at Work', points to this type of behavior among business executives who have named successors but don’t like to cede control. Such executives may undermine their protégés and then swoop in to ‘repair’ the resulting problems, thus showing how indispensable they are.


Dr. Jim Anderson, of The Accidental IT Leader™ blog, in his article, ‘Do You Suffer From “ Munchausen At Work” Syndrome? ’, compares this to the workplace equivalent of arson, which can be very hard to detect. He indicates that one reason that this behavior is hard to discourage is because companies often reward it with either recognition or promotions. People see that it worked it the past and see it as a path to future recognition and success. He also points to some common sparks that such people can set to dry timber such as layoff rumors (so they can save your jobs), relationship problems (so they can ‘patch things up’ between teammates), and reports of angry customers (so they can smooth things over with them and keep them as a customer). He suggests steps you can take to put an end to this special form of workplace violence, including stressing teamwork over individual problem solving, staying away from creating ‘office heroes’, keeping an eye peeled for 'information hoarders', and making sure that managers are always working to find out what employee needs are. He states that Munchausen at Work may be a problem you already have but don’t yet realize!


Small companies, and especially startups, often inadvertently act as partners or enablers of such behavior since they tend to nurture and celebrate a ‘Rock Star’ approach, celebrating the ‘rescues’ by ‘heroes’ who jump into the ‘fire’ and save the day versus a less sexy methodical approach aimed at avoiding the fires in the first place. The ‘fire fights’ feed into the culture and the false ‘adrenalin’ may become necessary to keep the culture and the leaders satisfied. So Munchausen at Work behavior may be inadvertently encouraged by the culture, since ‘Rock Stars’ get rewarded. So why not surreptitiously set the fires, put them out, and then get rewarded? When there are inexperienced employees who have no frame of reference to pull from, they may see such behavior as desirable or even the norm.


While managers can often recognize such behavior in general, diagnosis of specific instances can often be more difficult.
  • How do you prove if a problem or crisis is real or created?
  • How do you prove if a solution is real or contrived?
  • Do you spend your time proving a negative or moving on?
  • Do you undermine yourself trying to prove Munchausen at Work is behind something?


Bennett suggests that a manager who suspects an employee of Munchausen at Work should ask these questions:
  • Is the employee disproportionately involved in identifying and fighting fires?
  • Is the employee unusually resistant to offers of help in addressing problems he or she has identified?
  • Does the employee deflect management’s efforts to understand a problem’s underlying causes?
  • Are the facts and coworkers’ accounts at odds with the employee’s claims about a problem’s existence or severity?
  • Are problems with a project, a customer, or a process, or between colleagues, frequently resolved in the employee’s absence?
Of course ‘Yes’ answers to these questions don’t conclusively confirm Munchausen at Work. But they signal that managers may want to be on the alert for repeated episodes and to validate their suspicions with multiple observers.


If Munchausen at Work seems likely, the best remedies are to reduce the attention and other rewards that are tied to solutions and, more broadly, to limit perpetrators’ opportunities for creating specific problems. Munchausen by Proxy in the Workplace (or Munchausen at Work) can be a real problem.Don’t ignore the symptoms!


[Note: Special thanks to Mary Sullivan, friend and prior colleague/ boss, who offered excellent suggestions and improvements to this blog post!]

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