Drama in the Office: Munchausen at Work

Some years ago, when I was still in the corporate world, I had a boss who was a mystery to me. She seemed to be very savvy at work politics (which I was not.) What made her a mystery to me was that when you were around her, a crisis would erupt out of nowhere. Suddenly, there was lots of activity, staying late and coming in early. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the crisis was declared over.

It took me months to untangle the mystery, and I didn’t want to believe it when I did. The crisis would erupt when my supervisor wanted the attention of her boss. Occasionally, the crisis would erupt when she had forgotten a deadline or offended her boss in some other way. She then deftly created a crisis, was the only person who know how to solve it, solved it successfully, and got the attention she needed, along with the praise that come from crisis management.

The fact that there were bodies scattered around her office was of no importance. We were the collateral damage of the corporate world. So skillful was this tactic, that I thought I was imagining it. When I saw it years later, at another job in another state, I realized it was real. And I wasn’t the only one noticing it.

Last week, Jennifer Alvey, the author of the Leaving Law blog told me this behavior has a name: Munchausen at Work. Named after the mental disease in which a person fakes symptoms or deliberately harms themselves in order to get medical attention and sympathy, Munchausen is no less serious when it migrates to the workplace.

Baron von Munchausen, for whom the disease is named. (Picture from Wikipedia)

Baron von Munchausen, for whom the disease is named. (Picture from Wikipedia)

According to a Harvard Business Review article (Nov. 2007),Georgia Tech professon Nate Bennett reported on the phenomenon and gave it the name.  The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article highlighting Munchausen at Work as well. The article concluded that fewer people have cause to engage in creating a crisis with the economy stripping workplace employees down to a minimum. I humbly disagree. A workforce pressed to excel, in which perfectionism is treated as success instead of the sure path to failure, is a workplace ready for Munchausen at Work, and even Munchausen-by-proxy at work. (Munchausen by Proxy is a mental disorder in which a caretaker of someone helpless (often a child) induces real or faked illness to gain attention for the caregiver.)

A example of Munchausen-by-proxy at Work would be an employee who causes strife between two departments or two co-workers through gossip, rumors or lies. The originator then steps in as intermediary and saves the situation. This happens in businesses where knowledge is restricted to those who “need to know” and is then used as currency for favors.

Knowledge or information hoarding is common in businesses, often through lack of communication. The most frequent sign of MAW or MBPAW is poorly-run meetings. If the reason for meetings is to distribute knowledge, than a meeting gone wrong raises  more problems than it solves. Meetings that involve too many people, not the right people, or the same few people and a management representative are also symptoms.

What do you do if you think this is happening at work? Watch for a lack of teamwork; different departments being told wildly varying reasons for problems; employees being deliberately pitted against each other in the same department; and a workplace that creates “heroes” and rewards them lavishly.

The best way around this problem is not to participate in it. Do not create or fuel drama at work. Do not get involved in gossip or shunning. Get your work done on time. It’s true that if you don’t participate, the MAW may get worse as the attention-seeker stretches to absurd lengths to get attention. And that is what will eventually come to the attention of senior management. A MAW employee will almost always overstep the rules of accepted office behavior. And do it quickly. The real Baron von Munchausen (for whom the disease is named) first exaggerated deeds on the 18th-century battlefield. When he didn’t get enough attention, he claimed to have ridden cannonballs as they were shot, to have roamed the moon, and to have pulled himself out of a quicksand-like pond by his own bootstraps. Which is where that expression comes from.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer who develops and runs workshops in business communications. See her work at QuinnCreative.com (c) 2008 All rights reserved.

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3 responses to “Drama in the Office: Munchausen at Work

  1. I worked with a woman who made up small stories at first. And we were all sympathetic. At first. But as you noted, she needed more. So she came into work late one day with a story of how her boyfriend had been gunned down before her eyes at a DC nightclub. By this time, we were all getting a little suspicious of her stories. A co-worker whose husband was a DC police officer checked the story. We were not suprised when we learned there was no police report of the “murder.” So we stopped feeding her need and she eventually quit. She was an entry-level person and caused a great deal of upheaval because there was always some dramatic reason for why she could not get to work on time or finish assignments. Imagine what a person like this can do at the executive level or YIKES in government!

    –Yikes in government is right! Even when these people are exposed, they rarely stop. And when you work for them, they don’t so much make exaggerated claims as create problems that only they can solve with YOUR work. It’s very destructive. -Q

  2. Oh yes, Munchausen’s does happen at work. Facticious disorder is the official DSM-IV (mental illness) diagnosis for people who make things up (pseudologia fantastica) for attention. Thanks for posting this. Honest people have a very hard time believing the lengths that such pathological liars will go to and can be fooled/charmed by them for a very long time. I experienced this in a mental health clinic by a co-worker who was supposed to be helping the mentally ill people! Not only did she sow ill-will between co-workers, getting people fired, etc, but also shaved her head and pretended to have cancer in order to get cards and flowers. Watch the movie “Shattered Glass,” based on a true story for another example of how things can play out with such demented folk.

  3. Just wonder how many Munchausen cases work at the top of the workchain!

    Interesting readingmaterial but a nightmare for the co-workers or just a bad play for a theatre

    —–So true. There are a lot of bosses out there acting out for attention. I’m glad I’m not at a lot of workplaces I’ve heard about. It’s tough out there. -Q

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