Drama-Lovers Bliss: 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 I was 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

The real Baron von Munchausen. Image source: Wikipedia

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.

Jennifer Alvey, the author of the Leaving Law blog told me some time ago that 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.

John Neville (who died in 2011) played Munchausen in the movies.

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 took it seriously enough highlight 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 no fan of drama. She’s seen her share of Munchausen–at work and in social situations. She writes about what she sees.

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21 responses to “Drama-Lovers Bliss: Munchausen at Work

  1. Thanks for this post, Quinn. It’s always comforting to have a diagnosis, and this accurately explains part of the behavior of a very sick individual that I once worked for. He eventually so eroded the structure of his office that the walls and ceiling crashed down upon him, but not before he had successfully set up for ruin many people and a vast number of projects.

    What always struck me as odd was why he would knowingly sabotage his own best interests, holding press conferences for coverage of events that he would systematically lead to ruin before everyone’s eyes, then bemoan the bad press and blame everyone around him. I now know that the answer is, he couldn’t help himself. Munchausen’s grandiose lies were always at the same time, his closest friends and his worst enemies. Very sad really, for everyone involved. Fortunately, unlike some, I escaped without a harmed reputation. But the after effects of that poisoned atmosphere left some scars. Everyone in the midst of a Munchausen is forced to ride the roller-coaster, whether they realize it at the time or not. And it can be a very, scary and dangerous ride, indeed!

    • I’m no therapist, but that (to my untrained mind) sounds like borderline personality disorder. That amazingly destructive behavior for attention with a huge need to be saved while simultaneously not allowing anyone to save them, is exhausting and takes down a lot of people around him. They can be brilliant strategists, but just for a short time. After that the destruction leaves a wide swath of damaged souls.

  2. It’s interesting to learn that this condition has an actual name Quinn. I usually refer to such people as ‘drama queens’ or ‘attention seekers’. Also, I’ve learned, through experience, that it’s best not to talk about the over-dramatising behaviour of such people to others, as you can be accused of being ‘insensitive’! Loved reading your thought on the matter. :)

  3. I’ve experienced this in the workplace, and it was somewhat traumatizing. I could never understand what was happening, but reading this really hits home and helps my comprehension. Munchausen syndrome in all its forms in real life may be difficult, unhealthy and even at times dangerous, but at least in fantasy it is one of my favorite films (Terry Gilliam). :)

  4. I have another one for your list “Munchausen at the school doors”. Talking about moms, not kids here. No amount of facts and positive talk seem to calm them when they are full flow. At that point you can only do damage control around them so they don´t create a tsunami intead of a ripple and let them go.

  5. This has been my experience as both a therapist and corporate-world survivor – the most effective antidote to this type of person is to disengage as much as possible. I’m a realist, so I know that it isn’t always possible, especially as an employee in a position of less power. I think of that saying, “Your lack of planning does not constitute an emergency on my part.” It’s still one (of many) of my survival mantras.

    • It’s so very hard to disengage at work–frequently I was asked to be part of crisis solution–but you are right. I did the work and kept my eyes down. It was still EWWW.

  6. This article, when you first posted it a couple of years ago REALLY hit home with me. I had never, in 30 years of work, encountered a hostile working environment and a person that had exactly this issue. Reporting to management was ineffective. she’s still there – I am not. Thank God. It’s been 2 years since I left, and never regretted leaving. She still gives me nightmares at times. I feel sorry for her. That might be even crazier!

  7. I have always called it the “Danger, Danger, Will Robinson” syndrom, but this name sounds much better! Sadly, I have worked in too many places where this is the norm, rather than the exception.

  8. Great article. I work in this atmosphere now and the [private] company succeeds in spite of itself. But, it could be so much better. Nobody here seems accountable for their actions, just a slap on the wrist and it continues. Frustrating and stupid.

  9. Wow, after 10 years away from a corporate position, I now know why it was so insane. Every symptom you described existed, and started at the very top. As a person who believes in knowledge sharing and collaboration, it was not a comfortable situation.

    • Not everyone makes a good corporate employee. And the need for drama, encouraged by “reality” shows (which are heavily scripted) encourages that type of crisis-creation and what I call Savior-Behavior to inflate egos and get attention. I used to think it was my karma. Now I know it was a subtle mix of competition, preference for extroversion, need for control, approval of acting out and need for speed. It all leads to a bad road in a dark hallway.

  10. Gee, I think you know where I work. Interesting article.

  11. Very interesting post. This happens in family systems too. Its hard to learn to not participate in the drama, especially when various things are thrown at you ( language wise) which are outrageous. But seeing them for what they are – a desire to create drama for another purpose – is helpfull

    • It’s a huge cause of drama in families, particularly at get-togethers. It also happens in workshops, book clubs, gym class and other places where people need attention. I’m not sure there is a solution that really works. But I keep looking.

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