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.