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Munchausen at Work

Posted by: Jena McGregor on October 25, 2007

There’s a funny column in this month’s Harvard Business Review I think many people will be able to relate to. Called “Munchausen at Work,” it describes a phenomenon Georgia Tech management professor Nathan Bennett noticed when studying team performance in more than 30 companies in different industries. He relates to the workplace the psychological disorder commonly known as Munchausen Syndrome by proxy, which Wikipedia defines as “involves a caregiver who feigns or induces an illness in another person, usually to gain power and control over the victim as well as attention or sympathy from others.” Bennett notes that in our performance-driven, layoff-paranoid workplaces, where people are valued for solving problems and try to make themselves irreplaceable, “a similar pathology occurs….when employees create fictitious organizational problems, only to solve them.”

He gives the example of a manager in a Fortune 100 professional services firm that had a reputation for getting people to work together. To reaffirm that status, he’d purposely drive people apart only to bring them back together. Bennett offers a few questions managers should ask to try to identify people afflicted with “MAW”:

>>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 cause?
>>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?

Reader Comments

Janis Margulis

September 2, 2008 6:35 PM

Now that we know what the problem is, how do we solve the problem? I can identify the person at work who is instigating difficulties. However, she is a step above me in the hierarchy and would probably be chastised for pointing out her flaws.


September 3, 2008 11:39 AM

Perhaps you could give an anonymous suggestion or note asking the higher ups to keep a watch for these instigations.


September 3, 2008 3:15 PM

Myself and another admin in my department have to work with someone that fits this description so much, it's scary. Our problem is that she has been with the company for years (longer than we have, about 3x longer) and she supports someone a bit high on the ladder in Human Resources that she's close with. I truely don't believe it's how you conduct yourself (because she's caused a lot of problems since she's been here and been unprofessional), or what you know, it's about WHO you know in our department. I don't think she'd be working in our here otherwise. Both of us other admins have actually gone as far as to look for another job because it is so difficult to work with this person. Does anyone have any suggestions and/or solutions to my problem? I don't want to leave my job, but I don't get excited to wake up and come in every morning, pretty much, since this woman has started. It's really sad.


September 5, 2008 11:27 AM

My father gets really sick and in pain but he is really not sick. He is not imagining the pain but I think it worries him so much that he would get sick that he actually does.Is that Munchausen as well?


September 14, 2008 4:11 PM

I worked for a dm at Friendly's who most definately has this syndrome. He has been with the company since he was 16. It always starts with him firing the gm of a store. He then makes up ficticious things that the gm did. He then goes to human resources to start an investigation. The employees then get harassed, belittled, and interrogated. When they tell hr that it is all lies, they simply say, "we already know the truth, we just want to see your reaction". This goes on for a few weeks, most people quit. Then miraculously this dm swoops in to save the day. He "fixes" all of the ficticious issues and is the hero. He never has been caught though. I wish someone would challenge him to a lie detector test.


September 24, 2008 10:29 AM

What about MANAGERS managers who have this problem themselves!!! Workers deal with this on a different level! It is worse than a co-worker with that problem!! .. We have a manager like this at work and she has a very bad effect on MANY MANY people. It is very sad that she feels so insignificant and doesn't appreciate the great staff that she already has... She tries to make us look bad then act like she is coming to the rescue! She couldn't do our job if her life depended on it. That why she ia the "fire-starter". She need to distract herself and others from her ownincompetence and bad attitude.

Disgusted With G

December 18, 2008 3:28 PM

I have a soon to be former co-worker/friend with it. He is extremely bright but his consistent compulsive lying and exageration has damaged a very productive working relationship and friendship.

He clearly has a need to please people and be everyone's friend / hero. He foolishly beleives that the trust is still there but he's destroyed it. I just cannot risk trusting this guy again. It's a crying shame because with clients we made an awesome team.

My departure will clearly have a negative impact on a lot people besides me (at least in the short-term)as capacity will be dramatically reduced.

Good managers need to recognize this and do something. What to do is the question?

Anon Amous

January 23, 2009 8:29 AM

I have TWO co-workers who would qualify as clinical cases of Munchausen At Work. The list of questions that managers should ask themselves is so spot-on that I was tempted to email this article to a couple of my managers! Not to mention that, to me, MAW is so easy to spot. But I guess if you're not "down in the trenches" and no one complains, it's easily overlooked. However, it can be extremely frustrating to other employees who are doing their jobs as they should (or better) but never get recognized since they aren't constantly "putting out fires" as it were. The MAW employees are the ones who receive the accolades. When you think about it, it's rather counter-intuitive. Why should the employees with constant issues get praised?? I thought the goal was to NOT have problems with the process...

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