Do You Suffer From “Munchausen At Work” Syndrome?

by drjim on August 27, 2008

People who set fires in the workplace just to be heroes when they put them out suffer from munchausen at work syndrome

People who set fires in the workplace just to be heroes when they put them out suffer from munchausen at work syndrome

We all deal with problems that flare up at work, but some people do a better job than others. In fact, some people deal with workplace problems so often and do such a good job of dealing with them that they get awards, bonuses, and eventually promoted. Phred Dvorak over at the Wall Street Journal took a look at this situation and discovered something that most of us have suspected for a long time: some people are creating workplace problems and then jumping in to solve them. What’s up with this?

A business professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Nathan Bennett, has come up with the phrase “munchausen at work” to describe the phenomenon in which workers actually go about causing problems so that they can come back later on and take credit for fixing them. In the medical profession, there is an equivalent syndrome called “muncheausen” which is a mental illness in which someone makes someone else sick so that they can be a caregiver to them.

This workplace equivalent of arson is very hard to detect. The folks who set the fires are often the ones who show up when the problem is burning out of control and through their Herculean efforts are able to get the problem back under control. One reason that this behavior is hard to discourage is because companies often reward it with either recognition or promotions. Hey – it worked to get me promoted last time, why wouldn’t I use it again to get my next promotion?

In my career I’ve seen a lot of this. The challenge to the fire starters seems to be in determining just how big of a problem to cause. If it’s too small, they won’t get any recognition, if it’s too big they won’t be able to fix it or someone else will be brought in to solve the problem.

One interesting observation is that the munchausen at work syndrome is often seen among workers who have moved on to other jobs. They set fires so that they can swoop back in and solve them thus showing that they are still be best person for that job in the company.

You may be able to spot muncheausen at work staffers as they go about setting their fires. Common sparks that they set to dry timber include 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).

Although the current downturn of the economy that we are experiencing may serve to reduce the number of fires set by munchausen at work suffers, spotting the deception is a good first step in stopping the behavior. Additional steps that you can take to put an end to this special form of workplace violence are:

  • Be sure to always stress teamwork over individual problem solving achievements.
  • Stay away from creating “office heroes” because it encourages munchausen syndrome.
  • Keep an eye peeled for information hoarders – they may be trying to start a fire.
  • Make sure that managers are always working to find out what employee needs are.

In this age of looser gun control laws, you might think that you’d be able to see any workplace problems walking down the hall towards you. However, munchausen at work may be a problem that you already have and yet didn’t realize it!

Have you ever worked for someone who suffered from munchausen at work? What kind of fires did they start and how did they put them out? Have you ever caused a problem at work with the hope of being asked to solve it? How did this work out for you? Leave a comment and let me know.

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