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by Proxy in the Workplace
By Tom Dennis – President, Effective
You’re a leader of a team working on some difficult ongoing problems
when an even bigger problem suddenly presents itself out of the blue.
You’ve never encountered such a problem in the past and this particular
problem wasn’t at all evident in all of the work leading up to the
current state. One of your teammates suddenly swoops in with a solution
to this vexing problem and quickly becomes the hero of the moment. All
around him, bosses, peers, and people from other unrelated organizations
stop by to congratulate him for his outstanding insights and technical
expertise to so quickly recognize and come up with an elegant solution
to such an unusual and potentially crushing problem. You join in the
accolades, happy that a member of your team has the know-how to spot and
fix such difficult problems.
But then you start to think about the situation a bit more deeply, and
start to do some background investigation to understand where and how
this problem arose, so you can be on the lookout for such outlier
problems in the future to prevent them from arising in the first place.
Only when you start to dig in to the problem you reluctantly begin to
come to the conclusion that this difficult problem did not really come
out of nowhere, but was purposely injected into the project by the very
person who is now the hero of the moment. This person had actually
caused potential harm to the project in order to become the hero who
saved the day. Unbelievable!
There is a rare psychological mental health disorder called
Munchausen by Proxy
that involves exaggeration or fabrication of illnesses or symptoms by a
primary caretaker. This is named after Baron von Munchausen, an 18th-century
German dignitary known for telling outlandish stories. In Munchausen by
Proxy, an individual, usually a mother, deliberately makes another
person, most often her preschool child, sick or convinces others that
the person is sick. This individual may exaggerate, fabricate, or even
induce symptoms. As a result, doctors usually order needless and
possibly painful tests, try different types of medications, and may even
hospitalize the child or even perform surgery to determine the cause.
Typically, the perpetrator feels satisfied by gaining attention and
sympathy of doctors, nurses, and others who come into contact with her
and her child. Some experts believe that it isn’t just the attention
that’s gained from the ‘illness’ of the child that drives this
behavior, but also the satisfaction in being able to deceive individuals
that they consider to be more important and powerful than themselves.
Because the parent or caregiver appears to be so caring and attentive,
often no one suspects any wrongdoing.
A Georgia Tech professor, Nathan Bennett, wrote a Harvard Business
Review article in November 2007
highlighting what he coined “Munchausen at Work.” Similar
to Munchausen by Proxy, he describes, “a similar pathology
occurs in work when employees create fictitious organizational problems,
only to solve them.” He describes how this behavior “wastes
managerial time and resources and can threaten morale and productivity.”
As an example, Bennett describes a person, ‘Philip’, who had a
reputation for his ability to get people to work together, and who
bragged of how, under his guidance, he was able to get people in
vigorous conflict to rebuild productive work relationships. But over
time it emerged that that the conflicts that Philip had so adeptly
defused were of his own creation. In the early stages of a project,
before the team had a chance to establish healthy relationships, he
would target individuals in whom to plant the seeds of conflict,
creating dysfunctional relationships between team members. Philip then
became the hero by resolving the conflict (that he created) using his
insider knowledge of its causes.
Where real instances of Munchausen by Proxy are rare,
Munchausen at Work instances are less so. Bennett describes some
• An employee may embellish a real problem or make it appear that one
looms on the horizon. Just as solving a problem of one’s own creation
can generate rewards, so can bringing an inflated or predicted ‘crisis’
to the attention of others.
• An employee may create some dependency within the organization by
volunteering to mentor new hires and then threaten to give up the role,
citing competing obligations. The perpetrator doesn’t necessarily want
to withdraw, but does want to win the attention for remaining.
Munchausen at Work perpetrators often engage in regular,
destabilizing patterns of commitment and withdrawal.
• An employee may constantly light small fires and then put them out.
For example, first creating and then remedying shortages of supplies,
information, or other resources.
• An employee may gain praise for ‘fixing’ the continual mistakes
of another troublesome organization, when the reality is that the
mistakes never really occurred.
A writer, Quinn McDonald, who develops and runs workshops in business
communications, describes some other examples at her blog, QuinnCreative.
• Quinn had a boss who was a mystery, in that, whenever she 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. After months in untangling the
mystery, Quinn learned that the crisis would erupt when this boss wanted
the attention of her boss. When a need for attention arose, this
boss would deftly create a crisis, was the only person who knew how to
solve it, solved it successfully, and got the attention she needed,
along with the praise that comes from crisis management. The fact that
there were bodies and other collateral damage scattered around her
office was of no importance to Quinn’s boss.
• Another example is 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
particularly happens in businesses where knowledge is restricted to
those who ‘need to know’ and is then used as currency for favors.
Quinn’s conclusion is that 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. One where
information hoarding is common is also ready.
Phred Dvorak, in a Wall Street Journal article on ‘Munchausen at Work’,
points to this type of behavior among business executives who have named
successors but don’t like to cede control. Such executives may
undermine their protégés and then swoop in to ‘repair’ the
resulting problems, thus showing how indispensable they are.
Dr. Jim Anderson, of The Accidental IT Leader™ blog, in his
article, ‘Do You Suffer From “Munchausen At Work” Syndrome? ’,
compares this to the workplace equivalent of arson, which can be very
hard to detect. He indicates that one reason that this behavior is hard
to discourage is because companies often reward it with either
recognition or promotions. People see that it worked it the past and
see it as a path to future recognition and success. He also points to
some common sparks that such people can set to dry timber such as 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). He suggests steps you can take to put an end to this special
form of workplace violence, including stressing teamwork over individual
problem solving, staying away from creating ‘office heroes’,
keeping an eye peeled for information hoarders, and making sure that
managers are always working to find out what employee needs are. He
states that Munchausen at Work may be a problem you already have
but don’t yet realize!
Small companies, and especially startups, often inadvertently act as
partners or enablers of such behavior since they tend to nurture and
celebrate a ‘Rock Star’ approach, celebrating the ‘rescues’
by ‘heroes’ who jump into the ‘fire’ and save the day
versus a less sexy methodical approach aimed at avoiding the fires in
the first place. The ‘fire fights’ feed into the culture and the
false ‘adrenalin’ may become necessary to keep the culture and
the leaders satisfied. So Munchausen at Work behavior may be
inadvertently encouraged by the culture, since ‘Rock Stars’ get
rewarded. So why not surreptitiously set the fires, put them out, and
then get rewarded? When there are inexperienced employees who have no
frame of reference to pull from, they may see such behavior as desirable
or even the norm.
While managers can often recognize such behavior in
general, diagnosis of specific instances can often be more difficult.
• How do you prove if a problem or crisis is real or created?
• How do you prove if a solution is real or contrived?
• Do you spend your time proving a negative or moving on?
• Do you undermine yourself trying to prove Munchausen at Work is
Bennett suggests that a manager who suspects an employee of
Munchausen at Work should ask these questions:
• Is the employee disproportionately involved in identifying and
• 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 causes?
• 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?
Of course ‘Yes’ answers to these questions don’t conclusively
confirm Munchausen at Work. But they signal that managers may
want to be on the alert for repeated episodes and to validate their
suspicions with multiple observers.
If Munchausen at Work seems likely, the best remedies are to
reduce the attention and other rewards that are tied to solutions and,
more broadly, to limit perpetrators’ opportunities for creating specific
problems. Munchausen by Proxy in the Workplace (or
Munchausen at Work) can be a real problem; don’t ignore the