Office Munchausen Syndrome

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Years ago, a co-worker and I used to joke about a boss who constantly swooped in to "get everyone back on schedule." We felt that the manager's efforts, which typically involved a series of meetings, actually added to overall organizational delays, plus they had a deleterious effect on morale, making various employees feel as if they were failing constantly. Perhaps this was unfair of us or unkind or self-delusional. But I could never shake the suspicion...

...that the manager was less interested in improving our overall productivity or in making the work flow more conducive to higher quality than in getting kudos from top mangement for solving a problem.

This managerial syndrome is explored in an article in the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review. In the piece, Nathan Bennett, a professor of management at Georgia Tech, looks at various cases of what he calls Munchausen at Work syndrome or MAW. (Munchausen syndrome is of course a form of hypochnodria wherein a patient plays sick or even inflicts injury on him- or herself, in order to receive attention and sympathy from care givers.)

So how does MAW manifest itself? Bennett tells one story of a manager who was heralded for troubleshooting interpersonal conflict on teams. His bosses later discovered that he would, early in the life of a project, pit co-workers against one another, so that laer on he would have the opportunity to play the role of peacemaker.

A more subtle expression of MAW: Say a valued worker agrees to take on a discretionary duty such as mentoring younger employees, but then frequently threatens to drop that duty because it takes up too much time. According to Bennett's analysis, the employee may be orchestrating a situation in which management constantly serves up recognition or praise.

How can you tell if you have a case of MAW among your direct reports? Bennett suggests you look at employees who have come to specialize in fighting fires in the workplace, who are vague when a colleague attempts to investigate a problem's underlying cause, and who seem to prefer handling major problems themselves rather than bringing in outside resources. Another way to keep tabs on this kind of counterproductive behavior? Move managers around from time to time, and see if the teams they leave behind become more functional in their wake or less so.

Last updated: Nov 5, 2007




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