Saturday, March 29, 2008

Office Munchausens

Baron Munchausen from

Most of us have heard of factitious disorder, albeit by its more 'popular' name of Munchausen Syndrome, named for Baron von Munchausen, an 18th century German officer known for embellishing the stories of his life and experiences.

People suffering from Munchausens claim physical or mental illness when, in fact the symptoms are purposefully created, largely for the purpose of gaining the attention and sympathy normally reserved for the ill.

A fascinating disorder but also extremely rare.

Apparently not so in the office environment. I read today, somewhat belatedly, about a 2007 article published in the Harvard Business Review describing what the author calls 'Munchausens at Work'.

Author Nathan Bennett describes situations where employees create fictitious organisational problems, only to solve them, gaining kudos in the process. To illustrate, Bennett tells the story of a manager praised for his personnel management skills, for troubleshooting interpersonal conflict on teams. It was later discovered that he would covertly pit co-workers against one another, giving him the opportunity to play peacemaker later. Other strategies include 'solving' non-existent problems.

Although 'Munchausens at Work' is not a psychological disorder, it's interesting none the less. Thinking back to my corporate days, I can see how this idea flies. My boss was very good at telling you negative things about co-workers. When Practical Man comes home and talks about some of his experiences in the office, you have to wonder how often this kind of thing goes on.

Ever come across this kind of behaviour? Come on, spill the beans!



john p said...


thanks for info, you can also try bristol acupuncture

Deb said...

I haven't. But it sounds fascinating.

I have to check back and see what others might have to say.

Beachwriter said...

I am not surprised that this happens in the work place. It does make sense. Why?

I took a course called "Organizational Behavior." It was so interesting. It was about why people act the way they do in the workforce.

My analogy of this "Office Munchausens" is that for some reason these people DON'T feel important. They probably never felt validated, special, and probably feel that they've never been heard.

So doing this, makes them heard, important, the peacemaker, the problem solver, the hero.

There are so many people in the workplace that starts trouble. It is amazing. That's why I want to own my own practice. :)

Alison said...

The illustration given of the dude who created "problems" almost exactly describes a boss I once had. She was horrible. She also made an artform out of having you feel incompetent, stabbing other counsellors in the back, and looking completely fabulous to anyone outside the group. It's a very toxic and unhappy situation when this happens.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I've had some awful office experiences but, thankfully, nothing like this!


Awake In Rochester said...

I have never heard it called that, but this type of manipulation at the work place is nothing new. Unfortunately I have even seen this in the health care field. It's also know as Office Weasel Syndrome. ;o)

patientanonymous said...

Hey, finally making it over to your pad.

Talk about giving a whole new definition to "A Make Work Project."

I'm trying to think as I'm pretty unobservant and I also really try to avoid office politics and garbage like that. Where I am now, things are pretty fab so none of that goes on--however, we did have a couple of troublemakers a while ago. They were just silly though. Selfish and trying to take advantage of things for their own benefit.

Although...I don't know if this would quite fit the criteria! Someone here some time ago (actually two over the course of time) made up a whole whack of craziness and eventually they had to be let go--but I think that was more about their own mental stability--not about problem solving!

So, nope. I don't think I've ever come last job...

I'm sorry, this is rambly...

You know? That place was such a disaster. I can think of a couple. Yep. One guy just acted like an arse so that would qualify as stirring up conflict and when he got promoted he had no choice but to smooth things over? Another guy before him...full of all sorts of ideas that were not needed for "productivity!" They were implemented anyway as he was in our manager's back pocket.

So those might fit?

Anonymous said...

I thought factitious disorder was a 'pretend' disorder, while munchausen's was a medical condition that has been deliberately contrived by actions of the person...
Factitious disorders seem to often be self reports of pain, and reasonably difficult to manage, and where the outcome is in order to experience some sort of secondary gain - like more attention, less anxiety etc
Munchausen's can be things like infecting one's own wounds, eating things that cause vomiting, deliberating not taking medications (or deliberately taking medications) to create a disorder.

Anyway, yes I've seen this kind of behaviour within organisations - and I wonder whether the individual is perhaps unaware of his/her need to create the situation (a la borderline personality disorder?), or perhaps the secondary gain is so high that it's hard to resist the opportunity!

I remember that in a workplace there are all sorts of people - and psychopathology or personality disorders are just as likely to exist in a 'normal' workplace as anywhere else in the world!! The shame is where these types of behaviours are left unmanaged, or where the individual is in a position of authority and can inflict his/her nastiness on others.

Health Psych said...

Hi John,
Well, thank you, I would but Bristol might be a little too much of a commute :)

Hi Deb,
Probably something organisational psychologists might have plenty to say on.

Hi Beachwriter,
Got it in one!

Hi Alison,
See? Even us 'professionals' who should no better aren't immune from it.

Hi Donna,
Seems you've been lucky.

Hi Awake in Rochester,
Thanks for visiting and commenting. 'Office Weasal Syndrome' *grin* I think I like that better.

Hi PA,
I always tried to avoid politics too but involvement is usually inevitable. Sounds like you've had some pretty relevant experiences.

Hi Health Skills,
Munchausen's is not an official diagnostic category but is a label that is commonly applied to the most severe and chronic form of Factitious Disorder (with predominantly physical signs and symptoms). Factitious disorder relates to the intentional production of physical or psychological signs with a motivation to assume the sick role, not for any economic or other extrinsic gain ie. therefore differentiating from malingering.

If you're interested in some general reading, there's an interesting book by Cantor called 'Phantom Illness', a book called 'Sickened' by Julie Gregory that documents her experience as a victim of 'Munchausen's by Proxy'...these are just off the top of my head. Marc Feldman is an expert in this field and he's written quite a few books.

From the other articles I read on "Office Munchausens", it seems that the perpetrator is always aware of what they're doing and it is for the potential gains. It is, as you say, a shame that it doesn't get picked up more before it impacts on others.

Health Psych said...

And Alison...who should KNOW better how to spell :)