If the 18th-century German cavalry officer Baron Karl Friedrich Hieronymus von Munchausen were around today, he'd probably be in a white-collar firm somewhere faking problems so that he could fix themand he'd have plenty of company. While his name is most closely associated with Munchausen syndromea condition that's characterized by the feigning of illness or injury to get attentionit's recently been appropriated to describe a form of behavior that's likely going on in a cubicle near yours. First identified in 2007 by Nathan Bennett, a business-school professor at Georgia Tech, Munchausen at work leads employees to cook up phony office dramas that they themselves can solve to become heroes. And while it's hard to measure the scope of the problem, experts agree that the precarious state of the economy is hastening its spread. "Munchausen at work is happening anywhere an employee wants attention," Bennett says. "Anywhere an employee wants to save the day."
Take Shawn, 30, a project manager at a technology firm in New York. Assigned to launch an online video for a new product, he intentionally underprepared the servers so that the stream stalled. When faced with complaints from his coworkers, he called a meeting at which he listened to their concerns before announcing, "I'll fix thisI don't mind playing hero."
While some of his colleagues saw through this showboating, his manager lauded his can-do spirit. "Pulling stuff like that is the only way to advance or get noticed," says Jay, a coworker.
Glen, a 34-year-old government consultant in Washington, D.C., worked with an administrative analyst who was hailed as a miracle worker because she was always able to locate lost documents in the firm's computer network. Glen eventually discovered (and reported) the reason: His colleague had masterminded a labyrinthine filing system on the office's servers, which only she fully understood. Despite having created the problem, she was commended by her bosses, who saw her as a star worker. "We were all her victims," Glen says. "People praised her work, and because of her fake humility, they respected her. She got promoted. It was infuriating."
These days, however, that's business as usual. Employees across the country are embracing any opportunity to gain the approval of their managers. That IT worker who said he had to send away to Taiwan for the spare part for your computer? The thing he needed was sitting in his top drawer. The junior staffer who "discovered" at the eleventh hour that the numbers were wrong on the bid for the new office space? Let's just say that he knew there were inconsistencies in the deal all along. And the CEO who appointed his protégé to a senior role? He wanted to see the kid stumble so that he could step in and steady the ship.
Bennett says that while most culprits are men in their mid-thirties to mid-forties, their younger, go-getting colleagues are also susceptible. Lucas, 29, was a junior employee at a major talent agency in Los Angeles when he was asked by his boss to find a new assistant for two A-list screenwriters. Lucas wanted the position, so he blocked the competition, implying that there was an embarrassing lack of prospects. Having created this problem, Lucas was only too happy to step in with a solution: He'd take the job himself.