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 them—and he'd have plenty of company. While his name is most closely associated with Munchausen syndrome—a condition that's characterized by the feigning of illness or injury to get attention—it'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 this—I 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.
"Things can be conveniently lost," Lucas says. "Voice mails get erased. E-mails go to junk mail. It was easy. In this town, in this industry, you make your own luck."
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggested that the tight job market makes people less likely to risk being seen as problem-makers, but Bennett doesn't think that's always the case. "Some people will be so afraid that they won't be able to find another job that they won't risk engaging in Munchausen," he says. "Others, however, might be further tempted to do so, because they may feel only the most heroic employees will be kept around."
But bad apples pop up under all circumstances. "I've seen this happen even when things were going great," says a 33-year-old architect in Denver who has blogged about Munchausen at work. "It's a lot of George Costanza management, walking around with papers in a folder, looking busy, blowing up small problems."
And the sour economy is spurring a sort of reverse problem. "Career consultants suggest that the role of an unemployed person can be similar to the sick or victim role," says Marc Feldman, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Alabama who runs munchausen.com. He has flagged a group of what he calls "job hoppers" as chronic examples of Munchausen at work. "These individuals are seeking attention, concern, and social contact rather than job placement," Feldman says.
Of course, Munchausen schemes vary in scale, and not all are effective. And even when Munchausen is uncovered, companies can be averse to taking action. The reason, according to Ben Dattner, an organizational consultant who has taught psychology and business courses at New York University, is self-preservation: "The kind of fog that fosters Munchausen behavior is often the result of absent management. Why would managers want to implicate themselves?"
Which means that if you unearth Munchausen in your workplace, you may only be exposing yourself to risk. "It affected my standing in the office," says Glen, the government consultant. "Superiors thought I was a complainer. I was given a warning."
The consolation is that these schemes can rarely be repeated. "Trust that this will catch up to people," says Sue Murphy, association manager for the National Human Resources Association. "Time spent scheming is better spent working. If you're the employee who is always at the center of these situations, at some point the employer needs to take action."
But only if you get caught.