Munchausen in the Workplace


In the past decade, television detective and medical dramas have highlighted a pathological problem:  Munchausen’s by Proxy. The typical storyline:  a mother starving for attention purposely makes her child ill, then takes the child to the hospital. Doctors cure the mysterious illness, and the mother basks in the attention. As you would expect in a traditional three-act television play, the doctors or detectives figure out that somebody is poisoning the child, and that the somebody is Mama, and the climax is the scene in which they arrest the mother.

Great drama. Does it really happen? The tag lines for these shows often say, “ripped from the headlines.” But how real is the story? And can the same behavior happen in business? More importantly—does it happen in business?

A Manager’s Story

In a 2005 conference, I listened to a group of supply chain managers talk about the problems created by their own employees. Most of these problems had simple explanations:  the process was crap, the trading partner performance was crap, or the performance of the associate was crap. The managers agreed that most of the problems were simply crap.

Except for one manager. With conviction she announced that she had discovered Munchausen’s-by-Proxy in one of her subordinates. This subordinate always found problems in the work of others, and was able to save the shipment with a fix. Some of the “saves” the manager told us about sounded epic, the kind of rescues that required super skills.

The manager agreed that the employee possessed some serious skills—sinister skills. The saves became more epic, and the fault was always with the work of the carriers, the buyers, the factory, or somebody else outside the group. To get to the root cause of the failures, the manager started to pay closer attention to the kinds of problems that were occurring and who found them. Nobody else on the team found these problems; it was always the same person. Other people on the team shared that while they were alert to spot these issues, they never saw them.

That is when the manager started to suspect the problems were manufactured, not real, and began to investigate. The manager started to discuss the problems with carriers and vendors, and discovered evidence that conflicted with the crusading employee’s stories.

To sort out the issue, the manager moved the employee to another function, and the problems disappeared—for a while. After a few months, the coordinator started to unearth new problems that needed to be fixed. Like in a “whack-a-mole” game, new problems showed up. The employee always “solved” the problem, and produced evidence to support the claim that the problem really existed.

The issue came to a head when, on one occasion, the employee was not able to “save the day.” A key customer shipment failed, and the blowback from the customer resulted in some expensive chargebacks. With her job on the line, the supply-chain manager decided to take action and terminated the employee for poor performance.

This is the behavior pattern of the arsonist fireman, the fireman who sets his own fires. This psychosis manifests itself in a simple way:  person needs attention, person sets fire, person puts out the fire, person becomes hero for putting the fire out. Again, is this a real phenomenon or a Hollywood movie script like "Backdraft?" It’s a great story, but does it really happen? And does it really happen in the workplace?

Georgia Tech professor Nathan Bennett wrote about Munchausen’s at Work (he actually called it MAW in the article) in the November 2007 edition of the Harvard Business Review. In this articl, Bennett wrote about instances in which employees of Fortune 500 companies allegedly created problems in their operations for the sole purpose of fixing them, thereby becoming the center of attention. The article created quite a stir at the time, and many business magazine writers and bloggers wrote about the new psychosis. If you Google the terms you will find many articles that used Bennett’s article as their source material.

In the case of the Fortune 100 professional services firm Bennett studied, a project manager had a reputation for his ability to build teams. With pride, he told of how he helped people in conflict rebuild productive working relationships. Upper management loved the guy and would put him on any key client’s team. The problem was that the manager was defusing conflicts of his own creation. Management eventually discovered that in the early stages of a project, before the team could establish healthy relationships, this individual would plant seeds of conflict. This theory was confirmed when they removed this project manager from team roles.

Bennett describes the “do-looper” who constantly lights small fires and then puts them out. In the Harvard Business Review article, he illustrates several examples from what he called a “spectrum” of highly destructive tactics, including “nuisance behaviors that quietly corrode organizational effectiveness.” The behavior could be as simple as embellishing a real problem or exaggerating the potential for one on the horizon. Solving a problem of one’s own creation generates rewards just as effectively as bringing others’ attention to an inflated or predicted “crisis.”

Bennett also highlights the “reluctant hero” who withholds valued but discretionary contributions to generate problems that cause others to beg them to return to duty. He describes employees who create organizational dependency by volunteering to mentor new hires and then threaten to give up that role, citing other obligations.

About a year before Bennett’s article appeared, I confronted destructive behavior by a long-tenured manager.

When I took over the department, it was running like a typical 1980s traffic department—except that it was 2000. Phone, fax, and e-mail were the primary load tender processes. Contracts were a mess, and rate files were not really being maintained. There was a freight audit service that really did not audit. The internal freight-bill payment process between traffic and accounts payable was ineffective. There were many problems—and many opportunities to make improvements.

At first, the problems looked to be a collection of issues from other departments and sources. “People don’t tell us of special ‘hot’ shipments until the end of the day,” and “Vendors don’t call in about missed pickups.” I would hear about the trucks showing up on time and the loads not being ready. “We had to give the load to the more expensive carrier because the carrier in the lane does not have capacity,” was another reason often given for high costs. There was a long list of reasons for failure.

Within a 60-day period, the transportation director and two logistics managers left the company, the managers for better jobs and the director for other reasons. I took over as director, keeping all my current responsibilities and picking up the traffic function. Immediately, I began looking for qualified managers. I soon hired a solid, competent player who dug into the structural issues. It was a solid hire.

I also found a solid player for the other operations-oriented position. But in order to keep his head-count down, the boss suggested that we move a current supervisor up into the manager slot. This supervisor had started in the department as a traffic clerk long before I started working at the company. I had worked with this supervisor in the past and had generally been pleased with his work. But I was concerned that this person did not possess the depth we needed. Still, my boss was firm about the head-count, and he told me to either promote the supervisor into the position or not fill it.

The newly promoted manager became a challenge to coach and lead. Quite a bit older than the rest of the people in the department, this manager took a parental posture with the associates. Overly formal and controlling, he also failed to understand basic office etiquette. He typed e-mails in ALL CAPS, stating it was easier not to have to remember to use the Caps key when banging out hundreds of daily e-mails. The manager ignored everyone’s complaints about the all caps “shouting” messages. It took almost a month of coaching, including messages from me asking him to “stop shouting,” to cure that bad habit.

Call this manager on the phone and you would get voice mail 80% of the time—he was too busy to yak on the phone. Colleagues in inventory management and at the distribution centers often complained that he never seemed to return voice mail messages. I ran into the same issue whenever I traveled to our distribution centers or vendors. When confronted, the manager said that they received over 200 calls a day and he simply did not have time to return all his voice mail messages.

The coordinators on our team reported to this manager. One clerk begged to report to the new manager we hired—he applied for the analyst job as soon as it opened. In fact, nearly all the clerks and coordinators did, except for two who just did their jobs without daily drama. The clerks they told me that the manager did not “trust” them to do their jobs right. They shared with me how the manager would give them work with minimal instruction or direction; they would start on the work and when they had questions about the assignment the manager would take the work away. Other times deadlines moved or the conditions of tasks changed to “special,” and only the manager did the special stuff.

As the director, I knew we had a problem. I heard it from the distribution centers and the cohort departments in the supply chain. Most complaints were subjective and superficial. With what little detail internal stakeholders gave me, I would constantly coach the manager about the importance of timely response to voice mail. This manager often complained about having too much work, so I would consistently coach him to delegate much of the work to his team of clerks and coordinators. It wasn't until I started to issue direct orders about checking and returning voice mails on the hour that the unanswered voice-mail problem stopped. The delegate-and-snatch-back behavior abated for a while and then returned.

I approached an HR manager about the issue. The HR manager shook his head and told me I had a “discrimination trifecta.”He told me to “tread carefully and get lots of specific information.”

With that advice, I worked with the manager to coach him and correct his behavior. The ALL CAPS went away, and messages got answered. Coordinator turnover slowed down. We focused hard on getting processes and systems in, better contracts, better communication, and better analysis and coordination. We made great progress despite the challenges.

So at the conference, I heard a supply chain manager from another company talk about the “Munchausen’s” employee and what she did to get to the bottom of the issue. I did some assessment of my own, asked the auditors to look into details, and hired a consultant to do an assessment that put a pair of outside eyes onto the question.


“You have someone starting fires,” said the consultant’s report.

“Take away the matches.”


fake heros.jpg What happened next was not pretty.

The manager in question made three major mistakes. Each mistake was greater in financial impact than the last. The final one put the company’s $300 million import program in jeopardy.

The first mistake was minor. Mistake Two was worse. The manager ignored early-morning voice mail and e-mail requests for a four-truck vendor pickup, then worked around the transportation management system and ordered the trucks by phone, instructing a coordinator to place the order in the system. So a day late, eight trucks show up instead of the four the vendor really needed, creating expensive “truck ordered not used” charges.

The third mistake was a whopper that jeopardized our importer status with U.S. Customs. Communications and paperwork mistakes by the freight forwarder routed the container to distribution when it was supposed to go to Customs for inspection. Our handling 3PL had already unloaded the container and was in the process of creating the distribution when the forwarder contacted them with the correct DO to take the container to Customs inspection. Despite verbal explanations of how the paperwork SNAFU had created the situation, the seal on the load was broken and our process failure violated regulations. Customs issued a violation letter to us, since we were the importer of record.

The letter lands on the manager’s desk. This same manager had helped write the import procedures four years earlier. The manager hands the letter to the in-house 3PL agent with instructions to “deal with it.” This was not a job for the 3PL agent; a member of our company management team must respond to such a letter and address the failure. The manager effectively ignored the letter. Customs issues a second letter, and the manager followed the same routine.

Then a third letter arrives, informing us that we are being slapped with a $20,000 fine.

The manager does nothing with this letter too. I discover the letter, with a payment voucher attached in the "for signature" file on my desk. I investigate the matter and in the process learn about the other two mistakes that had been made within the same few days. The company is at risk and I make the decision to terminate the manager.

What happens next? Well, we do written warnings—and final notice. The manager does not like that, and goes up the command chain to negotiate an exit. It's not pretty, but we get this manager moved out of the organization and we promote a competent manager out of one of the distribution center teams. Interestingly, we find that many of the miraculous “save” problems disappear. I start to wonder how many of these problems were products of fate, incompetence, insubordination, or Munchausen’s.

Does this dismissal end the damage? Well…..not quite.



People in the organization told me that they were thankful that we took action. The logistics coordinators are happy, our internal customers are happy, and the operations start to smooth out. That is, until a coordinator comes back from family leave.

This coordinator, who left on leave before we let go of the manager, is surprised to learn that we let the manager go. Almost without missing a beat, the coordinator throws the manager under the bus. After a short time, we notice that things are not as smooth as they could be. I start to hear about some confusion in the coordinator's group. Then another logistics coordinator gives notice, which is surprising, because she had seemed happy just a few weeks before. I interview the logistics coordinator and she tells me that she has a personality conflict with the coordinator who has just returned from leave. This associate tells me that her parents are hearing negative news about her work performance. I ask how her parents would learn about her performance, and she informs me that her parents are friends of the other coordinator's parents

About a year before, another solid coordinator had transferred to another position within the company. I asked this former employee about any issues she might have had with anyone on the team. That interview proved to be enlightening.

This coordinator not only confirmed the conflict the departing employee had shared with me, but told me stories of how the former manager had a favorite, and this favorite became a surrogate for the manager. This former employee illustrated how the manager and the "favorite" coordinator played head games with the rest of the staff. They would suddenly change instructions or processes to create problematic situations.

I interviewed the troublesome coordinator only to discover that she had learned the behavior pattern from her former manager. While this coordinator possessed the skills we needed, her behavior was unacceptable. The troublesome coordinator knew we were in a tight situation and believed she was the only coordinator who could train replacements. Seizing on her perceived advantage, the coordinator attempted to extort a pay raise.

The coordinator had no idea that we were currently in discussions to develop an outsourcing relationship with a transportation management company. While our original intention was to use the outsourced relationship for only a portion of our business, my boss seized on the opportunity to hand all the coordination work to the outsourced firm and eliminate all the internal coordinator positions.

At the end of the week, when this troublemaker expected us to reward her with a raise, we told her that she would not receive a pay increase. Upset, the coordinator gave notice, thinking that we would react by caving in and giving her that raise. The following Monday we accepted her resignation, and asked her to clean out her desk immediately.



Over the years I've shared these different stories with peers and clients in order to demonstrate that sometimes troubles in business are created by the people you least expect to make trouble. A couple of clients asked me if I suspected any of their employees. In most cases, it is difficult to diagnose. You have to watch behavior patterns over a long period of time, sometimes months, sometimes years.

When asked, I usually coach my clients to think about the behavior of their employees and look for any of these telltale signs:

  • An employee is disproportionately involved in identifying and fighting fires.
  • The employee is unusually resistant to offers of help in addressing the problems he or she has identified.
  • The employee deflects management’s efforts to understand the underlying cause of a problem.
  • Crisis prevention is not a priority.
  • Facts and coworkers’ accounts don’t support the employee’s claims about a problem’s existence or severity.
  • Problems with a project, a customer, or a process, or between colleagues, disappear in the employee’s absence.
  • Crisis mode is the only mode of operation for the employee, and nothing is done until it becomes a crisis.
  • People who consistently “save the day” by dealing with crises.
  • Look for this behavior pattern:  crisis, heroics, reward, repeat.

The presence of any of these behavior patterns does not conclusively confirm Munchausen’s at Work. I coach my clients that these patterns signal the need to be on the alert for repeated episodes. I encourage clients to validate their suspicions with multiple observers.

Some may suggest that a manager who finds Munchausen’s at Work should reduce the attention and other rewards tied to solutions, and limit the perpetrators’ opportunities to create specific types of problems. I don't agree, because the removal of the reward may increase the intensity and frequency of the mischief. In our society we arrest and incarcerate arsonists. In a business setting, termination may be the swiftest and surest alternative.

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