How to identify and combat Munchausen behavior at work
The phenomenon leads employees to create or exaggerate problems in order to get credit for solving them
Since the mid-1990s, between training, seminars, FOP meetings, internet forums, SHOT Show and other events, I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with cops from around the country.
During many of those discussions, one particularly disturbing complaint has repeatedly surfaced. The cops I spoke to would describe strikingly similar leadership actions that didn’t just lack reason, but seemed intended to make their officers fail. I’ve experienced the phenomenon myself, and I wanted to explore it further.
I’m calling it “Munchausen management.” Granted, no one I interacted with actually used that term, and I’m certain it has no formal basis in psychology. I only use the term because it is demonstrative of the point I’m trying to make. I am not a mental health professional, and this writing is in no way intended to make light of this disorder.
First, let’s discuss the mental illness that was formerly referred to as Munchausen syndrome by proxy, which the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual now calls Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another (FDIA).
Many in law enforcement have worked a Munchausen, or FDIA, abuse case. For those who are unfamiliar, it is an affliction in which caretakers cause injury or illness to someone in their care to draw attention to themselves. Those who engage in FDIA behavior tend to be rewarded with not only sympathy and attention from those around them but also with the satisfaction that comes from their ability to deceive others, especially those who they consider being more accomplished or intelligent than they are, such as doctors.
In this article, I will discuss three iterations of this condition: Munchausen at work, organizational Munchausen and Munchausen management.
Munchausen at work
“Munchausen at work” is a term and topic with which the business world is somewhat familiar. An employee covertly creates a problem and then swoops in at the last minute to save the day. The employee may withhold important information or assistance from teammates to receive credit for “putting out the fire” that the employee actually created. Sometimes, an employee will even fabricate a story about a problem that did not exist at all. If successful, he or she is showered with praise for contributing to the organization.
Georgia Tech professor Nathan Bennett wrote a Harvard Business Review article in November 2007 highlighting what he coined “Munchausen at Work.” Bennett suggests that a manager who suspects an employee of this behavior should ask these questions:
- Is the employee disproportionately involved in identifying and fighting fires?
- Is the employee unusually resistant to offers of help in addressing problems he or she has identified?
- Does the employee deflect management’s efforts to understand a problem’s underlying causes?
- Are the facts and coworkers’ accounts at odds with the employee’s claims about a problem’s existence or severity?
- Are problems with a project, a customer, a process or between colleagues frequently resolved in the employee’s absence?
In his article titled “Do You Suffer From ‘Munchausen At Work’ Syndrome?,” Dr. Jim Anderson of The Accidental IT Leader blog made the following suggestions to combat Munchausen at work:
- Always stress teamwork over individual problem-solving achievements.
- Stay away from creating “office heroes” because it encourages Munchausen syndrome.
- Keep an eye peeled for information hoarders – they may be trying to start a fire.
- Make sure that managers are always working to find out what employee needs are.
In “A Toxic Triangle of Destructive Leadership at Bristol Royal Infirmary: A Study of Organizational Munchausen by Proxy,” Amy Fraher describes how the combination of a conducive environment, destructive leadership and susceptible followers over several years resulted in the deaths of several infant cardiac patients.
Fraher defined organizational Munchausen as: “A form of destructive leadership, organizational Munchausen syndrome by proxy is a psychological construct that describes an organizational dynamic in which seemingly good, well-intentioned leaders can nonetheless behave irrationally, putting the organization’s health in peril, as they ﬁxate on their pursuit of idealized goals. Like its Munchausen by proxy namesake, Organizational Munchausen is grounded in a collusive fantasy that draws destructive leaders and susceptible followers into a web of dysfunctional dynamics that continues to escalate until death or disaster.”
That’s a terrifying example of this condition, but consider how harmful this problem could be in law enforcement leadership.
Much has been written about constructive and effective leadership. It’s also easy to find literature on negative leadership characteristics. Toxic leadership, tyrannical leadership, bullying and other destructive behaviors are relatively well-documented. However, there is little written about Munchausen management, and I could find nothing about its presence and effects in law enforcement leadership.
How does Munchausen work its way into leadership? The afflicted will likely get promoted. Sometimes, they get promoted all the way up to administration. Why wouldn’t they? As far as most around them know, they are constantly saving the department from all those incompetent people around them. What happens with their illness after they have authority? Do they suddenly stop their destructive behavior? Of course not. They’ve been rewarded in the past for putting out their own fires, and that behavior is ingrained in them. The Munchausen manager now has the power to sabotage with impunity.
After speaking with my colleagues from around the country, and with due respect to Hanlon’s razor, I believe there is a disturbing number of Munchausen managers among us. I’ve compiled four behaviors that might help identify a law enforcement Munchausen manager:
1. Manson’s law of avoidance
Manson’s law of avoidance states that the more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it. This is a common attribute of the Munchausen manager. A leader who refuses to attend leadership training or allow their people to do so is a common identifying behavior. The afflicted could never allow a subordinate to become more competent or important than he or she. In fact, any action that would help the subordinate grow as a leader or better prepare them for the leader’s succession would likely be avoided as that would be a threat to the afflicted party’s relevance and self-esteem. Also, an educated subordinate would be more likely to recognize their supervisor’s destructive behavior, and that could lead to exposure.
2. Fear of redundancy
It’s common in business for a leader to constantly be in the process of training their subordinates to take over their job for the sake of continuity and redundancy. If you’re unfamiliar, continuity is the ability to continue conducting business if there’s a loss of an integral employee, item or structure. Redundancy is the practice of ensuring there’s more than one person who can perform vital functions when or if that primary employee is unavailable. Munchausen managers struggle with enhancing continuity and redundancy because they need the organization to be dependent upon them and only them.
3. Withholding necessary resources
Withholding necessary resources or information is another common trait in the law enforcement Munchausen manager. There will always be a purported reason for withholding resources. The default seems to be budgetary concerns. It’s hard to argue with, “We can’t afford that.” However, Munchausen managers will always find resources for programs that feed their egos or help conceal their true motivation. Keep in mind, appearances will always be a driving factor for the afflicted.
4. Introspection as a solution
I would wager that many readers have recognized these behaviors in someone they have worked alongside. The only solution for a coworker or subordinate is to document the behavior thoroughly and go “over their head” to their supervisor’s supervisor. That’s a difficult decision, but as psychologist Jordan Peterson says, “When the truth needs to be spoken, silence is a lie.” Just be certain you are right and have your documentation in order.
Are you a Munchausen manager?
But what if it’s you? There is some evidence that those afflicted with Munchausen syndrome have little or no conscious awareness of it. In my most recent leadership article, I spoke about the quality of introspection and its importance in a leader. Play along with me here. Can you honestly look at every decision you make and know that it was best for the organization as a whole? Are most of your subordinates thriving and succeeding? Are they satisfied with their jobs? Or are you constantly having to clean up their messes and can’t figure out what’s wrong with them?
For those introspective enough to recognize this problem in themselves, there is a way to improve. As with any shortcoming, the first step is recognition. Seek guidance from outside your organization, whether from a therapist, minister or just a trusted advisor. Be honest and open with them. Last, try self-empathizing. We all have flaws. Understand that having flaws doesn’t make you malevolent. Recognize your positive attributes and use them to combat your flaws. Most importantly, give yourself a break and focus on your growth. That is often the best thing you can do for your organization.