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Managerial Munchausen: When It Enters the Workplace

managerial MunchausenMany reading this article have heard of the psychological condition known as Munchausen Snydrome,. It is referred to as a factitious disorder in which a person exaggerates or induces symptoms of medical or mental health problems for the purpose of seeking attention.

It was named for Baron Munchausen, a fictional 18th century officer and soldier scripted by the German writer Rudolf Erich Raspe in his 1785 book Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia. The character is loosely based on a real baron, Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Freiherr von Münchhausen.  He was known for embellishing  tales for his own glory.

When it is part of literature, it is seen as entertaining. When it occurs in real life, it is distressing and even deadly.

What are some of the causes?

The topic remains one for discussion, but there are some researchers who contend that a history of abuse or neglect as a child, or a history of frequent illnesses requiring hospitalization, might be involved. The person may have internalized the belief that when he or she is ill, the spotlight turns on them, rather than other potential or genuine chaos in the the family. Often, those with this condition are in denial that it exists and are resistant to addressing the causes, because there is secondary gain involved.

Even more insidious is Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy in which an adult provokes illness or injury in a child and then presents as the hero or long suffering parent who cares for him or her.A lesser known dynamic occurs in the workplace. Those who exhibit a similar pattern as previously described, stir drama and dysfunction on the job, only to don their symbolic cape and swoop in for the rescue. In an article in The Harvard Business Review, November 2007, entitled “Munchausen At Work”,  Nathan Bennett who is a business professor from Georgia Tech describes what he has labeled MAW, ” It may involve simply embellishing a real problem or making it appear that one looms on the horizon. Just as solving a problem of one’s own creation can generate rewards, so can bringing an inflated or predicted “crisis” to the attention of others.”

One observation is that those who engage in this type of ‘fire-setting’ make it appear that they are self effacing and humble, in an effort to continue the subterfuge. The crises and solutions are calculated to create a certain outcome, which may be to garner praise and promotion.

A new employee named Jackie comes on the scene at a company, bearing an impressive resume and letters of recommendation. She is affable, charming and seems adept at reading people. Her supervisor is duly impressed. Then something unusual occurs in this otherwise smooth running office, that had not existed before Jackie’s arrival. Mini-crises begin erupting. Deadlines are not met, co-workers are at odds with each other. With her relationship skills, Jackie is able to smooth things over and at the 11th hour, impending disaster has been averted. Her colleagues shower her with accolades and she receives a promotion. Now a manager of her own department, Jackie’s influence has become broader. To assure her place in the company, she plants seeds of discontent among her team members by pitting them against each other and then mediates, brokering an agreement between them. Inside, she harbors fears of failure, not earning attention merely by virtue of her skills. She finds herself consistently anxious about losing her job and designs increasingly elaborate scenarios in an attempt to assure her position. It is when her astute supervisor notices the patterns and reaches out to her, that the house of cards comes tumbling down. Even when confronted with her behavior, she is reluctant to enter treatment, but eventually does so. What she discovers is that her entrenched beliefs have been longstanding and they are wound around the messages she received in childhood that she was only as valuable as her most recent success.

Ways To Ward Off MAW

  • Recognize that it is happening.
  • Have workplace dynamics changed since personnel changes have occurred?
  • Has an employee told a story  (ore several) about averted crises that seem to be more dramatic than could be believed?
  • Are there details missing in the tale or is the person seeming evasive when questioned?
  • Have a 1:1 meeting between supervisor and employee in private, since the worker is not likely to ‘come clean’ in a public setting.
  • If the employee is genuinely dedicated to his or her job, and could be retained,  encourage coaching/counseling through the need to appear more successful than one is.
  • Have consistent meetings in which everyone’s contributions are encouraged and valued as members of a cohesive team.
  • Encourage each team member to take responsibility for the success of the company, so that all have a chance to shine.

Manager photo available from Shutterstock

Managerial Munchausen: When It Enters the Workplace

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

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APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2016). Managerial Munchausen: When It Enters the Workplace. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 3, 2020, from


Last updated: 6 Feb 2016
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