Aug. 26, 2008 -- Surviving the daily trials and tribulations of work is tough enough. But now you may need to be on the lookout for co-workers who are creating or exaggerating problems just to make themselves look better when they miraculously solve the issue.
Call it Munchausen at work.
Munchausen by proxy is a disorder in which caretakers harm people under their supervision to get attention for themselves. Think about a mother who poisons her child so that health care workers will pay as much attention to her as to the sick child.
Nathan Bennett, a business professor at Georgia Institute of Technology who also does management consulting, coined the phrase "Munchausen at work" for a situation he says many clients have described to him.
One executive told him about an assistant who regularly told detailed stories of the personal heroics necessary to correct travel agency mistakes for him. The boss's hotel room wasn't booked, and now there was a convention in town. Or a flight was full and she couldn't get him a good seat. Turns out that there were never any such problems with the travel agency, Bennett said. The assistant just made them up to make herself look better. The boss only learned so after she left the company.
Bennett shares such stories whenever he meets with groups of executives. "You can see heads nodding in agreement," he said.
The workplace disorder involves an individual with a high need for attention and a distorted sense of responsibility, a victim who is unable to see the threat and a third party -- such as a boss -- who can give positive reinforcement.
"It's something I have seen repeatedly but not regularly," Bennett said.
In another case, a salesman kept telling his boss that the company risked losing some big clients who were extremely dissatisfied. He then proceeded to smooth things over. Well, it turns out that there were never any problems with the clients, Bennett said.
There are even more drastic examples.
Last year, a California volunteer firefighter was arrested for setting forest fires. The 24-year-old wanted to pursue a career as a firefighter and was described by his supervisors as being "young, eager and very enthusiastic."
Alan Graham, a Park Ridge, Ill., psychologist specializing in leadership and executive coaching as well as individuals with attention deficit disorder, is skeptical of Bennett's description of Munchausen at work.
"The fact is that people will spread false rumors, but that's not Munchausen," he said. "Certainly, people lie all the time to advance themselves.
"They're just trying to do it an unethical way."
More common, he said, are problems in which workers become suspicious that company reorganization plans don't include them.
Graham, who has been doing executive coaching for 11 years, said that sometimes workers fabricate something if they believe their position is threatened.
"In most organizations, that gets found out," he said. "The more that doesn't get found out, the more dysfunctional the organization is."
He said that there is also a situation in which some people with attention deficit disorder find the need to create excitement.
"There are some people who, when things get boring, they need to spice things up," he said.
But he warned that "Munchausen is a rare disorder" and that he has never encountered it in the workplace.
Nicholas DiFonzo, a psychology professor at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of "The Watercooler Effect," which looks at why people spread rumors in the workplace, said that such actions are "obviously self-enhancing."
"You don't need to be a Ph.D. in psychology to see that this will get you some points, socially or professionally," DiFonzo said. "In any group there is always a group that is favored."
But DiFonzo warns that your boss is probably going to find out what you are doing. Look at it this way: There wouldn't be all these case studies if nobody got caught.
"I think they underestimate the likelihood that they will get caught," he said. "It's only a matter of time."
So next time a co-worker panics and tells you that disaster is imminent … well, think twice before you panic, too.