Munchausen By Proxy (Applaud Me for Clearing up the Mess I Made)
Münchausen syndrome is a psychiatric factitious disorder wherein those affected feign disease, illness, or psychological trauma to draw attention or sympathy to themselves. - Wikipedia
Have you ever been around someone who seems like the unluckiest person in the world? No matter what they do or how hard they try, an overwhelming sense of drama and dread seems to follow them wherever they go? Do they constantly try to blame their circumstances on you or do they insist “the world is out to get them”? Chances are low that this person is just unlucky or that they have attained such an important position in the universe, that everyone, in a fit of jealousy is just out to get them. The most likely explanation is a form of Munchausen syndrome not particularly related to medical causes, that is a very real – and serious – issue in the business world.
This form of Munchausen syndrome is easily detectable in an employee, or manager, first by the increased amount of drama that accompanies even the easiest tasks. It is particularly easy to detect this behavior in professions where maintenance and repairs are required and somewhat more difficult to detect in job functions that are more stable. I would argue that potential employees that suffer from Munchausen syndrome actually seek out professions where they are required to work independently, performing on- demand tasks such as equipment repair or software maintenance. I’ll give you an example of Munchausen syndrome in such a profession which may help me explain the point of this chapter.
A service person works from home. The responsibilities of his position include maintaining an assembly line in a manufacturing plant. He does scheduled preventative work in which he inspects the line on a scheduled basis, replaces high failure parts before they fail, and makes proactive adjustments on the machinery to help assure uninterrupted operation for the plant. He is also responsible for making repairs to the assembly line on an as-needed basis, if the assembly line fails in some way. Usually, a failure to the line will cause products from being shipped on time and a loss in profits.
This kind of scenario is the perfect habitat for an employee with Munchausen syndrome – self directed work, work routines designed to reduce failures, and responsibilities for restoring operations as quickly as possible.
Here is an example of how this condition manifests in this kind of work environment.
If everything goes as planned with the preventive maintenance of the assembly line, catastrophic failures most likely will be prevented. Though the service man would have performed his task perfectly and he will have received a well earned paycheck for doing so, this is never enough for the employee suffering from Munchausen syndrome. In fact, the scenario I just described will rarely, if ever, play out like this in the first place.
The service professional exhibiting this behavior, in an effort to draw attention to himself, may actually sabotage the assembly line he is working on during an inspection so a repair will become necessary. The manufacturing plant will have no choice to call him when the line breaks down. And he will come to the rescue. But not so fast. Most likely, in these cases, the service man will assess the situation (already knowing what is wrong because he caused the malfunction) and paint a bleak picture to the manager about how expensive the repair will be, how long the line will be down, and how many hours of overtime he is going to need to get it up and running again. Then a series of ups and downs throughout the repair process will ensue. The service engineer will give frequent up dates – “It’s up and running now, but I am going to sit and watch it for a while to make sure something else does not go wrong.” Frequently something else will go wrong because the engineer will have placed another bug in the system to draw out the repair event. This may be repeated several times over the course of one service call. The roller-coaster that ensues insures that the manager will be completely confused about what really happened and will have no choice but to trust the engineer is doing his best and is really the expert person to take care of the issue.
As the deadline for completing the repair looms, the drama within the whole event increases and just at the last minute the service engineer will make the repair, declare the crisis over, and sit back and take the credit for resolving the problem without a loss of production or revenue. In the meantime, he will have earned undeserved overtime and undeserved credit for the work. If the manager had known what really happened over the course of the last few hours, he would not have approved the overtime, nor would he have given any credit. Actually, he would probably fire the engineer on the spot for incompetence or sabotage of his assembly line.
Even though I used the specific example of a service engineer in a maintenance industry, this type of behavior can be seen in all aspects of business. Whether it is a secretary constantly gumming up the copy or fax machine, the financial analysts waiting until the last minute to submit a report of month end financial problems that seem to work out in the end, a hotel housekeeper who seems to always go through heroic actions to clean the last of their rooms on the fifth floor, or a truck driver who always seems to experience traffic conditions that make his deliveries hit the dock at the zero hour, Munchausen syndrome is a serious detriment to efficient operations and frequently draws attention away from the team and places it directly on an individual in the team, who through a lack of confidence or because of some inability to function in an environment where things are working okay must create a crisis before they can spring into action and be the center of attention. It occurs to me that the superheroes in movies and comic books may exhibit Munchausen syndrome. The employee who always seems unlucky or who thinks the world is out to get them may have an internal need to be validated as the superhero, who against all odds, saves the day at the last possible moment.
If you find yourself in this position frequently, where you believe that your have to be heroic to get the job done I have a thought for you.
You are in the wrong job or you lack confidence or you have a legitimate mental illness for which you should find some professional help. Don’t be this person, it destroys the team, productivity suffers, the company suffers, people will lose their jobs if efficiency drops too low and if you are in an industry where lives are at stake, this kind of behavior can injure or kill. Life is dramatic enough without having an employee exhibiting Munchausen syndrome mucking it all up even more. If one reduces the purpose of almost all businesses to its most essential function – it is to remove drama from the lives of the people it serves, whether it be an auto mechanic who needs to get an elderly woman back on the road in a safe car, a medical equipment repair person who insures the x-ray machine is dosing properly, or a fast food worker responsible for cleaning the kitchen.
Here are your helpful bullet statements for Chapter 7:
• You are not unlucky and the world is not out to get you. Most likely, you are sabotaging your own life.
• Remove the drama, relax, its okay if things work well for a while. Sooner or later a crisis will develop on its own. Don’t feel like you need to create a crisis to function.
• Before you deliberately sabotage your business, stop. Think. Leave it alone. The credit you receive for clearing up the mess you made will be fleeting and will eventually cost you your job and possibly someone else’s.
• Your customers will appreciate those infrequent times when you are the hero at the last minute but only if those times are infrequent and legitimate. Eventually the customer will get as tired of the drama as your manager is and you will lose your job just before your company loses its customer.
• Your customer and manager, really only want one thing: An experience that is in control, stable, non-dramatic, predictable, and reliable. Heroics are acceptable if necessary, but not self induced, and certainly not every day.
• If you have to have a crisis to force you out of bed every morning or if you can’t seem to get by without being in the middle of the day’s drama – be a bull fighter, mercenary, revolutionary in an 3rd world country, or a reality TV star. Don’t take a service industry job or a job where lives are at stake.