Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Creating Problems In Order To Solve Them

If you have been in management or HR for any period of time you have probably encountered an employee who always seems to encounter more problems than others, but seems to always successfully solve them. Sometimes you are happy they have taken care of them, other times you wonder why that employee always encounters the problems. Sometimes people get rewarded or promoted for their problem solving skills. Sometimes people make their reputations on their ability to solve problems and become known as turn around specialists.

It is always good to have a problem-solver in the fold, but sometimes you are suspicious. Just a gut feeling that things are not quite the way they seem. You suspect that the person is creating as many problems as they solve and in fact seem to be making them up to look good. Maybe to get a promotion, a raise, or just to get the praise. Well it turns out that this may be a more widespread problem than thought. In an article in the Monday, August 25th issue of the Wall Street Journal writer Phred Dvorak discusses a phenomena called 'Munchausen at Work.' Georgia Tech business professor Nathan Bennett coined this term to describe work behavior that resembles a rare psychological disorder called Munchausen Syndrome.

Munchausen Syndrome (click for the Wiki) is a disorder in which people make up illnesses or diseases in order to get sympathy or to draw attention to themselves. It is named after a real person, Baron von Munchausen, who used to make up fanciful tales about himself. (His story was actually made into a movie The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.)

Some of the symptoms of 'Munchausen at Work', according to Dvorak, include withholding help or key information until the last moment and then stepping in to save the day. Other examples include things like creating rumors among employees and then dispelling the rumors after having "talked to the boss" or "saving your job." Another example was a manager undermining relationships in his work group and then holding group sessions to improve relations. Managers create the workplace "illnesses" in order to cure the illness and thus draw attention to themselves.

Part of the problem may be of our own creation. We usually get the type of behavior we reward. So if we consistently reward problem solving behavior we may have created an "attention junky" (my term) who now has to create problems to solve in order to get the attention for solving the problem.

So, HR Manager, take a look at your managers. Do you have one that is always the "hero"? The White Knight who comes dashing to the rescue? If so you may want to look a little closer and see if what they are saving you from is not of their own creation. Hopefully not, but it doesn't hurt to be a bit skeptical and investigate. You might cure some more headaches. Then of course we would have to worry about you craving that attention too!!


Barbara Ling said...

I remember worker bees who had that symptom quite often in systems administration. But the ease by which folks can now research answers by themselves online seems to have cut some of that down....

Data points, Barbara

Wally Bock said...

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.


Wally Bock

Michael D. Haberman, SPHR said...

Thanks Wally. Always a pleasure to be recognized by you.