If you are a fan of medical or police shows, you may have heard of Munchausen syndrome.  The layperson’s explanation of Munchausen syndrome is that a person creates a physical or mental disorder to get attention.  These individuals often will put themselves at significant real risk in order to get the attention they crave, going so far as to create medical crisis and pain.  They may expose themselves to poisons, toxins, or anything that can create a need for medical attention.  A related illness is Munchausen by Proxy – an individual gains attention by creating a crisis in someone else, then gets additional attention by saving the person, caring for the person, etc.

Keeping the Munchausen and Munchausen by Proxy behavior in mind, think about the organizations you know.  The ones you work in, with, for, or own.  Think about the behaviors existing within the organization and how many times you or a colleague have pointed out that the “crisis” that so-and-so just got rewarded for “solving” was one that was created by that same person.  Is your organization suffering from Munchausen Management, and if so, is that behavior being rewarded and reinforced?

If your organization hasn’t diagnosed Munchausen Management Syndrome but you suspect that is the diagnosis, here some of the characteristics of the condition:

§         Crisis mode is the only mode.

§         Nothing gets done until it is a crisis.

§         You can see the crisis coming and can predict who will “save the day”.

§         Crisis prevention is not a priority.

§         Crisis management means doing nothing until the problem puts a project, a deal, or the business at significant risk – then managing to save the day through “heroic” efforts – basically doing what should have been done when it should have been done.

§         Promotions, rewards and recognition go to the “heroes” who save the day (and create the situations).

§         There is a pattern to the behavior: crisis, heroics, reward, crisis, heroics, reward.

§         It doesn’t matter who can get hurt or the long term ramifications to the organization – just as long as there is an opportunity for the individual(s) to “save the day”.

If you recognize the symptoms above in your organization, then it is time to take action.  The first step in the recovery process is to get the syndrome diagnosed.  If you are the critical decision maker, then you may have just completed the first step.  If you are not in the key position within your organization, then this first step is, as the saying goes, a doozy!  Proceed with extreme caution.

Getting the Patient to Recognize the Disease

In order for the organization to recognize its diseased condition, it must first know the root source of the disease.  At this point it is important to distinguish between the source of the disease and the environmental conditions which allow the disease to flourish.  To eradicate the disease you need to know the answers to these questions:

§         Does the culture of the organization encourage “heroics”?

§         Is the organization lead by a Munchausen Master?

§         Is there a single source of the disease or has it spread to other individuals and levels?

§         What is your position in the organization relative to the previous questions?

§         Are you the Munchausen Master or the medium by which the syndrome has spread? (Important note:  True mental illness isn’t contagious; Munchausen Management Syndrome IS!)

Now that you hopefully have answers to the above questions, it is time to take the next step – developing a plan.  Your plan will vary depending upon the conditions existing in your organization, the progression of the disease, the manifested symptoms, and, most of all, who you have to deal with.

The Treatment Plan

For the purposes of this discussion, the diagnosis is going to be that you aren’t part of the problem but are caught up in the environment and culture.  You are, however, in a position to have a significant impact, to be a change agent.

In order for behavior to change, the inappropriate behavior must be recognized and acknowledged.  From where you are currently sitting in the organization, this part of the plan requires honest self-evaluation, finesse, and careful intervention.  As you look around the organization, monitor ALL instances you can of behaviors that have typically lead to crisis: a project started late; a position unfilled or filled with someone lacking the necessary skills and experience; a customer who always gets less than the best service – late deliveries, poor quality, etc.  Now analyze those occurrences to identify the catalyst – who (individual or group) is the source of the malady?  Look beyond the obvious culprits to leaders or managers who may be through their behavior motivating Munchausen Management.

Even if you aren’t part of the problem (and that is our assumption), keep asking yourself and build awareness (in yourself and others) of behavior patterns.  With the diagnosis and identification of the sources of Munchausen Management, it is time to move to step two:  prevention.  Is there a manager who doesn’t reward the early finish or the job well done? Is he/she building a following of Munchausen Management disciples?  Arresting the spread of Munchausen Management means modeling the behavior you want to replace – find ways to acknowledge and reward proactive behavior – a project done early, process times reduced, quicker action.  Seek out the desired new behavior and with words or other rewards available acknowledge it positively.

From prevention comes eradication through removal of the rewards for Munchausen Management.  This is perhaps the biggest challenge, especially when you are not in a top management position.  Without the authority of position, the criticality of leadership cannot be overstated. The example set and the results you are able to generate through behavior extinction becomes an alternate pattern for the organization to follow.  It is a slow and often frustrating process.  Frequently the only behavior you can change is your own.  If you don’t have your own realm of influence, then it is tempting to say “Why even try?”  Because the journey of a thousand steps begins with the first step.

If you are in a position of authority and influence, then prevention, eradication, and example are just the interpersonal aspects.  From your position of influence, you can create a proactive culture by doing the following:

§         Changing the reward systems (monetary and non-monetary)

§         Developing long term measures which minimize the impact of fire-fighting on the reward system

§         Integrate proportionately more rewards for organizational and team performance – solo heroes have less motivation to create a crisis if they are subject to “peer pressure”

§         Establish clear objectives and priorities

§         Develop robust processes which support detection and prevention of potential issues at earlier opportunities

§         Recognize and reward early communication of issues, but don’t reward poor performance

§         Encourage a supportive environment where organizational objectives are the preeminent concern – pulling together as a team, rather than pulling the organization apart

§         Define organizational roles and responsibilities and connect them to rewards

§         Extinguish bad or poor performance by eliminating “unintentional” reinforcement

§         Acknowledge individual performance, including those who are willing to be “whistleblowers,” when things are going wrong

Change is constant, but it is rare for change to be embraced without reservation.  Insecurity, competitiveness, and a fear of scarcity (not enough room at the top for everyone) are some of the most common and toughest obstacles to change.  Unconsciously, day in and day out, we have the tendency to reward behaviors we truly do not want to exist – either through inattention or a reluctance to cause discomfort or deal with personalities.  What we reward we get more of.  The question is this: can an organization survive in the long run if it is subject to self-inflicted crises?  Doesn’t your organization have enough issues to address without Munchausen Management?

Copyright © 2006 F.O.C.U.S. Resource, Inc.

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