Are IT workers sabotaging the office to get ahead?

White collar employees across the nation are trying every and any way possible to get ahead in the office hierarchy -- including trying to sabotage office productivity so they can come to the "rescue" and gain favor and attention.Let's take "Jake.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

White collar employees across the nation are trying every and any way possible to get ahead in the office hierarchy -- including trying to sabotage office productivity so they can come to the "rescue" and gain favor and attention.

Let's take "Jake." Jake works for a medium-sized IT company in a Midwest American city. Despite the economic downturn, he's still got his comfortable job. His cubicle is decorated with photos of family and friends. His black computer monitor is covered in yellow Post-it notes. He wears pressed Dockers khakis and a crisp blue button-down to work every day. He drives a slate Chevy Malibu. He carries a BlackBerry Curve in his pocket.

Jake's department has a big project coming up for a client. The deadline's nearing, and the project is starting to run off the rails. Everyone on his team is nervous as it is -- the company just laid off some people a few weeks ago, and there's no sign that the process is over -- and the project is just piling it on. Where the hell are those specifications they e-mailed us? It's too late to get in touch with them, they're asleep in that part of the globe. Why can't we ever find anything?

It's the eleventh hour, and suddenly, Jake finds the specs on the server.  Stressed beyond belief, the team rolls the project out, barely making the deadline. The next day, around lunch (they got the morning off), Jake's boss came around. "We couldn't have done it without you," he said. "Your finding those specs saved my tail."

A few months down the line, Jake got a promotion. Needless to say, he's real good at being "clutch" -- finding things when no one else can at the last minute.

Now Jake doesn't exist. He's a guy I made up for this post, in a made-up situation. But there are many "Jakes" out there -- men in their mid-thirties to mid-forties (or even younger) that fall victim to the Munchausen syndrome, a psychiatric disorder named after a fantastic German baron in which workers in the office create false crises so they can solve them and become cubicle-bound heroes.

The psychology behind Munchausen is to get noticed in a big way. It doesn't just affect middle-aged underlings, either: office-bred Munchausen can affect motivated Generation Y types who want to eradicate competition as equally as it can affect the Baby Boomer CEO who wants to show the rest of the office that he's the only skipper who can steer the company ship.

In an article in the January/February issue of Details, these undermining white-collar workers are profiled in the frame of the current global recession: with a tight job market putting the squeeze on employees' wallets and a renewed focus on employee performance, it may be worth risking appearing like a problem-maker to appear, in the end, as an essential component of the group.

In other words: "How could we ever do it without you?"

First coined in 2007 by Nathan Bennett, a Georgia Tech business school professor, cubicle-bound Munchausen is hard to identify without a little digging. In effect, it's similar to the way children play passive-aggressive victim to a critical parent; similar to the way a teenage girl might create a rift with one person in her friend group and then swoop in to mend everything to appear as a catalyst of peace.

So how do you figure out who's spiking the productivity Kool-Aid?

University of Alabama psychiatry professor Marc Feldman, who runs munchausen.com, notes in the Details article that job-hopping is one sign -- a beyond-careerist desire for attention and contacts rather than job placement.

If you're (un)fortunate to uncover office Munchausen, you risk appearing as a complainer to higher-ups. Worse, it's hard to stamp out once its found, according to a consultant in the article, because it often indicates absent management -- and no manager would dare implicate themselves.

Some helpful clues Bennett suggests may (inconclusively) indicate Munchausen at work:

  • Is the employee disproportionately involved in identifying and fighting fires?
  • Is the employee unusually resistant to offers of help in addressing problems he or she has identified?
  • Does the employee deflect management’s efforts to understand a problem’s underlying cause?
  • Are the facts and coworkers’ accounts at odds with the employee’s claims about a problem’s existence or severity?
  • Are problems with a project, a customer, or a process, or between colleagues, frequently resolved in the employee’s absence?

Have you witnessed or experienced IT-borne Munchausen? Tell your story in TalkBack.

[Related: A great New York Times piece on workplace infighting among female professionals.]

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