Managers are hired to solve problems--not to create them. But in some cases a "need to be needed" management style can evolve into something more troublesome that parallels a serious psychological disorder.
Medical professionals occasionally encounter children like the girl that was hospitalized for over 40 surgeries before she was eight years old or the two-year-old boy visiting the hospital more than 20 times for conditions that left doctors unsure of the root cause. Both of these children were victims of Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome, a rare but dangerous condition that causes a child's primary caregiver to deliberately make a child sick or convince medical professionals that a child is ill by exaggerating or inducing symptoms in order to get the sympathy and attention of medical professionals. Doctors easily overlook MPS as a cause of a child's repeated illnesses because it is difficult to believe that a parent or caregiver will deliberately hurt his or her child.
This odd psychological malady lands in the corporate world when a manager discovers that his or her perceived value grows every time he or she solves another problem. From staff conflicts to supply chain delays to inventory inaccuracies the manager learns under-the-radar ways to fabricate problems that require intervention. When the manager solves the problem the recognition from others perpetuates the need to find (or create) another problem to solve.
A short, but insightful article by Georgia Tech Professor of Management Nathan Bennett, PhD in the November issue of Harvard Business Review titled Munchausen at Work presents some case studies of managers with Munchausen-esque behavior. What caught my attention are a couple of Bennett's questions for diagnosing the condition which I quote directly below:
- Is the employee disproportionately involved in identifying and fighting fires?
- Does the employee deflect management's efforts to understand a problem's underlying cause.
Frequent fire-fighting and the inability to get to the root cause of a problem are often indications that a manager or an organization needs a process for effective critical thinking and problem solving. Professor Bennett indicates that when these situations persist or appear to propagate themselves, a deeper problem may be in play.
Raising a concern that some managers might be creating their problems isn't meant to encourage break-room psychoanalysis. It does underscore the fact that problems are for solutions and managers should help the people they lead become more adept at getting to the root cause of problems and implementing solutions that result in long-term, positive organizational change.
Managers that thrive in problem-ridden environments may be culprits as much as heroes.