Have you ever wonder, what some people do in your company? What their mysterious corpo titles mean? Who do they manage? What are their day to day responsibilities? Is there any outcome of their work?
It looks like we’re talking about phantoms.
I’ve spent my whole career working for the IT companies, which were just before or in the middle of the digital transformation. During this amazing, 10 year long journey, I saw many changes, that were dictated by the corporation. One its tricks was creating a role for someone, just to make this person happy. No more reasons, no more other benefits for the company.
Now, I’ve finally managed to find a right word to describe this phenomenon. People that have these roles are Phantoms. You can see some similarity to the old movie series with brilliant Louis de Funès, right?
Something apparently seen, heard, or sensed, but having no physical reality; an image that appears only in the mind; an illusion or delusion.
Translating to the IT world - Phantoms are people on the delusional positions without any real and positive (in the same time) impact on the company, nor serious responsibilities. There is no way to see the result of their work, the result is only an illusion. They may have no impact at all for the company, or just negative one, which is the worst case scenario.
If you work for not-yet digital IT company, brace yourself. It’s a valuable skill to be able to identify a Phantom. Phantoms are very close to important people. They see themselves as even-handed diplomats. And they are not afraid to backstab their colleagues, if it’s the right punishment of their own court. They have a lot of free time to invest in playing politics. Appearing on their blacklist can mean serious difficulties in having your bigger ideas executed. Or climbing up the ladder.
How to spot a Phantom
A Phantom can be a manager, who was promoted just to manage a few people. It can be position to bring “innovation” to the company or fix some issues. I’m not saying that everyone on positions previously mentioned does meaningless work, but you should start looking first among those people.
It’s very common for the Phantoms to practice this poor style of management by trying to closely observe and control other people’s work. The feeling of insecurity is the main driver of implementing anti-patterns at work. Awareness of their fake position/work is pushing them to hide this fact by controlling and being involved in as many things possible, as much as they can.
Jason is the developer’s manager. He takes care of 5 people. He runs away from his main responsibilities, which are: mentoring people, solving personal issues, troubleshooting. His escape from the reality is being busy. He travels a lot to different locations, or work on the secret prototype project, that no one knows about. All the time. In summary, Jason does only these things, that don’t require people- or technical skills. Moreover, he delays, or doesn’t take any important decisions at all. In the end all of his 5 great developers leave the company, because they feel not supported by their manager… Jason will explain this loss later, as a fault of the greedy developers. “They left the company only to get more shiny coins somewhere else.” If it doesn’t work every time, he may use variations, like: “The project/ technology/ you-name-it was boring. They wouldn’t stay longer anyway.”
It’s the fault of the company or the developers. It’s never Phantom’s fault. Why? Because he doesn’t exist. He’s just an illusion.
The next strong candidate for the Phantom title can be a person who firmly screwed up with the given task or problem to solve. Because of the good connections in the company, he or she can escape from the consequences.
Tom was a Product Owner in one of the marketing teams. He was continuously miss-communicating with his development team. Instead of finding a common ground between him and the team, he decided to escalate issues all the time. In the end he blamed developers for the lack of communication skills and asked his direct manager to move to another position. Now, Tom is the go-to person to fix issues in the whole company. With this new position it’s much harder to see what Tom does anyway. Maybe nobody will notice, that it’s not that much. The most important is, that he will easily survive another year as a Phantom.
Phantoms, almost always, are very good in telling stories. They can talk about topics, that they’re lacking knowledge/expertise for hours. From the outside, for an inexperienced person, it may look like the Phantom has a valid point/understanding. It’s just a smoke screen, it’s not real. If you develop a Nonsense Detection Skill, you’ll smell it through the walls.
Impact on the company
People may feel uncomfortable working with Phantoms. It’s not clear what their responsibilities are. The thing, that is clear, is that people don’t like to be micromanaged.
Moreover, Phantoms will try to block any change in the company that doesn’t match their agenda or that will make them exposed to the daylight.
They also influence the HR’s spreadsheets. Corporations like to set fixed headcount for the office. For example: if your office has 100 headcount limitation and 10 positions are occupied by Phantoms… it’s 10% of the office that is not creating any value for the company. It makes keeping Phantoms even more expensive, as instead of this, you could hire more devs, testers or increase salary for rest 90% of employees.
How to fix it?
Talk about the phenomenon. Maybe someone will listen and make use of it.
Sometimes it’s not a direct fault of the specific person. Maybe they were moved to the current position by another Phantom, who is on the higher level. Always verify your assumptions before you lay the blame on someone. Don’t practice prejudgement, try to get the whole story, from multiple angles.
Keeping the number of management heads as small as you can would also help. No one needs one manager for every 3 developers. Prefer people who create value and have real impact on the company.
It may take years for the leadership people of your company to realize that Phantoms exists and they parasitize in business. Remember, that if you can’t change your company, you can always change the company.