No project is perfect, but management doesn’t see it that way. They want every project to be done flawlessly, and while there is nothing wrong with aiming high, their expectations can be somewhat unrealistic. When the project plan inevitably goes off course (and 11 out of 10 projects do), they want someone to pay the price. That usually means someone from your team is going to be the scapegoat—or maybe the entire team.
As a project manager, you’ll want to protect your little band and its reputation as much as you can. Not only is it a matter of saving face (you did, after all, have to justify your team roster to management), but it’s a matter of morale and loyalty as well. That doesn’t mean that your team isn’t going to be held accountable for their mistakes. They definitely will, but if anyone’s going to discipline them, it should be you.
So when is it appropriate to step in and shelter your team from management’s wrath?
It’s Not Their Responsibility
Most projects involve multiple contributors, each of whom need to perform their jobs responsibly in order to make the project succeed as a whole. When one contributor drops the ball, the effects can be felt all across the project. It can be easy to assign blame to the most prominent contributors within the project and say it was their responsibility to verify that all the contributors have done their jobs correctly.
In reality, though, there are times when your hands are tied and you have to move forward with what you’ve got, no matter how badly it was done. But that doesn’t mean you have to take the fall for it, too.
The Problem is Policy, Not Performance
Picture this: your team is under pressure to perform, and know a simpler, faster, or more convenient way to get things done, but your organization has imposed multiple layers of bureaucracy and process that slow things down. If your team tries to deviate from the process, they get their hands slapped. If they stick to the process, they risk missing a deadline. It’s a catch-22, one that many project managers are bound to face.
When management tries to chew out your team for sticking to a process that doesn’t work, or for deviating from the process in order to get your job done, you need to jump in and let management know that their process is making life more difficult for everybody. Management won’t like to hear this (and will probably like you a lot less), but it needs to be said. Tell management that a better process will encourage faster timelines and happier workers. If they don’t listen, then it’s on them.
Overreaction from Management
We all understand that management can sometimes overreact to a situation. Maybe the client is putting pressure on them. Maybe they’ve seen it before and are tired of it happening. Or maybe they just don’t approve of your team. Whatever the case, their reaction may be totally out of proportion to the gravity of the error. This is a perfect time to step in and be a superhero to your team.
Try to deflect management’s anger as much as you can. How you handle this all depends on how well you know management and how good your reputation is. If you can take the hit, do so. Your team will love you for it.