Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on real-life situations. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

I am afraid that my team leader (supervisor) is using me as a scapegoat for problems that are occurring on our project. In many cases, these problems are caused by the team leader not getting his/her work done on time. How can I react to this in a way that will not jeopardize my career?

It is especially difficult to provide an absolute response to your question because your situation deals with relationships and working with difficult people. The situation is also made worse by the fact that you are in a position of lesser influence than your team leader.
There are, however, a couple of things that you can do that may help. First, make sure that you document your understanding of the expectations that your team leader has of you. For example, whenever you get work assignments, start tracking them in a spreadsheet. Include the general assignment and when the work is due. Then, make sure you send this to your team leader every week so that he or she can validate his or her agreement with what you are working on and what the end date is.
You should also include a section for any project issues or problems of which you are aware. Your team leader should not view this negatively. Just explain to your team leader that you would like to be more proactive in making sure you understand the expectations that he or she has for you and that using the spreadsheet is a technique to help you stay better organized.
If you keep track of your responsibilities, end dates, and problems, then I don’t know how your team leader can then hold you accountable or make you a scapegoat for project issues that you were not involved with or did not realize that you were accountable for.
Keeping track of your work assignments will help your relationship with your team leader in the future, but your message stated that your team leader is already blaming you for things that are going wrong. In that case, of course, you won’t have this workload documentation available. To deal with your current situation, you should first try a face-to-face approach. Sit down with your team leader and go over your performance and what the expectations were for you. Perhaps there is an honest difference of opinion on what you felt was expected vs. what your team leader had in mind.
If you have this discussion and it turns out well, then you may be okay for now. But if you feel that your team leader is being dishonest or is treating you unfairly, then I believe it is your right to talk to the next level of management. Explain your concerns to that manager, but don’t be accusatory or make derogatory comments about the team leader. Just explain the facts as you see them, and ask for advice on how you might better be able to deal with this situation.
Hopefully, you will find some support at that level of management. If you don’t, you have further options. Take the matter to your Human Resources department and ask for their advice. Again, stick to the facts, and let them know that you were not supported by your manager. When all else fails—and if you think your career is in jeopardy—you might try to transfer to another area in the company or find new responsibilities that will help your career grow in the future.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

Who gets the blame?

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