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Responding to Feedback at Work When It's From Your Boss's Spouse
March 6, 2013 12:13 AM   Subscribe

I think I'm offending my boss's wife when I suggest alternatives to some of her input that she's been giving on a big project I'm in charge of at work. How can I more effectively respond to her feedback so I don't offend her but also stay true to design standards and artistic integrity?

I am responsible for rebranding my company's website. This is a big honor because I haven't been at the company very long, and I am very happy that my bosses like my work enough to entrust me with this task. I was charged with creating a new brand identity that is hip, fresh, and streamlined.

One of the main people giving input on this rebranding process is my boss's wife, who I like very much and who is part of the demographic our brand is trying to reach. She is not a designer, and lately I've been having a really, really hard time with some of her suggestions. Some of her ideas are excellent and I look forward to incorporating them; others revolve around outdated design elements that are now categorically passe, or on things that just don't match the design scheme we've already set into motion.

With my boss and the other people on my team I feel comfortable saying, "I see where you're coming from on this, but I'm worried that incorporating ABC may result in XYZ, which we've thus far been trying to stay away from. Do you think that could be a possible outcome, or would you like me to try it anyway?" With her, I don't feel like I have the same rapport on which to rely when giving that kind of counter feedback, and to make matters worse, this anxiety about not feeling like I can organically participate in a dialogue about this project I'm responsible for is morphing into resentment. I am starting to automatically dismiss her input as not good, and I think she may be feeling like me countering her input with possible outcomes = me dissing her.

I still try very hard to acknowledge her input, validate it for its importance and weight, and then suggest possible negative or less ideal outcomes associated with implementing some of her suggestions and counter it with alternatives I think are more aesthetically pleasing/time efficient/etc. I want her to feel heard, and I also want to produce the best possible product. These two things are not mutually exclusive but I'm making them so.

This is really stressing me out and I no longer look forward to this project anymore as I once did. I don't feel like my own expertise in this area is being respected and I don't feel like I can give my input freely for fear of offending her. Is it naive of me to assume that I should still be able to have an open and honest dialogue with my team if she's in the room? If so, where do I go next? If not, what kind of things can I do or say to make sure she feels acknowledged and appreciated for her input particularly when that input does not feel like a good fit for the project?

I was thinking I might sit down with her and ask her to elaborate on all the things she would really like to see from the brand now that it's being revamped so that I can better understand where she's coming from. Would it be a bad idea to even say, "I want to make sure that I have not been offending you during meetings. Do you feel like your input is being heard, and if not, what can I do as your designer to do better in that area?"
posted by Hello Darling to Human Relations (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
"I want to make sure that I have not been offending you during meetings. Do you feel like your input is being heard, and if not, what can I do as your designer to do better in that area?"

Drop the first sentence from that line and you're good, IMO.
posted by Broseph at 12:55 AM on March 6, 2013


You are taking the wrong approach. You are treating her as someone you report to. Treat her as a free focus group. In fact get 3-4 other people like her and hold your meetings as focus group meetings. That means get input, test design concepts but don't ask her permission not to include ideas or anything else. At the end invite and acknowldge her at the website launch party/event
posted by zia at 1:04 AM on March 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


This is tricky. It sounds like you do report to her since she is giving you ongoing feedback, so I'm guessing she signs off on whether or not you move forward with designs. I can see why this is frustrating and why you are concerned. Could you maybe be projecting your anxiety onto her though? Has your boss said anything to the effect of "you need to handle input from all sources better"? I get the impression that you feel like maybe your boss is also peeved but it doesn't sound like he or she has said anything about it. Maybe just make a concentrated effort to presume her input is going to be valuable and fake it till you make it.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 1:16 AM on March 6, 2013


Ahhh. The difference between people who understand design, and those who do not.

Do whatever you have to do to assuage her politically, ignore her shitty ideas, because they are shitty.

If we were in the world of MADMEN, I would be right, but I would be fired.

So Find a way to make her seem like a rockstar AND ignore her input.

Geezus I hate people like this on a professional level. On a personal level, I'm sure she is a lovely person that bunnies and unicorns gravitate towards.

Seriously, make her feel like she is a STAR. Enjoy stroking her ego, and then shaping it to your own vision.

This takes finesse.

Cultivate finesse.

This won't be the first time you need this skill in your professional career.

Peace out.
posted by jbenben at 1:18 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


You keep referring to her as "the boss's wife" but not actually defining what she is in terms of the project. Does she actually have some kind of role in the company/project, or is she just the boss's wife who keeps butting in with ideas? (Or something else.) Being in the demographic means her responses are worth listening to, but not necessarily her direction.

Because if it's the latter, this:
I was thinking I might sit down with her and ask her to elaborate on all the things she would really like to see from the brand now that it's being revamped so that I can better understand where she's coming from.
is a horrible idea, as it further reinforces a specialness she does not in fact have.
How to actually deal with that perception is a separate matter for after this is cleared up. I'm just concerned that there's a lack of context for her feedback here and how much you might be expected to listen to/be nice about dismissing it.
posted by Su at 1:19 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sorry, she is one of the three people I get approval from for the project. Basically I feel like her incorporating her input without any discussion goes against the project parameters her spouse (my boss) tasked me with. Birds, my boss hasn't said anything and I'm having a difficult time gauging his feelings on the matter too.
posted by Hello Darling at 1:24 AM on March 6, 2013


Sorry, she is one of the three people I get approval from for the project. Basically I feel like her incorporating her input without any discussion goes against the project parameters her spouse (my boss) tasked me with

I'm still a bit confused, here. If she is one of three people whose approval you need for the design to go forward, then effectively she is your boss for this project and you need to treat her accordingly --- so sitting down with her one on one and asking her to expand on her feedback would be a solid idea.

But you keep calling her your boss' wife, as if she has no official role in this company and her giving you input is some sort of informal, "we didn't want to pay for a focus group but hey my wife likes this kind of stuff, you should ask her" deal, in which case the appropriate solution might be to approach your boss and tell him that while some of her suggestions are great, others just won't work and you're not sure how to break it to her, but want to make sure you have his support.

If this woman is in fact someone who has final say over this project, the fact that you simply refer to her as your boss' wife seems kind of demeaning. If she has the final say, suck it up and learn to work with her.
posted by Diablevert at 2:18 AM on March 6, 2013 [24 favorites]


It sounds like you are doing a lot of guessing and assuming and trying to "gauge his feelings" and feeling resentful and ... You are the project manager. You need to lead the discussion, not worry about where it goes. The fact that it's your boss's wife is irrelevant to the end users of your website.
posted by headnsouth at 3:22 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sorry, she is one of the three people I get approval from for the project. Basically I feel like her incorporating her input without any discussion goes against the project parameters her spouse (my boss) tasked me with.

Being the boss' wife is irrelevant. She is one of your key stakeholders.

With her, I don't feel like I have the same rapport on which to rely when giving that kind of counter feedback.

Why is that? If she has a significantly different communication style from your other colleagues, then please articulate that aspect. If it's solely because she is the boss' wife, I think you need to get over that, along the lines of what Diablevert said.
posted by like_neon at 3:25 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think one of the issues is that you are both the creator and the intermediary in this project, just as the boss's wife is the intermediary and the client. Most of the time this is the case when it comes to design work, but I think some sort of intermediary stage is required to diffuse tensions and to distance the egos.

When I've project managed stuff, I acted as the intermediary between the designer/creator and the client/committee (sounds as if the boss's wife is part of a 'brand strategy committee', right?).

Because the designer was a freelance contractor, it was my job as intermediary to keep an eye on how many revisions they were contracted for, the budget and how many hours they spent on it. It was also my job to filter the personality clashes.

In lieu of an intermediary, I think you need to formalise the feedback procedure. Whether it's through email or in a meeting, I think you should circulate a design and make a formal request for feedback in writing. Take that feedback in one big bundle and find a way to incorporate the essence of what they (as a group) are saying without giving in to animated cursors (or whatever). Don't make a distinction between her feedback and other people's - it should come in the same format, and the same time - it could even be anonymous if need be. Take personal preference away from the equation.
posted by dumdidumdum at 4:15 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just respond to her as you would any other stakeholder. If she presses any feedback you disagree with, or if her feedback is in conflict with your boss's feedback or previous direction, speak to your boss privately.

Don't blame his wife, but tell him concretely the issue you are having satisfying the feedback and ask him to make a determination how to proceed because you believe that you are heading down a road that will make the project more expensive/time consuming by introducing difficulties down the road or forcing you to to rehash previously validated decisions, or that it will weaken the overall product.

Your boss's wife isn't officially in the chain of command so make him deal with the conflict or be responsible for caving and damaging the integrity of the project.
posted by rocketpup at 7:09 AM on March 6, 2013


Ah, this is office politics, so you need to tread carefully indeed - given your junior status at the company, your boss' wife is a key stakeholder and should be treated as such.

That's not to say she has final word on design decisions. You have two tools at your disposal: the cost of design changes, plus usability statistics.

If someone is advocating for you to make a stupid decision based on stupid information (or no information at all), the best thing to do is to use metrics.

Explain how a design change is costly, and will mean less budget can be spent on other areas.

Determine whether or not the requested design changes will mean less usability, and therefore less traffic and fewer conversions.

You are basing your design choices on a methodology that includes some metrics, aren't you?

If you have no data to support your position, your opinion is worth about as much as the opinion of your boss' wife. Just because you are the lead and she is the wife does not make your decisions any more rational or sound than hers.

You do, however, have to own the project, so if the boss' wife wins (for example, if you have no metrics to back up your argument, or you are not able to influence the group's consensus) you had better make sure everyone knows who made the design choice. The positive way to spin this is to "give credit".

This is standard office politics. Being persuasive is part of the job description. You win some, you lose some. Persuasion can be learned. But until you learn how to do it well, make sure you cover your ass :)
posted by KokuRyu at 9:24 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Maybe you can have a discussion with her to talk about the process and thank her for all her help in this project. At that meeting, get her buy-in to be able to ask at each occasion whether her new idea is just a suggestion or is it a requirement? If it's a requirement, it needs to go through the Change Management review process; if it's a suggestion, then you (and your team) get to decide whether it actually gets included in the project. Point out that she has had some really great ideas that you are glad to have included, but not everyone hits a homerun every time, but keep 'em coming and we'll evaluate each one on its own merits.
posted by CathyG at 12:51 PM on March 6, 2013


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