Help me get over this mistake and request more helpful feedback
February 28, 2019 3:37 PM   Subscribe

The way that I get feedback on my work is driving me up the wall and I need help separating out my own issues so I can request it in a more helpful way! I’m a freelancer, and for the past 7 years I’ve worked remotely with the sole employee of a design studio for virtually all of my work. I consider her to be essentially my boss but we obviously don’t have a typical employee/manager formal relationship.

I made a mistake two years ago that cost her and myself money (a typo in a printed project) and ever since then, I've struggled with my own guilt and shame and what I feel like is an unhelpful attitude from her that's the equivalent of rubbing a dog's nose in pee.

It was the first mistake I've made on a project that got to the print stage and it hasn’t happened since. I took a financial hit for it (not billing for any of my time on the project as well as not raising my rates the following year like I normally would). I put together and shared and implemented a plan for better proofing and made sure she knew that I took full responsibility for the mistake and that I was taking it seriously.

It felt like I got thrown under the bus for it — neither she or the client noticed the typo though they reviewed multiple rounds and signed off on it. (I never expressed this view to her as it felt childish.) So now I feel bitter that she never reassured or acknowledged that mistakes could happen, while also feeling paralyzed with shame for having made the mistake in the first place. As I'm not an employee, I can't figure out how much I should feel responsible for this mistake or if I’m being childish in feeling like the mistake wasn’t solely my own — any thoughts?

During reviews of projects that are not finalized, she's still catching errors (or perceived errors) that I've made and telling me about them in a way she didn't used to — giving me a play by play of everything she is updating before sending the project to a client. We review each other’s work (I do the bulk of it, but I’ll review projects she’s worked on or that other freelancers have), and having two sets of eyes on a project is invaluable. However, how she sends me feedback makes me feel panicked and defensive.

Her messages consist of the following:
• She's misinterpreted client feedback, so it's helpful for me to provide my understanding and the majority of the time she'll agree with my assessment and leave as-is. This is like 50% of her feedback.
• Subjective and eye-lollingly silly updates she’s making, e.g. "I made this a 90% black tint instead of 95% like you had it" or "I made the logo 5% larger" and I don’t need to know about them — things that won't affect me going forward.
• Legitimate errors. Generally we'll have client direction or feedback that might be like 25-75 changes to a project (not corrections to our work, just updates) and I'll miss one or two each round. That's where I struggle — it's usually something small but that I'm grateful she caught (e.g., today I put the wrong footnote symbol on some text so it pointed to the wrong footnote).

I catch the same kind of errors in her work, though I think she makes less than I do (she has me review her work as well). I make far less errors than any other freelancers we work with, which is partly understandable because I've been doing this for a long time for the same clients and partly annoying because some of them are sloppy. If she has changes for another freelancer her feedback is usually something like "Looks great! I made a few updates and sent back to the client." without mentioning "you missed an entire page of edits"

How do I express that her sending me messages with every change feels like a scolding without sounding like I don't care about these mistakes? I do care but I also feel like the volume of work that we do and the speed in which we do it means that missing a few things is expected which is why we review each other's work! I feel the need to mention that these are not errors that clients are seeing and clients send back positive feedback all the time on projects that I lead.

As you can see, I have a mix of "hey, I'm good at my job!" and "wow, I'm awful and deserve this shame." I know I have two separate problems here: a hangup on a mistake that I can't get past, and working with someone who likes to give live feedback and treats every mistake, big or small, like it's something I need to stop what I'm doing to acknowledge and feel bad about.

Thanks for reading. This was hard to articulate, please be kind (and don't take typos as an indication of my eye for detail...) I have a lot of Feelings and I don't want to take these Feelings into a business relationship! I've never talked to her about something like this before — it's her business, she can run it how she wants, but it feels inefficient to have to read and respond to live feedback when I’m working on something else. I'd love advice on having this conversation with her as well as advice on dealing with my issues on my own.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses to Work & Money (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't pretend to know what's going on with your client but am familiar with a version of this dynamic, so please take if helpful and disregard if not.
Sometimes people who act like your client are respectful and have boundaries with some people, and not with others. Its not because of the quality of your work vs their work. It's because there are subtle power dynamics, she might not even be conscious but she might sense your self-doubt and this allows her to take her anxiety out on you. With other clients, she might be afraid that if she spoke to them that way they'd retaliate -- not in an overt way but in a way that would then make her own self-esteem crumble. She does not seem to have that with you, and it's not because the others are perfect, but rather, perhaps, it's ironically because they respond with less self-recriminating care to their own errors.
In this case you need to make more professional boundaries.
1. Don't compare how she talks to you with how she talks to anyone else. This is now she talks to you, so, for all extents and purposes, this is just how she talks.
2. Ignore the irritating implicit criticism as you would with some random person who you'd never made an error for. YOU have to wipe the error off your own slate in your own mind. It's years ago, it's gone. If she is telling you tiny details, don't let them bring up the old error in your own mind. Ignore the extraneous, and just act professional.
3. You want to give her a product that will keep her business with you. So be polite, cheerful, with a boundary, and just in your mind dismiss anything she says that seems over the top. Just remind yourself: that's her.
Good luck.
posted by nantucket at 4:05 PM on February 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Firstly, you sound like SUCH a great and conscientious worker. I can empathize with so so much of your post. I'm approaching this as a designer who has worked full-time for toxic bosses who harp on errors AND as a designer who is now a full-time freelancer running my own business. Here are my thoughts and suggestions:

1. Mistakes HAPPEN in design, especially print design (not that they don't happen digitally, but you know how easy it is to fix a typo on a website)? Be gentle with yourself. That error 2 (!) years ago is not "your" mistake. It is "a" mistake. Both your client and the end-client signed off on multiple rounds???? It is totally off your hands. Human errors will happen, that is why there is proofing and reviews. That was all executed and yet the mistake remained? That is 100% (in my eyes) on them. What, you can never make an error? No, they need to plan human error into their plans and make sure those errors do not go through to print.

2. Gently, I think it was too generous of you to have not charged for your time on that project (AND that your rates weren't raised). I'm concerned that it indicates you're taking too much responsibility for things in general. I'd understand a courteous 10% discount perhaps on a project with an error that went to print, but that even is generous in my eyes. You are a contractor. Mistakes happen. And it sounds like you have an exceptionally low error rate overall - like seriously exceptional.

3. Before I worked for myself, I worked in a toxic small design studio environment. Where if a designer made an error, they were yelled at and punished. Do you know that that's conducive to MORE errors? I'm getting a bit of a vibe like that from this person you work with - that tight, overly careful, anti-human, no-empathy approach - when really a process shift is what's needed (which is what your own instincts were).

4. I'm getting a feeling from your post that you're not getting the recognition or gratitude you deserve. You've been working with her as a contractor / consultant for 7 years??? That's an eternity and she should be fucking eternally grateful to you for your loyalty, hard work, and attention to detail. Seriously, she should thank you every day.

Okay so what would I do in your shoes?

1. If I were in your shoes, I couldn't work for / with someone like this. You will not change her. Her misinterpretations of client feedback? That can't change barring some huge injection of empathy into her blood. I have a feeling it indicates a core lack of empathy on her part. I would reduce my hours with this client, find new clients, and slowly phase out of my work with her.

2. My personal opinion is that as a consultant, it's not really my place to give feedback or ask for changes to a client's behavior (i.e. if you asked her not to send the "I just changed this to 90% black from 95%" emails). Like, it would totally be my place if I was an employee because there's more of a structure and opportunity for behavioral feedback like that. The clients that I'm not a match for in working-style - I just don't work with. You're in a bit of a different situation since you've been there so long, but again, I just wouldn't be super optimistic in your shoes with sparking change in how this person works and communicates.

3. So finally, if you want to keep working for her, this is what I would do. a. Raise my rates as much as possible, as soon as I'm comfortable doing that. Because getting paid more can soften some of this anxiety and frustration. b. Create some checklist / process updates for your own self! Approach your work in a new way. What could help you catch every one those updates (although with an almost 1-2% error rate, that's almost perfect...)? Some of my techniques include checklists, reviewing 3 times before sending out, and going backwards to proof. and c. Letting it all gooooo! [the hardest - but biggest - one]. She sends an email listing all the silly little changes she made before sending to a client, great! You don't have to take action! She sends an email where she found an error? "Great, thank you so much for catching that! I'm on it now!" Your work is not who you are. You will make mistakes. Let it just wash over you.

To me, your story is a lesson in that small businesses should treat their reliable, hard-working contractors like GOLD and that hasn't been happening. It's been amping up your anxiety and resentment. I'm confident that you can figure out ways to address this, good luck!
posted by Uncle Glendinning at 6:12 PM on February 28, 2019 [8 favorites]

For a single typo, "not billing for any of my time on the project as well as not raising my rates the following year like I normally would" sounds like a massive overcompensation on your part for a mistake that you all, mutually, made. You should not feel childish at all for feeling like the mistake wasn't solely yours. It wasn't. Catching errors like that is what client review is for; sign-off is literally the client saying "this work is correct". You made a typo, they didn't catch it in multiple rounds of review.

But what's done is done. I don't think there's much to be gained by pushing back on the nuances of how she's giving you feedback, however petty it is (and it really does sound like some of it is); just keep being as conscientious and careful as you already are, handle the meaningful responses from the client, and let the rest of it roll off your back. Don't take your own mistakes so personally, it's a totally normal part of the job, it's why review is a thing.

In the long run it would probably be a good idea to try to diversify your client base -- getting too dependent on a single customer can be bad news for lots of reasons, and working with a wider variety of people can help keep you from getting too personally involved with any one of them.
posted by ook at 6:29 PM on February 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

I do design as a small portion of my work, and I give some of those "subjective and eye-lollingly silly updates". I never considered that someone would take them the way you're taking them. The reasons I catalogue my updates:
- Because I'm the type of person who works from a checklist and it's a way of making sure I did all the things.
- I want to call others' attention to my changes so that they approve them consciously (which in turn creates a paper trail of changes).
- So that no one decides to go back to an earlier version where the logo was 5% smaller thinking that nothing has changed and then I have to do it all over again.

In other words, she might just be trying to be detail-oriented and conscientious rather than making a condescending point about something.
posted by xo at 6:44 PM on February 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is so helpful, thanks y’all. I want to follow up with a question that might help me get more targeted advice — if this was an actual employer, how would I approach this?

Totally appreciate the advice to diversify and have started taking on new clients and building up savings, but I would really like to continue with this relationship. (It pays well, I enjoy the work, and it’s been very steady work that allows me to escape the stress of client management because my “boss” handles that.) Not to brush off this very excellent advice, I am just really in immediate need of a way to approach the feedback and anxiety issue as it’s affecting my other work.

Also, couple clarifications if it helps, her messages are via chat and not email. They do not go to the clients, just to me. The changes that she makes aren’t ones that I need to know about going forward (to your point, xo), trust me. One thing I do appreciate about this woman is her great documentation and things like changes we need to note in the future are well tracked and saved to a shared drive — chat is not where those things go as they’d get lost quickly with the volume of messages we send back and forth.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 7:05 PM on February 28, 2019

If the owner and client signed off, it's not your mistake, it's theirs. Period. That's the responsibility that comes with sign off authority.
posted by Jairus at 9:57 PM on February 28, 2019

You’re a designer, not a copywriter. They took responsibility for it when they signed it off, that’s the point of having the power to sign something off. If you had to wear the consequences, you should have been the one to sign off. The only error you made is in forgoing your fee and flagellating yourself over this. If it were me, I’d politely shrug, say it was a shame it happened and suggest getting a proofreader next time.

So far as the live feedback, I’d tell her it interrupts the flow of your work, can she please take the latest version away, consider it carefully in her own time and then get back to you via email about all the changes she’d like in one hit instead of a steady stream.

You basically need to implement processes about how you’d like to work and set boundaries. Good luck, it’s hard when they’re paying the bills.
posted by Jubey at 11:21 PM on February 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, the laundry list of changes made ("I made this logo 90% black...") kind of communication is what I personally would do with a peer I work closely with on an ongoing project, while the more blase "Looks great I made some changes and sent it to the client!" is how I would communicate with a junior or someone who works for me. A peer needs to know exactly what I did because they might need to replicate it or answer client questions about it later - whereas mostly the junior employee in that situation just wants to know it's off their plate.
posted by Xany at 11:44 PM on February 28, 2019 [7 favorites]

Do you have other clients? If not, I suggest making that your top priority.

Market forces can smooth out or clarify how relationships like these need to function in order to be viable. Your client may be too used to you. It certainly sounds like you may be too used to your client (causing you to accept more baloney than makes sense).

Clients treat you better and pay you better if it becomes plain to them that not doing so will threaten the relationship, and put the resource that you are out of reach.

I freelanced for fifteen years before becoming somebody that hires freelancers, and I believe one of the advantages of freelance situations, unlike employment situations, is that everybody has to keep everybody else happy, or the system falls apart. If you’re not enjoying the benefits of that power, the situation may have decayed into a de facto employer/employee dynamic, which is usually beneficial to the “employer” at the expense of the “employee.”

Long story short? If this were an employment situation I’d quit. If I were in your freelance position, I would get my dance card full enough that I could once again express my power to CHOOSE.
posted by Construction Concern at 7:14 AM on March 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

I really appreciated the time everyone took here and marked best answers for the ones that contained advice I've acted on so far. xany, thank you, your answer took me awhile to come around to but it turned out to be a huge shift in my thinking to accept that she's telling me something because she sees me as a peer and wouldn't tell me otherwise. Granted, I still don't need to know all this shit but it really cut down my annoyance levels.

Coincidentally I caught a mistake in the proof stage of a project shortly after posting this question. It had been signed off on by about 10 people at that point (including myself) but should have been caught by the client's legal department. I ended up emailing her to point it out and was braced for being thrown under the bus, but all she did was thank me for the great catch, we sent the update to the printer, and all was well. Rereading this thread helped me be ready to stand up for myself and having a good outcome was a bonus.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 5:56 PM on March 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

« Older Managing Social Media for Small Business   |   Outsourcing children Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments