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How to Handle an Epic Screw-Up When You're a Freelancer

  • November 25, 2020

Anyone who powered through this year’s hours-long Oscars broadcast to the very end was rewarded with a healthy dose of shock-turned-schadenfreude when the wrong Best Picture winner was announced. People immediately took to Twitter to question what happened. Were Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway tired or tipsy? Did Emma Stone hand off her envelope? Was Jimmy Kimmel being funny?
Eventually, PwC took responsibility for the mix-up, but not before a confused crowd of stars got caught up in the blame game. As a freelancer, when you make a big mistake things can go down quite differently. You’re a lone wolf, and—not to provoke too much unbridled anxiety—but the responsibility of your work rests on your shoulders, and your shoulders alone.
Dale Carnegie, legendary self-development coach and speaker touted a simple approach to approaching mistakes. His go-to adage? “The successful man will profit from his mistakes and try again in a different way.” Whether you’ve committed a mishap to the scale of the Oscar #envelopegate, or simply failed to deliver something to a client as promised, the next steps you take are critical to maintaining your professional reputation as a freelancer.

Step 1: Own it

The first step is the easiest, but for some people, it’s the hardest: Transparently (and swiftly) fess up to the error. One particularly damning record of what went down at the Oscars alleges that the lead PwC accountants completely “froze” upon making the error, and only acted to rectify it when prodded by the show’s production team. If this is indeed what happened (and who can know for sure what really did happen?), then this is a case study on what NOT to do.
As Claire Bentley, a Dallas-based human resources manager says, “Finding out that an individual hid a mistake or didn’t say anything about it is worse than the mistake itself to an employer.” So, as soon as you’ve realized your mistake—or if you’re anticipating certain failure, even—just come clean.

Step 2: Breathe!

We’re not recommending you take the day off and get a massage, but try to have some perspective with regard to your mistakes. Generally speaking, says Bentley, individuals are more critical of their own mistakes than their employers may be—and serving as your own worst enemy may be especially true for freelancers who are in charge of their own livelihood and therefore typically extra conscientious of their performance. Realize that unless someone was hurt, mistakes may not be as bad as you think. Step back and taking a deep breath so you’re in a better place to take on the next most important step.

Step 3: Communicate a thoughtful solution

You may not be able to undo a mistake, but once you’ve taken ownership, you can keep in touch with the client to guide them through your diligent path to remedy the error as best you can. Erin Desrosiers, division director of Creative Salaried Professionals for The Creative Group, has had to broker relationships between freelancers and clients—and their successes and failures reflect back on her team when they make the match. A lack of communication is one of the most common mistakes she encounters. Recently, when a freelancer blatantly blew off an assignment, the fact that the individual waited until the work was due to tell the client it wasn’t getting done was as infuriating as the excuse itself.
Swiftly owning up to a mistake instead of wasting time and energy worrying and trying to cover things up allows you to come up with a solution, says Bentley. Ideally, your solution should follow in lock-step with your transparent communication of the issue at-hand. In other words, “Here’s what happened, here’s why it happened, and here’s what I am going to do to make it better.”
S**T! You messed up as a #freelancer. Here are the steps you need to take right now. Click To Tweet

Step 4: Learn from the experience

Setbacks happen as a freelancer, as they do in any business. How we recover from these mistakes ultimately forms a significant piece of our reputation and character in the eyes of our clients. Of course, the ideal is to never make the mistake in the first place. But you’re a human being. These things will happen. (That said, proper planning and communication from Day 1 will ensure the screw-up isn’t as monumental as #envelopegate.)
Our number one piece of advice: be transparent with the mistake but focus on the positive—that is, the solution—instead of dwelling on something you cannot change. Look forward to fix the issue, and always reflect back in order to to learn and grow from the experience.
How have you recovered from past mistakes? Tell us your stories in the comments below.


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