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Officers' Quarters: Destructive criticism, part 2


Every Monday, Scott Andrews contributes Officers' Quarters, a column about the ins and outs of guild leadership. He is the author of The Guild Leader's Handbook, available from No Starch Press.

Last week, I began addressing what is one of the most complex and difficult duties an officer or raid leader must occasionally perform: giving out unsolicited constructive criticism. As the email that sparked this discussion proved, such conversations can be volatile. With the wrong approach, you can destroy friendships and lose guildmates. Let's continue to examine the right approach.

To recap, here are the first two steps from part 1:
  1. Consider your guild's criticism culture and adapt your approach accordingly.
  2. Plant the seed of taking personal initiative to research and improve play.
At this point, you have to be a little bit patient. If your guild is on the brink of collapse over performance issues, you can't always afford to let this situation play out. However, the safest bet is to give the underperforming player another week of raids to show an improvement. Keep a close eye on him during this week. Examine his spec and gear to see if he's made any adjustments. Record a combat log to see if he's using the appropriate class abilities. Watch him during boss encounters to see if he is following instructions and executing the fight properly.

If you see an improvement, be sure to compliment him. (Don't go overboard, or you'll just make him feel patronized.) Then ask him if he's doing anything differently this week. Hopefully, he'll mention some research he did or some keybinds he added to improve his reaction times. You're now having the "constructive criticism conversation," and you didn't even have to be confrontational. You can use this opportunity to present some further helpful tips.

That, obviously, is a best-case scenario. It won't be so easy every time.

If you don't see an improvement after you've planted the seed, you'll have a decision to make. You can leave it be, accepting that the player will not improve further and making decisions about his participation accordingly. You can phase him out of key raids, if necessary, and only take the steps below when and if he approaches you about why he isn't being included. Or, you can decide to be more aggressive: to get real and hash it out.

Time to get real

When it's time to "get real," your timing is all-important. The middle of a raid is the worst possible time. Immediately after a raid, when players are tired and possibly frazzled from wiping, is the second-worst time. Immediately preceding a raid is probably third-worst, since the fallout could cause distracted players or, even worse, a player could quit on the spot, leaving you short-handed.

What's a good time for this potential confrontation? An off night when players are just doing their own thing is an excellent time. It's separate from a raid night, so players are more relaxed. You aren't constrained by a schedule, so the conversation can take as long as it needs to. If anyone gets upset, he'll be able to sleep on it for at least one night before raiding again. Earlier in the day or evening is better. The later it is, the more likely the person will be tired, less focused and less rational.

When you initiate the conversation, make sure the player has time to talk. That's always the first thing you should ask. Launching into the talk without knowing whether the person has time for it can be disastrous. Trust me: You don't want to do this twice, so make sure it's the best possible moment.

Establish the conversation

Once you've caught the player at the right time, establish the reason for the conversation. It's tempting at this point to get into specifics, but that can come later. Start off generally, but be absolutely honest. Note that there is a big difference between being honest and being blunt. An honest statement is something like this: "The other officers and I need you to improve your DPS. We want to help you do that, if you're willing to let us." A blunt statement is more like, "Your rock-bottom DPS is a big reason why we can't beat the Lich King and I'm here to figure out why you're so terrible." Most players, as you can imagine, will respond better to the former than the latter.

The important point to get across initially is that you're in this together and you're talking to him because you want to help him. You want to help him because you enjoy playing with him. You are not there to pass judgment, question motives or evaluate his worthiness to remain in the guild. (All of that can come later, if the player puts you in that situation by refusing to accept advice.)

After establishing the reason for the conversation, don't launch right into the criticism. Before you say a single word about performance beyond the general statement, ask him if he wants to talk about it. By asking, you're putting the ball in his court. He can choose to say no. If that's the case, leave him be. Your only option at that point is to report his unwillingness to work with you to your fellow officers and raid leaders. You'll have to decide what to do with that player based on what he is capable of right now, with no future improvement.

Just the facts

If he's willing to talk, then you can (finally) be specific about the situation. Some people won't believe that they need help. They'll never listen to your advice until you convince them that they need it, so that's always your first job here. For that reason, it's best to go into this conversation armed with facts rather than general impressions. "You were 2,000 DPS behind everyone else in the guild according to Tuesday's Recount" is a fact. "You seem like you aren't putting out enough DPS" is an impression. Impressions start arguments; facts end them.

It's not always possible to present concrete data, particularly for healers and tanks. In lieu of that, cite specific circumstances where the player let the guild down: "Your assigned tank died from normal boss damage during Princes last night" or "The DPS was having trouble staying under your threat against Halion on Monday." Most likely, he'll have an excuse for that specific circumstance, so you'll want to list a few if you can. Don't pile on too much, though. It's a fine line! From those circumstances, you can extrapolate to wider issues such as slow heals or weak threat.

Laying it out

Once you reach the actual advice stage, don't overwhelm the player with information. Go point by point, starting with the most important ideas, and make sure he understands what you're saying before you move on. Allow plenty of time for him to ask questions. You'll need to ask plenty of questions, too, in order to figure out where the problems might lie. Try to keep the conversation flowing back and forth. Doing so will reinforce that this is a collaborative process.

If you sense at any point that the player is getting angry, flustered or upset in any way, end the conversation there. Don't push to a breaking point. For some people, this sort of talk can be intensely emotional. If necessary, follow up with additional information later. At the end of the conversation, emphasize once again that the reason for this is to help him because you enjoy playing with him. Even so, don't expect a thank-you.

Afterward

Once you've had this discussion, check in with him from time to time. Make yourself available and offer to answer any follow-up questions he might have. Obviously, you'll be monitoring his performance closely in the weeks after this talk. Give further constructive feedback based on recent raids about what he's doing particularly well and what still needs improvement.

That's the whole plan. Here's a summary of the nine key steps:
  1. Consider your guild's criticism culture and adapt your approach accordingly.
  2. Plant the seed of taking personal initiative to research and improve play.
  3. Watch for subsequent progress.
  4. If the player makes progress, compliment him, give further tips and continue to look for improvement. If he doesn't make progress, you must choose either to accept him as he is or to proceed.
  5. Find the right time to approach him with constructive criticism.
  6. Establish the reason for the conversation. Be honest, but not "blunt."
  7. Ask whether he is willing to have the conversation.
  8. If not, report his reluctance to the officers and raid leaders. If so, move forward with your advice.
  9. Follow up with him.
Don't get too frustrated if he isn't immediately awesome. You can't turn a player into a raiding superstar overnight. Improving performance is usually more about making a series of small but crucial adjustments rather than making one big change.

Despite what Allen Iverson says, practice is important, too. You should expect to see gradual improvement over time, not all at once. It's also possible that the player will never improve beyond a certain point, no matter how much well-meaning advice he receives or how hard he tries. If his absolute peak is below what's necessary or what's expected, you'll have to make a decision about his raiding future in the guild.

I've had to manage these situations many times myself, and I know just how tough it can be. I wish more players could accept criticism well -- it would certainly make our jobs easier and our raids better. I encourage everyone to be receptive, even if you think you know it all, even if you're a guild leader, a raid leader or a class lead. Put your ego aside. Stop talking for a minute and listen. You just might learn something.

/salute

Read: Destructive criticism, part 1

Send Scott your guild-related questions, conundrums, ideas and suggestions at scott@wow.com. You may find your question the subject of next week's Officers' Quarters!

Filed under: Officers' Quarters (Guild Leadership)

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