Criticism in Guilds

Alright, I’m back from my vacation. If I run out of things to post, I might actually torture you with vacation impressions. You’re in luck though, because for today, I have a topic to write about. Like many of my posts, it started as a comment on a blog, but grew enough that I told myself, “wait a second, this is getting unwieldy enough for a comment to become a blog post on its own”.

I’ve been following Stubborn’s blog for some time. It’s been interesting to read about his experiences with his (now ex-) guild. I won’t say too much about that part; it’s water under a bridge by now, in a way. It didn’t work out, and I’m sure (or at least hope) that Stubborn sees it the same way, and won’t linger too much on “how it could maybe have turned out better”. Better to look into the future.

What I want to talk about (and what has been discussed to a certain point in that blog post’s comments) is an excerpt from his recent blog post (link below the quote):

That’s something that a lot of more casual guilds lack: the willingness to put players’ performance out there. It may be because they’re worried about people taking it personally[.] […] [I]n some of my guilds it’s just not considered acceptable. That baffles me; don’t people who are doing poorly want to know specific ways in which to improve? Of course, the fallacy there is that not everyone thinks the same way I do or wants to play the game the way I do.

Stubborn, of course, already hints at the problem with this, but I think he dances around the problem, as seem to do most commenters. They point out that some people are too touchy and can’t accept criticism, but also that some people voice criticism in the form of personal attacks.

I’d go a step further and say that the very same criticism can be both at the same time, to different people. People just have very different thresholds for criticism. And that doesn’t only apply to the point at which they get offended (I’ll call it the “tolerance threshold”), but also the point at which they start noticing hints and are able to apply the criticism constructively (which I’ll call the “response threshold”). So to provide effective, constructive criticism, you’ll have to take that into account. There are (at least) two factors at play here: tone and audience.

Regarding tone, some people are accustomed to strong responses. They are fine with and even prefer direct, sometimes even curt, factual criticism, will say “yessir”, and apply it. Others will shy away from the strong authority inherent to that tone, even become defensive. To reach those people, you are better off making sure you stay below the tolerance threshold. You will notice that those more easily offended people often have a low response threshold, too. It’s not necessary to be quite as direct. They will pick up the hints in what you say, and act accordingly, often improving quite well, because they don’t feel the pressure they might feel from a curt criticism.

Therefore, it’s often good to start soft. In one guild I was in, we had different people for the different approaches, because everybody’s best at one type of tone. I was typically the guy who tried it with careful hinting first, because I generally was quite okay at that. If that didn’t help, somebody else with a more direct approach took over, because they were better at being direct and potentially more confrontational.

The second factor is audience. Criticizing people in front of others is, by its nature, a more confrontational approach than private feedback. Therefore, if at all possible, I try to give criticism, even constructive factual one, in private rather than in public. Public criticism can very easily be perceived as humiliation in front of your peers. Private criticism is eye-to-eye and feels more like a discussion between peers, while public criticism easily has a component of power play, because the criticizing person can be perceived as being in a superior position to the criticized.

Of course, it can be quite hard to properly do private criticism in a raiding environment. You don’t want to wait with feedback until the end of the night, when you’re on your own, because you preferably want to give feedback before the next pull. So that only leaves public voice channels, or whispers. Which, in a time-constrained raiding atmosphere, make proper communication and tone problematic. So there’s a bit of a trade-off here. Some stuff isn’t so vital that it can’t wait until the end of the raid. In that case, it’s a good idea to just wait until then. A raid is already a stressful environment (if it’s progression, for all members; if it’s about a new member, even the simplest raid will be stressful to them while they adapt to the new environment; and so on). If possible, save yourself and the other person the additional stress and postpone criticism until after the raid.

Of course, it’s a fine line, and it doesn’t mean to ignore or postpone everything. Sometimes you just need to say, “Dude/Dudette, I know it looks pretty, but get out of the fucking fire!” (see what I did there? always add some light joke. bonus points for self-depreciation!)

So yeah, bottom line of my opinion: consider tone and audience in your criticism. Start easy and escalate from there. But that’s just my opinion, maybe there’s a reason I’ve never been a guild leader (not that I would ever want to do that, officer was more than enough for me, thank you!).

6 thoughts on “Criticism in Guilds

  1. Excellent post. I really like the implementation of “tolerance” and “response” thresholds. I completely agree that correctly identifying those in your audience should help you set the tone, and, more commonly, that people in a position of authority fail to do that well.

    The apparent tone-deafness of the community as a whole can no doubt be largely attributed to the fact that most people believe others should think like they do, and as a result, will most often craft criticisms in a way that’s most useful to themselves. Instead, taking time to really evaluate who your target is can certainly make the difference in how the criticism is perceived.

    I’ll point out, though, that at times that’s nearly impossible. As a composition teacher, I’ve spent many, many years trying to carefully perfect the art of criticism, especially now that I’m teaching developmental students who have very fragile writing-self-esteems. Even now, with more than a decade in, I occasionally misjudge people’s thresholds. In those situations, I often stick to being polite and honest, since my role in a class is different than a raid leader’s role in a guild.

    In fact, that may be an interesting topic to write on.

    Thanks for the pingback, and great post!


    1. Thanks for the kind words!

      You have a very good point there. It’s generally very hard to gauge the correct response in every single situation. A lot of what I’m drawing is an ideal picture, which you don’t have in the real world. I myself have noticed that when I worked with students, too. It means that sometimes, I start too low on the threshold and crank it up too slowly, don’t get any response, and get frustrated, then overshoot the target. It’s a thing you definitely need to learn, and that you can only work towards perfecting without ever reaching that perfection.

      Your other point, that we often tend to do things the way we’d like them done is, in a way, the dark side of the golden rule. Being able to figure out what different views on a topic there are is another incredibly difficult problem. The fact that most of us have a more or less homogeneous peer group that shares a large fraction of our opinions on political and social topics and what productive ways are towards these targets only exacerbates the problem. I try to always see the other position, but sometimes it can be so alien to you that it’s hard to fully understand it.

      Go ahead and write about it, it sounds like an interesting topic!

  2. That’s how our little snowball got rolling too – a guild leader who came out of the gate with a hard tone, in front of an audience that included a significant chunk of the guild. Even if you discount the resulting implosion that cost the clan a half dozen good players, it was just a bad way to handle things.

    Lets turn it around a moment and talk instead about the criticism of the guild leadership – if anything this can be even touchier, regardless of the audience. It certainly was in my case and seems to be in Stubborn’s as well.

    The other factor here is – what grounds for criticism is there in a game? The grounds are only viable if the stakes are significant, and often they are not. Sometimes the judgment error can occur not in taking the wrong tone or misreading the audience – sometimes it was in the decision to give critical feedback in the firstplace.

    1. When you talk about “criticism of the guild leadership”, I assume you mean “criticizing the guild leadership” (as opposed to “criticism by the guild leadership”)? I guess in that case it depends on how close-knit and small the group is. Then again, if it’s close-knit enough that the hierarchy is flat and the difference between leadership and members is minimal, you probably have fewer of these problems anyway.

      So yeah, if you criticize the leadership, you probably want to keep those points in mind, too. In my opinion, audience is even more important here, because you don’t want to criticize them in front of other members, because it can question their authority. Unless, of course, as in your case, the abuse of authority is the main problem, in which case you might as well try to get some audience. Especially in your case, it just seemed like the fight was lost from the beginning, because leadership abused their authority and were unwilling to listen to voices that pointed that out.

      Your second point, about whether or not to voice criticism at all, is also a good one. This, more so than how to point out criticism, seems to me like a fundamental difference in guild attitude and goals. A guild that doesn’t want any criticism on the performance of other members, even if it is voice carefully, light-heartedly, and constructively, cannot expect to progress through content effectively. That is completely fine if content progression is of no interest to the members: it’s obviously a very viable way to play the game, just by leveling some alts, running lower level or tier dungeons, and socialize. The right people in the right group can have a lot of fun that way. However, such a group cannot expect to ever progress into harder raids or pvp content. (If they do, they’re probably all just naturals, and that would be a very rare exception.) This would be very different even from an “inclusive” raiding guild, where I would expect everybody to be able to accept criticism that is appropriate to their current level of play. Of course, you can’t expect a player who has so far only done LFR-difficulty raids to perform well in heroic modes immediately. If you call him out for seven things he did wrong all at once, you’ll probably end up overloading him. It’s like trying to dump university-level linear algebra onto a fifth-grader who so far just learned how to solve a simple linear equation with one unknown. You can learn all of that, but you need time.

  3. Oh, one more thing that just came to my mind: content for feedback can also be important. If you tell people to not stand in the fire for fifteen times a night, there might be an underlying problem. Most people will understand that fire is bad. So instead of pointing out the obvious (“don’t stand in the fire”) try to work with them and figure out why they’re standing in it. I guess that comes back to being constructive in your criticism.

    It can be as simple as someone reducing their video quality to get better performance. Some WoW fights were infamous for not drawing ground effects that could kill you if you reduced video quality too much. Another example: one thing that I had problems with on some fights was not to move out of the fire, but to move in patterns that allowed you to stay out of fire for the whole fight. In some cases, fire follows you and you need to kite it, and if you kite the wrong way, you end up cornering yourself. Or you focus so much on running out of an area with an incoming effect that you, by mistake, don’t move out in a straight line, but tangentially, and therefore don’t make it. If you are told to “be faster” moving out, you’ll never solve that problem, because you move as early and fast as you can – but in the wrong direction!

  4. Usually when I try to drop hints I do it in the “oh I’m so silly fashion”. Like, “man, I keep getting set on fire. I really should stay further away from those flamer guys” or “ohh I do more damage if I hit its face? Guess I’ll stop shooting its crotch then!”

    Everyone else then goes “LOL – yerp, you are an idiot!” but they catch on if they were doing the same mistake (even if I wasn’t, or did it intentionally… or like… really did it by mistake). 😛

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