Since learning about their frustrations I've tried hard to reform a lot of our guild and raid structure to try and reach that magic middle ground where our casual members can have their easy going farm runs and the hardcore players can have their progression. Over the course of the next several months we made huge leaps and bounds of improvements. I did what I could to try and get the guild's officer staff all on one page about everything. I removed myself from raid leading and gave a few others a chance in the spotlight in hopes for improvement. We started separating some of our runs as progression and casual. And for a while, it seemed like everything was looking up.
Recently while we were raiding one of the officers said something to me that made me believe that this whole ordeal isn't quite over yet. I know that the channel still exists and is still in use [. . .]. I know everyone gets frustrated from time to time, and venting your frustrations to your friends can be an easy and great solution to getting over it. I simply feel like I may be taking this too personally as I thought I was a part of that circle, but apparently I'm not. The big dilemma I cannot solve is whether this channel and it's purpose is serving a greater good by allowing them to vent their frustrations while I can ignorantly continue trying to improve our guild, or if it is a sign of growing discontent that I need to address?
First of all, congrats on your one-year anniversary! That's no small feat in WoW these days.
Now, to the matter at hand. I can tell through your careful language here that you feel a bit hurt and betrayed by this channel, particularly since some of your long-time guildmates have been making use of it. That's OK. It's natural to feel that way.
Your initial response to it was quite measured and mature, and you seem to have averted a crisis. Make no mistake: Progression is always a "huge issue" for a raiding guild -- those who believe it isn't are deceiving themselves. Everyone has their own idea about what acceptable progression is. Likewise, everyone has their own threshold for how much progression can stall before it starts to bother them. The hardcore players in your guild will typically have a shorter fuse for this than the casual members. But even casual players have a limit, even if it takes months to get there, where they say "enough is enough." They may just stop raiding rather than leaving the guild altogether, but no one wants to slam into a brick wall indefinitely.
By taking the actions that you did, it seems like you've managed to keep both types of players happy for a while. Guilds that mix both types often struggle with progression and player retention. It sounds like you've been doing pretty well overall.
However, the fact that the channel still exists -- indeed, that it even existed in the first place -- is troubling. I wonder why these players feel like they need to discuss such matters privately? It's problematic that they don't feel comfortable talking about guild issues with you directly.
The first step toward addressing this problem is making sure everyone in the guild knows you are willing to discuss any issue with them. Encourage an atmosphere of open communication. Part of this is detaching your emotional response from your verbal response. When someone comes to you with a criticism of your leadership, you can't let hurt feelings or anger cloud your communication. Even if you strongly disagree with their criticism, you need to respond to them in such a way that promotes future communication. Fortunately, you seem like the kind of person who would be able to handle this.
Part of this encouragement can be direct. You can whisper individual players known to frequent the channel and ask them for input about the guild's current situation. I assume they know you know about the channel. If they don't, you may want to tell them that you know about it and be honest about what you're doing and why. Don't be afraid to say you don't like the fact that this channel exists. They have to understand how such a thing would make someone feel. However, don't demand that they shut it down. That will only encourage them to make a new one, or, even worse, it may force their hand to act on whatever plans they've been discussing, such as taking all the guild's hardcore raiders and forming a new guild.
For the second step, start a thread on your guild's message board laying out some of these concerns that you've been hearing from your players. (Don't say where the criticisms came from -- just acknowledge that such issues have been brought to you.) Explain how you plan to fix those issues. Ask your members to help you. Also, ask for suggestions about other ways to overcome obstacles and improve the guild. Promote honesty, along with respect. Hopefully, you will bring the critical issues out in the open and the guild will be able to have a mature discussion about them.
By doing so, you can rob the private channel of its power. If you can tease out the critical issues into the public realm and give a forum for those players who are unhappy about the guild's state, then the channel will be redundant.
The other problem this channel creates is the cliques of those who belong to it and those who don't. Clique-busting is very difficult. Often, actively trying to break up such a clique just winds up fracturing the guild. A better approach is to create guild events that don't involve raiding. Have contests that involve luck and brain power rather than gear and DPS, and offer prizes that are juicy enough to entice your guild's elite.
When players can mingle in a low-stress situation outside of raiding, they're less likely to focus on differences in skill or attitude and more likely to enjoy one another's company for its own sake. Petty squabbles seem less important. Common ground becomes more apparent. Events like this can boost morale across several fronts. They require time, effort and resources, but they can be well worth it.
Once the issues at hand have been dealt with, the private channel may continue to exist. I don't recommend intervening with it directly. As you say, it can be helpful for players to vent in private from time to time. Thus, it does serve a useful purpose. However, make sure that everyone in the guild is aware, moving forward, that you'd rather confront the guild's problems with direct, open communication. Continue to solicit suggestions every now and then to remind members a.) that you can handle criticism and b.) that you genuinely care about their concerns. Good luck, Anonymous!
On a personal note, a number of people have been asking when and if electronic versions of The Guild Leader's Handbook will be available. You'll be happy to know that an ebook version in multiple formats is now available for download at nostarch.com, along with a print/ebook bundle, should you desire both formats.
Send Scott your guild-related questions, conundrums, ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may find your question the subject of next week's Officers' Quarters!