Latest in Gaming

Image credit:

Officers' Quarters: Destructive criticism

Scott Andrews

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.

In the day-to-day duties of an officer and a raid leader, few endeavors are more fraught with the potential for drama than doling out performance advice to your players. Constructive criticism, no matter how well-meaning, can become destructive in the blink of an eye if it's not approached delicately. After scaring off a healer, the officer who wrote this week's email is looking for a better way to deal with these situations.


As an officer in my guild, I take care of several things, but the big three are raid leading our second 10-man group (which is not easy as a healer, by any stretch of the imagination), making sure our priests are doing what they are supposed to be doing both as dps and healers, and any extra healers, making sure they're doing their job right. The first two are interesting enough, especially since there's very little consistency with our group, and our number of priests waxes and wanes with the seasons. But the big problem here is when I have to "fix" a healer. Now, I know no one likes to receive constructive criticism, and officers like even less to give the constructive criticism for fear of running off the guild member.

Recently, I've had to talk to two different healers to try to help them out with their healing, one was a holy priest, the other a restoration shaman. Now, I have some pretty hefty experience with both classes as healers (I have two max level priests, and a max level shaman, and I've healed in raids on all of them), so I find myself at least somewhat knowledgeable about the classes, but by no means do I consider myself an expert. I'll leave that to Elitist Jerks. At any rate, the two healers, after speaking with them separately in tells, I found that the priest was more willing to work with the suggestions I'd made, and there was a huge improvement the following night in our raid. The shaman, however, was very adverse to my suggestions. Here's where the meat of the problem comes in.

I am by nature a blunt type of person. However, I also am looked at by a lot of people as being very reasonable (which is was got me into the officer position to begin with). The problem is that when it comes to having to give out advice of this nature, I don't know how to do it without sounding too brash. I practically begged the shaman to give me some sort of feedback, or ask any questions, and got no response. Then, without a word, he /gquit the next day without talking to any officers. To further the problem, he's told different people different things (what he's told our officers is consistent, but what he told another guildmate is totally a separate deal). What concerns me is that when he spoke to one of our other non-officer guildmates, he mentioned that it was due to criticism of his healing. I can't really give actual chat logs, but I am wondering if this might possibly be a way that I put it to him (in which case, how do I fix this?), or more likely, is it just that the shaman needs to get a thicker skin?


Confused Healing Officer

CHO, as you are most likely already aware, there is a huge difference between solicited advice and unsolicited advice. Solicited advice is often a walk in the park. The player is, by default, already willing to hear you out and interested in improving his game. All you have to do is avoid going out of your way to insult that player and you can have a productive conversation.

Unsolicited advice, on the other hand, is incredibly difficult to deliver well. That's what you were trying to do with these players. Much depends on the attitude of the person receiving it, and sometimes a poor reaction simply can't be helped no matter how reasonably you deliver the advice. That may have been the case with your resto shaman. Without knowing what was said, I can't really make a judgment. However, another player responded to you with the complete opposite reaction. That fact leads me to believe that the issue is with them and not you. Still, it's possible you could improve your delivery.

An example

Let's look at an example from my own guild. I have a rogue in my guild who has since stopped playing WoW. He was not an officer, but he was one of the most skilled players that we had. As such, he consistently topped the charts, rarely made mistakes and was a key player in many guild-first boss kills. His problem, when trying to help other players in the guild to play better, is that he often chose his words and timing poorly.

He would often begin by asking someone why they were doing one thing instead of another. His intent was to get them to question the reasons behind a decision that they may not have thought about before, but this tactic immediately put them on the defensive. Then when he suggested that they do something his way instead, it made them feel like he was tricking them into giving the wrong answer so he could tell them they were doing it wrong. Even worse, he'd often do this between boss attempts when people weren't ready for it and there was no time for a conversation.

Some people could handle it; they respected his skill and were willing to listen in order to perform better. Others would become irate. On one occasion, another rogue in the guild whispered me, "Tell [that player] that I know how to play my class." This other rogue consistently performed less well and probably could have benefited from his fellow rogue's advice, but he was not willing to accept it as it was given. Instead, he took offense because of the delivery.

The chart-topping rogue also became frustrated. He had spent hours researching the best ways to maximize his damage, and in his mind, he was just trying to share the fruit of that research with other players in the guild. "Why," he asked me, "does everyone get mad when I try to help them?" The answer I gave him was this: "You have to think more about how you deliver the message, so you don't come across as pompous or condescending. You also have to plan your timing carefully, to extend the advice at a moment when the person is better able to absorb it."

I'll get into these topics next week. The first thing you should do is think about your guild's criticism culture.

Criticism culture

Every guild has its own "criticism culture." By that I mean how often player performances are evaluated and discussed -- and thus how prepared a player might be to have such a conversation.

If you play in a guild that doesn't emphasize progression, then criticism may be quite rare. It's even possible that players you're approaching have never really thought about performance issues before. Questioning their skill level or their techniques can broadside them, immediately making them uncomfortable with the topic. That, in turn, increases the chances that they'll become angry, fearful or upset. In this type of criticism culture, you often won't get very far with the direct approach.

In this setting, it's best to spend time easing a player into the idea of researching performance-related topics. Mention to him some resources that have helped you. Sometimes all you need to do is to point him in the right direction to find the information that can help. Then see if he obtains the information on his own and begins to improve that way.

If you play in a progression guild, on the other hand, it's likely that criticism happens quite frequently. The problem in this culture occurs when a player thinks he already knows all the answers and that you couldn't possibly tell him anything he doesn't already know. This attitude presents its own difficulties. In this case, you should initially approach the conversation as a discussion between equals, not as you telling him "how to play." Explain to him that you've discovered some helpful tips. Give the source and talk about how taking these steps has helped you to play better. Don't even go so far as to suggest this other player do the same thing; it's already implied. The person may respond with, "I think my way is better regardless." That's often the first instinct. Later on, he may notice you topping the meters or see you survive a particularly tough boss phase, and he may decide to do some research of his own to see if you were right.

I call these two techniques "planting the seed." Your goal at this stage is to avoid ruffling feathers but also to get the person at least thinking about what he could do to improve. Most players fall somewhere between these two extremes (clueless and know-it-all). You'll have to judge which approach is best as a starting point, if you have reason to believe that a direct critique will be poorly received.

Very often, systematic problems in a player's game can't be "fixed" in a single conversation. For this week, I've laid out the first two steps in my constructive criticism strategy:
  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.
These steps are just the beginning. There's much more to talk about regarding this topic, so tune in next Monday!


Read: Destructive criticism, part 2

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

From around the web

ear iconeye icontext filevr