Constructive Criticism, What’s The Problem?

I was reading Rhii’s last post about how she felt guilty that something she said was followed by her raid leader’s resignation. Now, Rhii’s a gentle soul and I’d be shocked if she mustered the cruelty to say something so horrid that it would ruin someone’s raid leading confidence. A resignation following something she said was most likely coincidence. So that’s not what made me react. What made me react was her (seemingly) gingerly approach to constructive criticism.

(EDIT: After some clarifications from Rhii, it seems that I misinterpreted her approach to CC, which was in reality: “maybe my guild is going overboard with CC, only pointing out the bad calls and ignoring the good ones”. Which, since they’re a new guild, is sort of normal, they’re just trying to find the best communication style for them. But remember folks, be honest and help each other improve, but don’t forget to raise a glass to the good times! Work hard, party hard!)

Discomfort with constructive criticism is one that I see echoed quite a bit among bloggers and among many players I’ve shared raids with: constructive criticism is hard, it causes drama if you’re not super ultra careful, you need to be an adult to handle it

Are us WoW players so terribly socially inept that the words Contructive Criticism need to be capitalized? Is it such a big deal that we need to warn people about it? That we need to debate the terms and conditions of our constructive criticism?

Constructive Criticism: It’s Everywhere

Remember back in the first grade? That one kid with overzealous parents who already had the curriculum mastered? How he or she would give you tricks like “line up your numbers when adding” and “sound out letters when you read them”?

That was constructive criticism! In the first grade! You didn’t need thick skin or eternal zen to take it, or if you were that kid, amazing social skills to give it, so why is it so hard now? Maybe children are better at constructive criticism than adults are after all.

Constructive Criticism: There are places where it should go without saying

Adults are really touchy about unsolicited advice. Bloggers often debate whether or not to give advice to struggling players in random 5 mans. I don’t believe in giving advice to people unless they ask for it, or unless it’ll make a difference in the instance outcome. (Low level instances are an exception since most players love tricks that make their lives easier.)

I find social raiding groups follow the same pattern as 5 man PuGs: advice or criticism is superfluous unless it’s solicited or involves a small change that will make a huge impact.

Now in a raid group that has killing bosses as efficiently as possible as its main focus… If someone were resistant to advice or constructive criticism, I’d wonder what they were doing here. I don’t think guild policies should even have lines saying “we rely on constructive criticism”. If you don’t want constructive criticism, if you’re not looking for all the help you can get from your teammates, you don’t belong in a progression focused raid group.

(Yes, I realize that constant pressure to improve can be tiring and I 100% support people who realize this and takes breaks when needed.)

Constructive Criticism: It’s NOT stating the obvious

Most of us are taught constructive criticism from kindergarden onwards. But maybe we’re not taught it properly since it seems like so many people have no idea what it is.

Let’s take “You’re standing in the fire“.

That’s not constructive criticism, that’s stating the obvious. In the heat of the moment, “MOVE INSERTNAMEHERE!” is far more helpful. After the moment, “remember to pay attention” is slightly better than “You’re standing in the fire”. Tips to improve situational awareness and reducing tunnel vision are real constructive criticism.

But really, if you die a lot to standing in the fire, you damn well know you stand in the fire and you’re already really annoyed about it. Someone stating WHAT YOU ALREADY KNOW doesn’t fix matters much at all.

Constructive Criticism: It’s NOT harassment

I had a guildy once who used to narrate what he wanted every single person to do, all the time. I remember him in ToC, sending me a flood of whispers of where he wanted me stand, when and where he wanted me to move, which spells I should use and when. He’d healed, like, a raid once and was suddenly an expert. He was a nice guy outside of raids and instances, but he was unbearable to play with.

His interventions weren’t constructive criticism, they were harassment. He wasn’t correcting mistakes or helping anyone. He was attempting to micromanage because he didn’t trust his raid team. He was strongly disliked, not because we had thin skin, but because he was freaking annoying.

Constructive Criticism: It’s NOT abuse

One incident that lead to a /gquit of mine once involved a long term teammate freaking out on me, babbling on and on in unacceptable language about how I was overstepping my boundaries. It wasn’t about performance issues, but it was intended to be feedback on a project I had been asked to do for the guild. But it wasn’t constructive criticism, it was abuse.

Constructive criticism contains some sort of advice. His tirade had no advice, just a temper tantrum over god-knows-what. And even if did have advice, when the intent is to harm instead of help, the behaviour is abuse and not constructive criticism.

We’ve all met fellow players like that. Temper tantrum throwers who try to use the words “constructive criticism” to cover up. I think this is where the mental association between constructive criticism and drama comes from.

I’m a very blunt person myself, so I’m quite tolerant and forgiving of bluntness. But, I have no tolerance or forgiveness for abuse. It’s not about skin texture, it’s about having standards.

Constructive Criticism: You Don’t Need to be Tough to Take it

I have been using “thick/thin skin” throughout this post. I use the expression because it’s what everyone is familiar with. It’s totally ironic because I don’t believe that you need thick skin to take constructive criticism.

You need perspective, you need to have improvement as a goal and you need to be able to tell the difference between helpful and harmful. With those tools, you don’t need thick skin.

Ignore or avoid individuals with harmful intentions. Focus on improvement. Be clear about how you like to spoken to (for example, I’m very open to blunt feedback, but I don’t let anyone raise their voice or swear at me).

And, most importantly, know when to take a break. When feedback you’d normally welcome becomes a huge burden, it’s time to take a few days or a few weeks out of the ring.

Going back to Rhii’s post, I think that’s what her raid leader did: realize that it was time to take a break from crazy raid leading spotlight pressure. And I think Rhii and her guildies should keep encouraging each other to become better players by giving each other constructive criticism.

EDIT: The Sandwich Technique – I was writing about the Sandwich Technique in a comment and thought that maybe I should add a few lines about it to the main post. The Sandwich Technique for constructive criticism involves putting the “criticism” between two slices of “here’s what you’re doing right”. It’s really effective for taking the bite away from the negative points and makes the person receiving criticism more attentive to what you’re saying.

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27 Comments on “Constructive Criticism, What’s The Problem?”

  1. Poneria Says:

    /had comment box open on Rhii’s post
    /had to read last article in feed reader
    /closes Rhii’s post tab without commenting
    /nods in agreement + claps

    • Ophelie Says:

      Oops, I didn’t mean to steal her comments! (I did leave her one myself, but I think I came across more aggressively than I intended since my comment never got approved.)

      The fear of CC comes up so often in the blogosphere and it makes me sad 😦

  2. Rhii Says:

    Well, I’m not sure I made my point clearly in the post. It isn’t that I feel like constructive criticism is some big scary thing or that I’m walking on eggshells to avoid upsetting my guildies, we’ve been really candid with each other and a lot of ideas have been shared – some harebrained some less so (heehee). And a lot of improvements have been made as a result.

    It’s that I felt that although all the criticism we had was absolutely constructive, we were overloaded on criticism of all varieties and a little short on recognition of things done well. I think, and a few people have chimed in and agreed with me, that we were getting intensely frustrated because we all are trying so hard and we needed a little bit of a morale boost.

    BUT! I agree with all your points in this post, too. I’ve been frustrated all my life by work supervisors who want better results but consider “I want to see result X” as constructive advice, when it doesn’t give you any help as to how that result can be achieved. That’s NOT constructive Criticism.

    And I think you’re also right about why raid leaders step down (including mine) but you never really expect to be the catalyst that prompts it. In some ways blogging is just how I process events. I can think a lot more clearly about it now that I haven’t spent the whole night sleeping poorly because I was worried and hadn’t had a chance to think it through yet.

    • Ophelie Says:

      When I saw your post, I had a light go off in my head “OMG I TOTALLY ALWAYS WANTED TO WRITE ABOUT CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM” and your story just made for a perfect background image.

      I was obviously pretty clueless about your guild dynamics (and if you want me to edit anything because I’m off, just let me know, I wasn’t really writing a reply post, just using your post as a prompt). There’s a lot to be said about the “sandwich” technique – putting “to improve” points between two slices of “you’re doing these things great”. It’s difficult to do during a raid since time is of the essence, but it’s something to keep in mind for after raid discussions.

      Since your guild is fairly young and you’re all getting used to each other, I think it’s normal for things to be more touchy and sparky for awhile. I’m sure it’ll all get easier once you know each others’ styles better and establish a guild culture where everyone knows what to expect, what’s normal guild communication and what isn’t.

  3. Mystic Says:

    Constructive Critisism is a difficult subject to approach both in WOW and any other walk of life. Its imperative to improving performance in any area be it job, sport, gaming or anything else. there isn’t a person in the world who can legitimately claim they are perfect in every aspect so everyone can and should seek to use it to improve.

    In my experiance, the main issue is trust, trust is only attained through building relationships, with the individual, the raiding group and the guild. it’s a two way thing, the person giving the feedback needs to ensure its timely and structured correctly (i.e. here’s what could be improved and here’s how to do it, not just “you’re crap, sort it out”), but more importantly the individual receiving it needs to understand and accept that they can _always_ improve on _something_.

    I’d go a step further and say people should be encouraged to actively seek CC. It’s something I’ve always done in my sport, work and wow, it really helps my game & work, it also helps build relationships with the people you’re asking and makes them far more willing to accept CC themselves.

    • Ophelie Says:

      Very true!

      And to add to what you say about trust and relationships, I think it helps a lot to have a good relationship with the person you’re receiving criticism from or giving criticism to. Receiving advice from someone whom you KNOW is competent is always much nicer than receiving advice from a random stranger who may or may not have any clue what they’re talking about or, worse, from a know-it-all who doesn’t know when to mind their own business.

  4. Iris Says:

    If I’m in a PuG I tend to keep my mouth shut about minor annoyances unless something is affecting the success of the group. I was tanking ToT normal on my paladin a while back, and I kept dying. It turned out the druid healer was just spamming rejuv on me (refreshing it every GCD), clearly not understanding how the heal worked. When something like that happens I tend to preface any advice with “I hope you don’t mind me saying” and follow with the advice of “if you tried doing X, Y or Z, things might be a little easier”. I’ve never had a negative reaction to phrasing things like that.

    I think a lot of times when someone welcomes constructive criticism or it is encouraged, people think that means they get carte blanche to just criticise the hell out of someone and nitpick everything. It’s like you said, constructive criticism is mostly about how to GIVE it, not about how to RECEIVE it.

    • Ophelie Says:

      I think there is a certain art about receiving it too – being able to know when to accept someone’s comments and when to say “thanks but you’re not really helping”. Accepting CC shouldn’t mean letting others push you around.

      Completely agree with you on wording. I use that trick too when I need to nudge someone in the right direction in a 5 mans. The words “try” and “would you mind” are like magic sometimes.

  5. […] March 7, 2011 by Analogue Over the weekend I read Rhii’s post about saying what needs to be said – including the positive things! and how innocent comments can lead to drama. And then Bossy Pally’s followup, about taking and giving constructive criticism. […]

  6. Peashooter Says:

    Awesome topic! The sandwich metaphor is awesome; it essentially ensures that your criticism is in fact constructive and not just bitching or blaming. Nobody needs blame in a group or araid; point out the issues, offer honest suggestions, but still keep it to behaviour based activities and not just “You suck!” stuff. Makes the game a whole lot more fun.

    • Ophelie Says:

      The Sandwich Technique is an actual feedback delivery technique. It doesn’t apply to every situation (and if you google “sandwich technique” you’ll find a lot of articles by people who hate it), but I think it’s usually appropriate for recreational activities like WoW. Hearing nothing but “do this, do this, do this” all the time is never any fun!

  7. ladyerinia Says:

    All I can say is hear hear!

  8. Tamek Says:

    I think you did a good job pointing out that constrictive criticism is a good thing/a useful tool, but also how many people do it wrong. There’s a fine line that depends on peoples personalitys that makes it hard to do it right for everyone. Good job though!

    • Ophelie Says:

      When you get right down to basics, a message is either helpful or it isn’t. Now the most efficient, or ideal, way to deliver a message, yes, that changes from individual to individual. I definitely wouldn’t speak the same way to a player in their 60s as I would to a teenager. Or the same way to a complete strangers as I would to a friend I’m very comfortable around.

  9. […] Constructive Criticism, what’s the problem? – Rhii’s post was a catalyst for Ophelle who’s is a bit shocked that many players seem to treat constructive criticism so gingerly that the gingerbread house must be missing its cooking facilities. Ophelle says constructive criticism = a Good thing. She’s also included a few guidelines for what is and isn’t constructive criticism. […]

  10. Stubborn Says:

    I said the same in a comment to Rhii’s post, but I wanted to say it here, too.

    This is an excellent post on the use (and misuse) of constructive criticism that clearly defines what it is and is not, and I think it’s an excellent post for all raiders to read, especially the raid leaders.

    What I would like to see, though, is a look at the other side of the criticism coin. I note here that this was not the point of your post, so I’m not saying “you forgot this.” Not at all. I’m adding a separate but tangentially related comment (what a preface for me to say something so simple; I feel like I’ve built it up too much now).

    Constructive criticism can and should be diluted with positive feedback. Telling players what they did well is as important as telling them how they can improve. This point has been beaten into me in my lifetime of teaching. If you’re only focusing on the negative, then no matter what your intentions are, people are going to start feeling like your comments are “gotchas.”

    From a teacher’s perspective (man this topic is so good I’m going to have to do tomorrow’s post on it), it’s as important to call parents for the good their child does as it is the bad. It establishes a rapport that’s not based on negativity that makes the other phone calls easier to manage. The same is true for raid leaders.

    Great post!

    • Ophelie Says:

      I hope you do write about it! Good teachers are indeed experts when it comes to giving feedback in the most constructive way possible and I know I’d learn a lot from you.

      In this post, I ended up writing from a slightly more “taking CC” perspective than “giving CC” perspective. It wasn’t really intentional, it was one of those impulsive posts that kind of wrote itself. It wasn’t until Rhii commented that it dawned on me that I didn’t write a single thing about “feedback doesn’t always have to be negative”. I do have a post half written on balancing positive and negative feedback but I have no idea whether I’ll get around to finishing it!

  11. SmashNHeal Says:

    BTW, did you know this post made WoW Insider yesterday (The Daily Quest column)?

    Anyway, my take is that I think the main reason that CC (not to be confused with Crowd Control, which is also mis-understood by a portion of the WoW Community) is not understood is that it isn’t a part of our real lives. CC is a part of mentoring, which seems to be a lost concept to the majority of people. The reason? Mentoring takes time and it takes patience. And given society’s love affair with fast food, speed dating, Cliff’s Notes, txt msgs, and any other thing you can think of that is all about quickness, it doesn’t surprise me that mentoring has gone the way of the Dodo Bird.

    With that said, how many WoW players actually want to take part of their time on-line to mentor someone, especially in a PUG? It’s so much easier and faster to call someone a noob in a PUG than to explain the fight, talk about how people should react, and then re-cap after the fight regardless of how it turned out. Every time I try to just explain a boss fight for someone new, it is inevitable that some “seasoned” DPS gets impatient and types ‘gogogogo’. I understand that raids with guildies is a different scenario, but still, a lot of the educational portion of learning how to play better is done outside of the raid. I don’t know the solution, but if I do, I’ll write a book based on the concept for the professional world and become a millionaire.

    • Ophelie Says:

      What you say is so so true. Now that I think of it, I wonder if the reason that constructive criticism is a normal part of life to me is because I’ve always worked/studied in fields (psychology/special education, and now pharmacy) where we’re constantly mentored and, once we’ve got enough experience, we mentor others.

      I did notice the WoW Insider link when my spam box blew up ^_^. I rarely get spam so I was scratching my head there until I figured out what was going on!

  12. Overall, it seems that constructive criticism is a rare commodity. yet so many folks seem to *think* they are, in fact, giving it.

    • Ophelie Says:

      I suspect assholes intentionally use the term “constructive criticism” to cover up their assholeness.

      I was probably spoiled in my last guild. While they weren’t perfect, they were pretty good with post-raid debriefings and immediate feedback during run backs. So I took it for granted and I’m always shocked when I hear how many other raiding guilds are either too aggressive to be helpful or are totally chicken about confrontation.

  13. Gina Says:

    Great article and so true!

    But in the end we need to learn the balance and part of the communication process is learning the ebb and flow of the people you are around (and them to us), things aren’t always black and white there are many shades of gray especially with emotions involved.

    Every guild / group has their own dynamic, but in the end I’m proud of my team. There’s plenty of times I’ve not communicated the best out of frustration in the heat of the moment but being mature and looking at the circumstances helps to put things in perspective for all of us to not overreact.

    Then again I work in communications so try to always look at all sides hehe

    • Ophelie Says:

      I’m sure no one is a perfect communicator all the time! We all have our shortcomings and our snappy-stressed out moments. I think its important to separate things said out of heat of the moment from things said out of spite. And besides, sometimes the things we say out of frustration make for very funny stories afterward!

  14. Nefernet Says:

    I don’t know exactly if what my guild is doing is constructive criticism. I think we are quite bad at it actually, but because we can’t word it nicely, not because we don’t criticise…

    We have the habit of calling everything that goes wrong in raid. It’s rarely nice not carefully said. Like you said, it’s more like “MOVE YOU PRIEST ! *expletive deleted* “.

    We discuss what went wrong or how to do better during wipe recoveries, sometimes it’s quite heated discussions. It’s not always the best timing, but that’s how we work.

    Many of our first downs were made after a big good shooting at each other on TS. Pretty strange. It’s always awkward to explain this to someone wanting to join our guild.

    I also think we need a really strong bond between us to afford this kind of behaviour. The way our warrior tank gives criticism would have put me off for a long time, but from that particular raging canned meatshield, I don’t mind. Anyone else saying it the way he does would get a strong virtual slap in the face and a gquit/gkick. Anyone surviving his test period with him around is worth the guild…

    I think the way we deal with it is that, on the moment, it’s not fun nor pleasant, but it’s useful because people take the critic, swallow their pride, and improve, and you see the result immediately. But afterwards, it’s all forgotten, we joke about it “Remember that day you did that stupid mistake ?” “Yeah I wiped the raid, *insert RL name here* was pissed, hahaha !”.

    We also speak aloud when someone did great. Good dps (we always praise people who get ranked on WoL), nice saving from a healer, good tanking, genius move, is always called out too. We are actually working on Al’Akyr HM and some people did great moves during first phase and got “Oh you sold me dream there !” from the RL.

    Maybe people from the outside may think we are arrogant, but it’s the way we are. We are not delicate between ourselves and don’t let room for mediocrity. Generally, people don’t always understand and some hate us for that. We experienced a gkick from our previous 25-man guild because of that before founding our own guild. It’s easier to do criticism in a small guild where you find like-minded people, than in big 25-man guilds were people are often from different backgrounds, and more or less friends. There, you need to be more careful.

    I think criticism can be given without really formatting between people who see themselves as peers. If not, then you need to put form in it. You won’t give/take criticism to/from your best friend the same way you would give/take it to/from your boss or your students.

    • Ophelie Says:

      Sorry it took so long for me to answer!

      What you described reminds me a lot of my earlier days with Conquest. The first times I heard them cursing and yelling at each other, I froze up and wanted to crawl under my bed. But just like your guild, a lot of the team’s best performances were when the guys were pissed off at each other. It shocked me at first, but they were respectful of the fact that I don’t like to be yelled or sworn at personally (I didn’t care if they yelled or swore at each other- whatever works for them) and, as one of the guys pointed out, it’s nice that the team is tight enough to be able to rip each other apart during the raids and not take it personally. I was actually really sad when the guild mellowed out.

      It is possible in a 25 man, but it does take people who are pretty comfortable with each other and have the right kind of personality.

      I think setting makes a difference too- heated moments are a natural part of intense gaming, but losing it in, say, a post-raid discussion thread doesn’t usually go over as well.

  15. […] the many people around the sphere talking about criticism in all its forms, I thought I’d chime in, as […]

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