I thought I’d break from the Cataclysm stuff with an old post I’ve finally got round to finishing.
A concept that crops up from time to time, particularly in raiding circles, is the idea of “constructive criticism”. A vast majority of guild charters and guild applications will mention a willingness to accept criticism somewhere within them, but what do we mean by “constructive criticism”? What does it look like? And how do we make sure we’re giving it?
First, let’s look at “criticism”.
Criticism is the judgement of the merits and faults of the work or actions of an individual or group by another (the critic). To criticize does not necessarily imply to find fault.
(Emphasis mine, Source)
Criticism is simply an analysis and judgement, it is not automatically negative or fault-finding only. That’s a key point to remember.
Now for the “constructive” part.
Constructive criticism is criticism kindly meant that has a goal of improving some area of another person’s life or work.
(Emphasis mine, Source)
What makes it constructive is that the criticism is meant to help the recipient improve. It does not say anything about the content of the criticism.
What does it look like?
I’ll illustrate this with a hypothetical example.
Your guild has recently taken on a new recruit of your class, who says in their application that they always welcome constructive criticism. It’s been noticed that they seem to be struggling with mana and going OOM a lot, calling for Innervates a lot more than the other healers.
Let’s say that you’re asked by an Officer for an appraisal of that player; they want to know about the new recruit to evaluate their trial. At this point you’re still probably in the realm of simple criticism. Your feedback to the Officer might be quite brief and factual, for example:
This player seems to be fitting in well, asking questions in the healing channel.
They stick to their assignment well.
They put out good healing on the meters but they do seem to have mana problems, calling for a lot more innervates than I usually do.
Recall the definitions above. From the definition of criticism, note that there’s both positives and negatives in there, and some judgement, but the feedback is pretty objective and factual. There’s no real attempt to help the person improve, which would be required to meet the definition of constructive.
Now, imagine that the Officer asks you to have a chat with the recruit to see if you can help them with any mana problems they might be having. Now the purpose for your feedback has changed: you’re interested in helping them improve, which is where the constructive part comes in. So your feedback to the recruit might look something like:
It’s really nice that you’re fitting in here so well during your trial.
I’ve noticed that you seem to be using a lot of Innervates though and I wondered if we can help you out. Do you find mana a problem in raids? Why you think why this might be? What do you think of this alternative spec?
It’s also really good to be able to rely on you to cover your assignment in raids.
I know that sounds a bit stilted, it would be much better as a conversation than a single message to the recruit, but it does illustrate a few points that I’ll look at later. The difference between the two examples is that in the constructive example the intention is clearly to help the person improve.
Giving constructive feedback
I can’t hope to offer a pro forma for giving feedback, and you need to use your judgement about the situation and the people involved, but there are a few general guidelines that might help.
- Choose your moment – Criticism should be given close to the event so that it’s fresh in everyone’s mind, but doing it in the heat of the moment when emotions might be running high is unlikely to get the desired results. You also need to allow enough time for a decent conversation, including thinking time.
Use your judgement: if someone’s standing in fire, mention it between pulls; if someone’s underhealing, that might be better saved for between raids.
- Include praise – Some people talk about the “sandwich technique”, where you surround your criticism with praise before and after. I’ve done this in my hypothetical example above, and it looks a little bit odd written down like that, but in a real report or conversation it’s easy enough to end on a high note. The recipient’s attitude to the whole of the feedback is shaped by the tone of the first few exchanges or sentences, so you should start positive; the mood they’re left with is influenced by the last things that were said.
- Address the area that needs improvement, but don’t criticise the person. – This can be a very tricky line to walk at times. It’s fine to observe that someone runs out of mana a lot, but you must not judge the person as a “bad player” or “fail” because of it. Think of those “How to raise your little horror” TV shows: you can, and should, tell your child that setting fire to the cat is unacceptable because animals have feelings too, but just labelling the child as “a naughty child” is not useful.
- Ask questions – The best way to remain objective and avoid the recipient feeling like you’re picking on them is to let them do most of the talking. Sometimes the best way to help is to ask a really insightful question that gets right to the heart of the issue. For example, rather than saying “you should use this spec”, ask them for their thoughts on the spec or a blog post talking about it. By doing this, you get to make a suggestion, but you also give the recipient a route to refute that suggestion.
The other advantage of asking questions is that you reduce the risk of simply telling people what they already know, which can come across as patronising.
- Focus on solutions, not causes – While it’s important to understand what’s going on, your goal in giving the criticism is to help the person improve, so move on quickly from the problem to solutions. This also helps to keep the discussion positive and focused on the future.
Where possible, the soltions should also be phrased positively: instead of “stop using spell X”, have the solution as “use more spell Y”. It sounds corny, but it does make a difference.
- Be objective – Your only agenda should be to help the person improve, so you need to keep your own prejudices quiet. Don’t just push your solution on the person, but work with them to find the right solution for them.
And make sure that the solution can be objectively assessed later, so that when you come to do follow-up (you do intend to follow up, right?) you can keep your future judgements objective as well.
Dealing with defensiveness
Sometimes, despite your best intentions, you might not get the response you’re looking for, and the most common response to feedback is defensiveness, where the recipient of the feedback refuses to listen or might even become angry.
In my experience, the first thing you should do is stop and step back; pressing on is likely only going to antagonise the person further. Wait a while, and you might find that point you were making might be taken anyway, once everyone’s emotions have faded and the recipient can consider your words more calmly. They may approach you again, or work out a solution on their own.
If you get no results from this though, you have two main options. The first is trying again, using a different medium. Changing the medium will also almost certainly alter the tone of the conversation: a whisper is less personal than Ventrilo, while a PM allows the recipient to take their time in dealing with it and can relieve a lot of pressure they might feel.
The second option is to have a different person try. Sometimes it can be a personality clash, or it could be your position in the guild, your gender, nationality, or one of many factors that causes the recipient to respond differently to you than to someone else.
Some people get very defensive if someone not of their class/role tries to offer criticism, while others might get defensive around someone who is the same class/role because of some percieved competition.
I’ll freely admit I’m not the best at people management, so I would really welcome comments from other people about how they deal with giving feedback, be it in the form of advice or anecdotes.
Have you had to give feedback? Did it go well? Did it go badly? How do you take feedback yourself?