Friday, September 17, 2010

Copping it sweet: taking criticism as a leader

It has been a long day at work or school.  You get home, ready to organise your guild into what is going to be the most epic adventure of their pixelated lives, because tonight you are going to finish that raid instance.  Last night went really well and your team is all prepped and ready to go.  But for some reason, it's not coming together; people are standing in fires, adds are not being managed, people are pulling aggro and there are a lot of people dying to dumb stuff.... and you lose your cool.  You were so sure that you were going to get that boss down and so was the rest of the guild.  Tempers start to flare and people start criticising each other, both fairly and unfairly, and then someone finally turns their criticism to you.  A flood of blame comes your way as everyone unloads all the pent up frustrations in a full blown attack fest at you.

What did you do to deserve that and how do you deal with it?

I am making a few generalisations in here, please remember that they are exactly that - generalisations.  There will always be exceptions!

How did it get to this point?
Well, you probably didn't do anything much at all.  The thing is, being "in charge" means that people are much more loathe to approach you with issues about you.  You might hear whisperings that you are unapproachable, or that things are not well, or general disquiet.  Most people don't feel comfortable going straight to the person they have the issue with, they will prefer a third party to talk to for validation of their feelings.  In just about every other case, that third person will be within the leadership group.  When the issue is about the leadership group, it is much more likely that the person will ask their fellow what they think about the leaders.  This will start to spread dissent in the ranks.  People will swallow those thoughts because on the whole, you are probably a good person and working hard for the guild and trying to do your best by everyone.  So, they won't say anything.  The thoughts build up until some event snaps someone and it all comes pouring out - either in a raid, on the forums, in guild chat, in vent... something will open the flood gates.  It can be overwhelming to endure and it will hurt, no matter how much you think this is just a game.  It might be one person unloading or might be more than one.  It doesn't matter, the effect is still the same.

What on earth is happening?
Ok, you had a bad day, so you are possibly overreacting.  The hardest thing right now is the thing you have to do - don't take it personally.  Don't yell back, don't name call, don't do anything negative.  Let them have a vent at you, because they need it.  One thing about this being an online game is that you can not respond and no one will know that you are actually out the back punching a tree (yep, one of my guild mates does that, it is quite hilarious).  You can shoot steam out your ears, get it ALL out of your system and then take a deep breath and talk calmly, nicely and politely to the person going apeshit at you.  You must not take them personally, I cannot over state this enough.  You need to be ready to listen to them - no matter if they are being reasonable or not.  If they are name calling, let them finish, but you cannot react in kind.  They need to say the things they are saying and they need to be heard by you.  Give them respect and time.

Handle with care
This situation is an opportunity to really shine with leadership, to really cement that you are the right person for the job.  These people who are upset and angry with you are presenting you with a chance to really make them loyal to you and the guild.  How you deal with the situation could make or break your time as a leader, because this will not only affect those criticising you, but those who are not criticising you will be judging you silently. 

Batter up!
The first thing you need to do is identify within yourself the problems they are expressing - There is no easy way to explain this other than to try to put yourself in the other person's shoes.  How might you be perceived?  Get yourself in a receptive mode for criticism (hopefully it will be constructive, but don't bet on it)  Really get them to open up and explain what they are talking about if you are at all unsure about it.   Remember, whether they were right or wrong about your intentions, you need to understand how they perceive you.  Be prepared to hear some hard things - this is not going to be easy.  Taking criticism, let alone criticism not necessarily delivered in the best way, is hard at the best of times.  Give yourself credit for getting this far without resorting to gkicking everyone who is dissenting!  And don't forget, you have emotional and tactical support in ochat or in whispers to a fellow sympathetic officer.  Use them to get another view and to get a sanity check.

You pitch...
Get examples from them about what you have done and what they thought about that.  If they cant give an example, get them to talk in general terms about the general issue.  It is completely ok for them not to have an example, but to be caught up in an impression of someone as this impression colours every interaction you have with them.  Once you have established the boundary of their grievance, you need to very quickly assess whether or not you intended. There are 2 major outcomes to this situation, either the guildie is suffering from miscommunication in some way, or they are out of line.  The former means you need to do some work on your communication skills, the latter means they might not be suitable for you guild.

They swing....

Are the examples and impression they have of you not what you want from your guild members?  Are they misinterpreting things you are saying and doing? Once they are a bit calmer, talk to them about their impression and what you actually meant.  Listen to them and try to understand how they came to the conclusion they did. 

Outcome 1: Home Run!
Ask them how you can improve your communication to help them enjoy their time in your guild.  Give them the opportunity and the power to make a change in guild culture.  Make sure you are humble, and apologise for not realising the frustration you are causing.  Take the faults back onto yourself, but also don't let them get away with walking all over you.  If they resorted to name calling, say something like "I didn't deserve to be called a so-and-so, that was unfair".  A little bit of shaming is not a bad thing if you felt a line was crossed.  Just make it clear where that line is, politely.  Try to nail down what the miscommunication was and get both parties working on the solution.

From my experience, some of the best solutions to problems have come from situations like this.  The guild member has been incensed at some decision that was made in the past.  When it happens for the third or fourth time, they went hell for leather at me on the forums in a PM.  For me, it came completely out of the blue, I had no idea that there was this problem in the guild.  I let them rant, I talked to them to figure out what the actual problem was - and they were right, it was an issue that I simply was not aware of.  We worked together and we put together some new policies in the guild that were enacted at the next raid, and I gave credit to that guild member for pointing it out and making the corrections.  Not everyone was of the same opinion as this guild member, but not because they didn't care, but because the situation didn't apply to them, so they didn't mention it.  The new policy was enacted and a guild member who was on the verge of gquitting came around and stayed an active and strong member of the team, contributing excellent ideas and keeping my decisions in line with the guild aims and the team needs.

Outcome 2: You're OUT!
After discussing with them what they think and finding the root cause of your issue, you both find that it comes down to a clash of goals or ideals or even personality.   They simply do not agree with your choices or style but actually understand them, it is ok to part ways.  Not everyone is going to suit your guild, and you shouldn't always keep someone in the team because they are a really good player.  Sometimes ideals will never mesh and the person(s) need to leave for the good of the morale of the team and most importantly their own enjoyment of the game.  What counts, however, is how you deal with this.  You need to maintain reasonableness and approachability not just for the exiting person (although that will help your reputation in the wider community) but for the people staying put.  The last thing you need is to be seen as some crazed lunatic with a gkick macro bound to your spacebar because someone dared to contradict you.  That is not good for anybody.

Again, from my personal store of experiences, this can be seen out in 2 ways - the mutual respect/parting of ways.  The person leaving has been calmed down and you both agree that you don't suit each other, and you pass on a recommendation to their next raiding guild.  They continue to be an advocate for your guild, even while in a competing guild.  They have a very good idea of the type of person that would suit your guild and will certainly recommend you to people who they think would fit.  They bump your recruitment threads, and might even stay in touch on the forums.  This really is the idea outcome for this situation.

There is a less positive outcome for the exiting person, and that is the raging gquit with crazy yelling and screaming in whatever medium they have access to.  In this situation, you need to make sure that your other guild mates are on your side and that you communicate with them to ensure they understand that you did everything you reasonably could to keep the situation under control. The exiting person may try to exact revenge so it would be prudent to perhaps change some passwords (eg vent passwords or lock forum accounts) and be prepared for them to trash talk you in general chats on server and on the blizzard forums.  As long as you don't rise to the bait, they will eventually run out of puff and stop bothering you and your guildies.  Be professional, be polite and do not engage their trash talking game.  Keep that moral high ground!

This is a complex topic; I keep rereading this post and being dissatisfied with what I put in there, but honestly, I think this is as good as it gets in terms of clarity.  If I edit anymore it will just get confusing and lose what little coherence there is.  The above are my experiences and opinions on how to deal with this, but since this is such a subjective topic, I am very interested to hear other people's anecdotes and stories on how they dealt with situations like this - leader or not, this is a common thing to deal with.  If we share some stories, we will increase our arsenal of tools at our disposal in future situations.