Guild Guide: How to give good performance feedback

How do you address someone who isn't performing up to snuff without hurting or infuriating them?

Daniel is in your guild, and he is terrible at the game.  But he's fine otherwise.

We have all known Daniels.  Heck, based on the awkward looks toward the ground that I imagine some of you are sporting, at times some of us have been Daniels. There's no shame inherent in understanding that.  All of us have games that we might enjoy a great deal despite the fact that we're not very good at them.  I've known many people who are really in love with games that they're just not good at, and I've done everything in my power to just enjoy spending time with them without focusing on the stuff that they're just plain not good at.

So what's the problem? Well, you can only avoid this for so long, in short.

Having a terrible teammate who you like isn't going to cripple you at a certain level of play, but it's sure as hell going to have an effect as you start trying to move upward.  If you're in a guild with an aim toward endgame content in an MMO, eventually someone like Daniel is going to be holding you back.  If your friendly DotA 2 group eventually wants to make some progress in ranked play, Daniel is the albatross around your neck.  The point is that sooner or later, you're going to have to take a deep breath, sit down with Daniel, and explain to him that he really sucks at the game.

How do you do that without breaking Daniel's heart and making him want to quit the game?  Remember, you like Daniel, otherwise you seriously wouldn't care at all.

Daniel is the outlier, but there are always players who have performance issues that they're unaware of, and you need to be prepared to deal with those issues in a way that doesn't engender intensely hurt feelings and a sense of betrayal.  So let's talk about how to address these issues as delicately - but honestly - as possible.

Get your head in the game, Ling-Ling.

Create an atmosphere of praise

The first step in this direction is, oddly, one that doesn't require any sitting down and talking with anyone.  It just means paying attention to what people are doing as you all work together and taking a specific attitude toward providing feedback.  Short version? You always want to be offering praise and encouragement.

Even when people are failing.

To be honest, this is a good thing to cultivate even when working with complete strangers, because it has an effect.  If you queue up for a match with random people in Heroes of the Storm and shout at the first failure, everyone is going to think you're a jerk and won't listen to what you have to say, chiefly to spite you.  Even if you're entirely correct about the rest of your group being incredibly stupid and not paying attention, no one wants to be seen as following the orders of a guy who is a demonstrable intense jerk.

Instead, focus on the positives.  Don't say "Damn it, Daniel, you should have had that guy, he was in your lane and you should be able to beat him one-on-one."  Focus on what Daniel was doing right.  "Hey, Daniel, you're really putting pressure on him!"

The thing is, little praise - even if it's tacit acknowledgment of failure - changes the whole tone of the conversation.  Daniel isn't going to feel like he's being taken to task for a mistake, he's going to feel like the hard work he's doing to try being better is getting noticed.  More to the point, it makes him want to continue doing even better, to get more praise.  Despite what we're told about praise being the opposite of useful feedback, it's actually super useful to be praised for what you're doing well.

Note that I said what you're actually doing well.  There's a difference between "praise the good instead of yelling about the bad" and "praise handed out constantly for everything."  People are not stupid, and when you praise everyone for everything no matter what, it becomes obvious that you're just saying nice things all the time. 

Praise solid effort and paying attention rather than criticising mistakes, but don't praise people for just existing.

It's not that we think you're terrible, it's... well, we know you are.  We have evidence.

Offer help in a positive way

Praise alone is not going to make someone turn from a bad player into a good one.  It's going to motivate, sure, but it's not going to produce a sudden turnaround.  So you need to move on to your next option, which is criticism... in the form of offered help.

The fact is that Daniel probably knows where he's struggling.  If you're all playing Final Fantasy XIV and watch Daniel die to the same effect time and again, he doesn't need to be told that he's not dodging it properly.  However bad a player he may be, he is almost certainly capable of seeing his character die to another Landslide and concluding, "I am really bad at dodging Landslides."

So the point here is not to focus on what he's doing wrong.  Your point is offering to help him improve, to understand where he's faltering and offer your help to make sure he can overcome it.  Maybe he has a poor understanding of exactly how the dodge mechanics are working, maybe his reflexes just aren't that great and need some honing, maybe he's unclear on the role he's supposed to be playing or would be better served by another.  You talk to him with an attitude of offering as much help as you can, not criticism or anger.

It's going to be kind of demoralizing for him, and that's sadly inevitable.  No one wants to hear that they suck, after all.  But presented with care, it's the sort of thing that can be used as a springboard to improve, especially if you have an existing culture of praise and helping one another.  (See how everything ties together?)

Working as a team means thinking like a team.

Offering alternatives

Sometimes, of course, the problem is just either not solvable or isn't getting solved.  You've helped Daniel with all your might, you've given him tons of attention, but the problem is that he's still complete crap.  And now you have a lot of people angry at him, because they feel - correctly - that Daniel is holding them back, and they'd be progressing further with a more competent player instead of him.

Enthusiasm and determination to get better only go so far without results.  Which means, if you're in charge, that you need to sit down with Daniel and have a less encouraging discussion that focuses on the fact that he needs a break.

For some people, improvement happens very gradually.  For others it just never happens.  But in all cases, it's legitimate to point out that someone should take some time away from a particular bit of content to focus on doing something else, because having a myopic focus on getting better has hit a plateau.  You're reaching a point where Daniel isn't getting any more useful feedback and is, in fact, stagnating more - even if he has improved.

Be gentle about this, and work with Daniel to find some lower-impact and lower-end activity that he can do for a while someone else moves up.  If you have a large enough group, it's an ideal time to move Daniel to the group that's further behind in endgame content in an MMO while someone else moves up.  Daniel is already familiar with the older stuff, after all.

Liking someone, by itself, isn't enough to make for a great player.  There are lots of players whom I like that just aren't very good.  But you can at least make the effort to try to provide them with feedback, offer your help, and only when all else fails shuffle them out of the front guard.  You want them to feel as if they can improve and work to do better, not to just five up on the basis of things being too hards and others being unhelpful.

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Featured Contributor

Published Dec. 8th 2015
  • Rothalack
    Master O' Bugs
    The problem I have been having is that we don't have enough recruits coming in to put the fire under our current raiders with the idea that they are replaceable. Attendance is low enough that they know there is a spot for them whether they hold us back or not. It's a sticky situation for sure.

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