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Opinion: Constructive Criticism - The Balancing Act

Opinion: Constructive Criticism - The Balancing Act

November 14, 2011 | By Heather Decker-Davis

November 14, 2011 | By Heather Decker-Davis
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[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday-opinion piece, game development grad student Heather Decker-Davis discusses the importance of maintaining a balance between constructive criticism and praise with your team.]

Sharing constructive criticism with your team is an extremely important part of the development process, especially for developers in leadership roles, but it's a challenging task that often leaves us feeling conflicted.

We want to make teammates feel good about their efforts and nuture them with positive feelings, but at the same time, we need to constantly push them in order to achieve the best possible results.

The key is working to balance between the two extremes, as both are necessary to productive teamwork.

Good Feelings

Praise is sometimes viewed as optional, but it's a necessary component of a healthy team. If all the team is hearing is a constant deconstruction of what is wrong with their work, morale will slowly whittle away.

Positive reinforcement works in the opposite direction. When a team member learns they are doing something right, it feels good! They're more likely to strive to complete something awesome again because it's more emotionally rewarding. In contrast, simply not communicating a job well done can leave feelings of confusion. The asset was accepted, but was it really right? Be straightforward about what works if you want to see more of it.

Additionally, one simple thing I always work on is remembering to thank my teammates for their efforts. If they complete something, I sincerely thank them for their work as a part of my feedback. The same goes for research, experimental prototypes, and even just showing up to meetings. I always want to make sure my team knows I value them.

The Critical Eye

Criticism is an essential factor in developing the best possible project. We must always ask ourselves, "How can we make this better?" By pushing things further, we explore new and exciting possibilities and stretch our limitations.

Criticism should be very specific and thoughtful. It's not enough to say you don't like something and leave it at that! You must deeply analyze the work and offer additional suggestions whenever possible. Pinpoint real problems and offer viable solutions. Strive to be honest and straightforward.

While attention to detail is important, be aware that you can easily descend into the realm of needless micromanagement. Choose your battles wisely, according to how important something is to the overall presentation of your final piece. Keep an open mind but a thoughtful eye.

When in doubt, don't be afraid to seek feedback on your critique. Sometimes a bit of extra input is helpful!

Balance

If all you ever do is praise your team's work as if it is immaculate, despite how nice that may make them all feel, you are doing them a great disservice. Being too complacent means the work is likely going to be rather mediocre and your team isn't learning or growing.

On that same token, if you're a tyrannical overlord who nitpicks every little detail and is never happy with anything the team does, they will grow to resent you. Morale will plummet and they will not thrive.

When approaching a team member with feedback, I generally try to include portions from both categories. In the event that I have a rather long list of revisions or problems, concluding with a highlight on something that is working can help offset what might otherwise come off as an extremely discouraging talk.

Instead of being left with the impression that nothing is right, the team member has an idea of something that was successful and can think about that aspect when working on future improvements.

Optimal feedback is a happy medium between the extremes of praise and criticism, but it is not something that anyone can measure or grade absolutely. The best we can do is work to include healthy servings of both and constantly evaluate our leadership practices by staying aware of the team's morale and progress.

[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]


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