Battling Toxic Feedback in the Virtual Workplace: Insights from Gamers

Today 37% of US workers have worked virtually. In a survey by SHRM, 83% of HR professionals predicted this number would increase in the next five years. While this option brings a lot of opportunities to both employers and employees (a bigger talent pool to choose from, better work/life balance, etc), the virtual workplace also holds new challenges for managers, including rethinking the way they encourage collaboration and resolve office conflicts.

 

Few realize that gaming presents a wealth of knowledge to better understand how collaboration and feedback work in virtual teams. Games provide continuous, real-time feedback. You win, you lose, you level up and feel a sense of satisfaction when you’ve improved. In a thought provoking TEDTalk, game designer Jane McGonigal explains that gamers create strong social relationships because many games, such as World of Warcraft, encourage collaboration to complete a mission. However, much like in the physical workplace, toxic feedback can also discourage teamwork.

 

Lessons from Gamers

 

In Fortune’s top fifteen best places to work, Riot Games is a leader in the industry for employee satisfaction. Riot uses annual 360-degree reviews, along with regular one-on-ones to engage and develop employees. They haven’t only encouraged a strong feedback culture in the workplace, but also in their games. When the company found that players were exchanging a high amount of toxic feedback in their hit game, League of Legends, they began conducting innovative new experiments into the impact of positive and negative feedback within teams. This virtual world created the perfect opportunity for psychologists to experiment with ways of influencing positive behaviors and norms.  

 

In the gaming world, toxicity is the term used for poorly constructed and highly offensive feedback. According to Jeffrey Lin, Riot saw this as a major problem. Although only 3% of players regularly use toxic language, everyone has their bad days. In a game with ten people, there’s bound to be someone in a bad mood, increasing the likelihood of toxicity in each game. It was found that 81.7% of games had negative feedback in cross team chats. When players vented their emotions using toxic language, performance across the team diminished significantly.

 

Riot began using three methods to rehabilitate players. The first was to turn off a player’s chat logs when they were using toxic language and send them a notification. Toxic language decreased by 32.7% in one week. Second, it held online tribunals in which gamers were able to read chats by those reported for toxic behavior and vote on appropriate punishments (banning for x days). This gave the community more ownership in the process of creating positive norms.

 

Interestingly, the biggest impact was when they sent these players ‘reform cards’. Some players were surprised when they reread their own comments and the reactions they received from other players. Not realizing the impact of their words on the rest of the team, 70% took steps to reform their behavior.

 

The third strategy they experimented with was to prime players to behave in certain ways by giving them tips in different colors (red, blue or white). The biggest impact was seen when using a combination of tips on negatives outcomes (such as “Teammates perform worse if you harass them after a mistake”) in red and providing positive outcome tips (such as “Players who cooperate with their teammates win 31% more games”) in blue.

 

Applying these lessons to the workplace

 

In an interview with Alexander Brazie, former game designer at Riot Games and Blizzard, we discussed why feedback is so important. Even in the game industry, he explained that people working in different areas have different ways of speaking. A programmer and a designer might use completely different argumentation skills, often creating misunderstandings. When not addressed, misunderstandings can fuel deeper conflicts.

 

On League of Legends, Brazie explained, “Games get you emotionally hooked. People in emotionally charged states are generally not the best people to be giving feedback.” Similarly, when emotionally charged conflicts occur in the workplace, employees may use toxic language without realizing the damaging consequences. In a virtual workplace, these conflicts can be magnified as people cannot use facial expressions or body language to gauge emotions. If you’re planning on moving towards telecommuting, it’s important that employees first learn how to give feedback constructively.

 

One-on-ones can have a major impact. Brazie explained, “If you really want to solve a problem you first need to give your employees the tools and experience they need to communicate on less stressful topics.” His manager at Blizzard took time to work with him on reforming his communication style and this knowledge has stayed with him throughout his career. At Riot, one-on-ones occur on a weekly basis and are, in Brazie’s opinion, the most helpful aspect of its performance management strategy today. With the insights from their experiments, Riot is now considering making real-time feedback a more continuous process beyond their one-on-ones to help develop positive workplace behaviors.

 

Brazie is now a game design consultant for Xelnath Enterprises, specializing in game design analysis and cross-disciplinary conflict resolution. When a conflict occurs, he suggests that, “the best way to approach the situation is to start off with establishing goals you have in common. You will find you actually agree with someone 80% of the way, so having this structure can actually help you to overcome challenges.”

 

Solutions for your company

 

In League of Legends, a strong motivating factor in behavioral change was when toxic players understood the negative impact their comments had on the team’s success rate. On the flip side, players who collaborated with their teammates won 31% more games.

 

Focusing on the positive side of online feedback, Riot implemented an ‘Honor Initiative’ allowing players to award points to teammates and opponents who demonstrate helpful or friendly behavior. This addition has become wildly popular and is expected to incentivize players to follow the new social norms created online. Riot is even giving badges and other awards to increase the visibility of these players.

 

Similarly, some companies encourage collaboration by separating performance reviews from promotions, instead linking them to the quality of feedback employees give each other. Separating bonuses from individual performance also takes the pressure off receiving feedback. Others have brought the real-time feedback experienced in games to the workplace through new mobile apps aimed at increasing timely and continuous micro feedback. While it's impossible to put people on mute when they’re having a bad day, this approach emphasizes that it’s not only about giving more feedback, but learning to give feedback the right way.

Photo by John Sting