Ask the Judge, 11/9/2007
In any large organization of people, the DCI Judge program included, there will be variances in the interest, skill level, and dedication of the people involved. Luckily, the majority usually fall somewhere between competent and outstanding. A lot of information is out there about mentoring the judges who fall in this range, and helping them to grow and excel.
Unfortunately, any large organization also has another group—the underperformers—who aren't meeting the bar of acceptable performance. While these people can be painful to deal in any group, in a workplace environment the situation is relatively straightforward to handle.
The DCI, however, is a volunteer organization, and as such, it seems unreasonable to try and apply the same standard. After all, because volunteer groups run on the good will and willingness of its members to help, it is tough to turn away willing people who want to invest their time. Without the checks and balances of employment, though, and without the same set of accountabilities, what do we do when faced with an underachiever?
The Nature of Volunteerism
At first blush, a volunteer position feels very different from a paid job. Why is this? What are the factors that lead to this feeling?
With a job, it's generally understood that employees will do all of the parts of their job, whether they're fun or not, and do so with a certain level of proficiency. After all, they're being compensated to do exactly that. There are generally regular reviews of their performance and accountability to a manager, and if somebody isn't performing their job to an acceptable level, there are usually clear methods by which they are chastised and the behavior is corrected. Ultimately, if they continue not to be performing well enough to justify the compensation, and there are other people available who can do a better job, that person is let go and the employment relation is ended.
On the other hand, in a volunteer situation, there's often not compensation that makes up for the amount of time and energy invested and there's an implicit gesture of good will on the part of the volunteer, who is devoting time and effort without expectation of return. Often it seems like there is a shortage of people to help, so every volunteer is valued simply because they're there, regardless of how effective they are. Because of this, a volunteer's relationship to the group can have a very different feel than an employee's relationship to a company. Every contribution is valued, no matter how large or how small, and even if somebody isn't performing as well as desired, they can be seen as better than nothing.
Both of these are gross generalizations, and there are of course exceptions, but this type of difference in the role people play (or at least the way their role is seen) is common. And the unfortunate result is the possibility for people to perform poorly or slack off, and for there not to be any consequences. Does this really make sense, though, and are these situations really as different as they seem?
In actuality, there are some important parallels between these two cases. While in a job, the compensation is usually very tangible when compared to a volunteer position, this doesn't mean there's no consideration for volunteers at all. For a judge, there is the obvious—product [That's Tournament Organizer lingo for "boosters" -Seamus], meals, or other gifts on the days they're judging. It's the more intangible things, however—the investment of time in training and mentoring and the opportunities to judge and practice—that end up being a bigger deal. Similarly, though there may not always be as many people looking to be involved, time is a limiting factor on recruiting, finding, and developing new candidates. In both of these ways, there's a limited resource that is invested on each judge, a resource that is then unavailable for other people, much like with compensation in a job.
Because of this, though the two situations aren't exactly the same, there are enough similarities that the way in which underperformers are handled on the job can serve as a useful guide.
Evaluating the Problem
There are a number of different reasons why somebody might be underachieving or stagnating, and each one has its own sets of opportunities and challenges, and requires its own set of responses. A good way to think through these reasons and identify the problem is through a set of guiding questions:
Do they know? An interesting fact out of a study on performance (thanks to Shawn Doherty [and Chris Richter, who originally dug this up for PT San Diego seminars -S] for this tidbit from his seminar at Pro Tour: Valencia) indicates that good performance goes hand in hand with an ability to evaluate skill level. Put another way—somebody who isn't good at something is also likely not to be able to tell that they aren't good at it.
When dealing with somebody who isn't performing as well as you think they should, the first thing to figure out is whether they are even aware that there's an issue. In many cases, you may find that they aren't, and that they don't realize that there is anything wrong with the way they've been doing things. Sometimes, merely pointing this out to them is enough for them to reexamine themselves and start to make positive changes.
In other cases, however, it can be a task to actually convince them to consider the possibility that there's an issue or to show them what those issues may be, not because they're willfully defiant but simply because it can be difficult to be self-aware—they're open to feedback and ideas, but they honestly can't see. Ignoring for a moment those who are actively in denial, for those who want to learn but don't understand, the trick to helping them through that wall can come down to a single principle—show, don't tell. Guide them on what to think about, but let them do the thinking and interpretation for themselves. It's much easier to accept something that you observe for yourself than something that somebody is just telling you to believe.
In the context of judging, this means that asking them to gather feedback from a larger group of players and judges can be more effective than telling them that feedback second-hand. Demonstrating their behaviors back to them and making the results clear is more effective than simply trying to convince them of their behaviors. Having them think about other judges and watch them practice better and more successful techniques is more useful than just telling them to change. Don't mistake this as saying that they're on their own and need to figure everything out themselves—after all, there wouldn't be an issue if they could do this entirely on their own. Be an active guide and provide suggestions and things to think about, and discuss things with them regularly, but let them take charge of their own learning rather than trying to thrust it upon them.
Do they care? Once you're confident that somebody is aware of what's happening and where they might not be judging or improving at an optimal level, the next question is whether it's something that they care to do something about—whether or not it's a priority for them to try and improve or to make changes, or whether they're content with where they are and not interested in putting in the effort.
It's generally very obvious when watching somebody judge and watching their activities as to whether they care. While you might not have thought about it explicitly, motivation, effort, and caring are on a separate access from skill level. Judges who make an effort to be active at tournaments and in the community, with the extra spring in their step, who engage in discussions and debate, who actively seek feedback about themselves and offer feedback about others, and who have a real energy about them can make it very obvious that they care about growing in the program.
If it's not clear, or if you aren't sure, though, the easiest thing to do is ask. By and large, judges will be honest about this, and will even be glad that somebody cares enough to ask and to listen, and welcome the opportunity to share where they are and how they feel. Make sure to be open to hear what they have to say. If they care about improving, there's rarely an issue other than helping to provide what they need to continue to grow. If they don't, though, things become more challenging.
Do you care? Time investment and effort is an interesting balance when it comes to volunteer positions. It's important to realize that judging isn't most people's job and is merely one part of their life, so it's perfectly legitimate for them to decide that there's only a certain amount of time they're willing or able to invest and to recognize whether or not they can afford to care about these types of issues given their current life. There's nothing automatically wrong with somebody telling you that they're not intending to put in any more effort than they already are, and in fact this is an important hallmark of Judge Manager Andy Heckt's philosophy on judging: find your role and do the best you can at it, but understand that it's just one part of your life and other things may take precedence.
On the other hand, just because it is a volunteer position doesn't mean that there can't be any expectations about how much effort somebody puts in or how competently they perform. This manifests itself frequently when somebody volunteers to help somebody else out and the recipient isn't appreciative, or is critical of the way that they're being helped. From the volunteer's perspective, this seems ludicrous—shouldn't they be grateful for whatever help they get? From the perspective of the person being helped, though, just because somebody volunteered doesn't mean that they should get to define what you needed, and it's reasonable to be frustrated if you end up with somebody who won't listen to what you needed, particularly if there are other people who could have helped more appropriately. Furthermore, in this case, there still is the fact that both time and effort are being invested into each judge in the program. There's a careful balance to be found between these two positions.
Honestly assess how well somebody is doing and how much they're bringing to the community. Figure out where they stand and whether everyone can be happy with them continuing at their current level. In most cases, you'll find that the answer is yes, and this is a fine position to be in. For a judge that's found their place and is contributing value in that place, you won't care whether they're currently in a place to grow their role or expand their scope.
It's when their current performance is insufficient, though, and they don't care to improve that you end up with a tough situation. Don't get caught up in the idea that you can't or shouldn't do something to address the behavior, and don't get caught in the idea that volunteers can't be asked to step up or to bow out. It may not feel good, but it can be for the best for everyone involved.
The most important thing to do is to be honest in your assessment, and then to tell the situation honestly. There's no need to be harsh or inconsiderate, but don't water down the message. Give them a chance to decide whether or not they want to spend more effort so that they can improve in the ways that you need, or help them to see that this might not be the right fit for them and move on. In either case, they'll be thankful in the long run and the community will be stronger for it, whereas glossing over the situation or hiding it generally leads only to frustration. And many times, the honest wake-up call may help them decide to redouble their efforts for the program.
It's fun to spend your time focusing on the judges who excel, or on the up and coming new candidates with loads of dedication and potential, but it's important to remember that there are also those who exist on the other end of the spectrum. While it can be frustrating or depressing, spending time on these judges is just as important as helping to develop your strongest candidates. At worst, you can help them to discover that they're not right for the program and might not even be happy there, while at the same time freeing up time and resources to help find and bring in people who might be better suited. And at best, you might find that a little attention was all that was needed to help them to become a skilled judge in your community. Either way, give them the attention they need rather than ignoring the issue. Your community, players and judges alike, will thank you for it in the long run.
Thanks as always to Karen Degi, for preventing any bouts of babbling idiocy.
Next month: Most judges and players that there are various levels of rules understanding, progressing from simply knowing the answer to a rules question to understanding how to derive that answer and why that derivation is correct. What most players might not consider, however, is that this kind of continuum also applies to tournament policy. We'll examine how to build up this level of understanding and discuss how it can help you to decipher the most difficult and borderline cases.
Nicholas J. Fang
DCI Certified Level 3 Judge—Redmond, WA
Agbaar and Ag|Work on EFnet's #mtgjudge