Creatives, arguably by definition, are a mess. There are two sides to every coin and the ‘tails’ for every creative brain includes but is not limited to melancholy, frustration, anxiety, depression — you name it.
In fact, Psychiatrist Nancy C. Andreasen spent the better part of 40 years studying the link between creatives and their imperfections, via observations with Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Yates, John Cheever, and dozens of other well-known writers:
“The archetype of the mad genius dates back to at least classical times, when Aristotle noted, ‘Those who have been eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia,’ Andreasen wrote in her illuminating article “Secrets of the Creative Brain” for The Atlantic.
So, as a leader how do you motivate these people — or even motivate yourself as a creative person? As roller-coaster rides of emotional stability and productivity, how do you bring out their best? After all, we’re willing to put up with this instability for a reason — creativity, in our book, is one of the defining attributes for meaningful work. It’s probably worth learning how to work with them.
The value of creative work cannot be overstated but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. So, we thought we’d put together a rough guide for motivating creatives. A quick side note: This article is written in the third person, but we believe that all of this information applies to a creative in the first person as well. It’s as much for us as it is for the people we’re trying to motivate.
So, here’s our guide for motivating the beautiful mess we call creatives.
Check your egos at the door.
Nothing stifles creativity faster than ego. Just from a logistical standpoint, it creates riffles between people and distorts the mission. But, it has a more subtle effect as well. Todd Henry explains in his article “Get Over Yourself: How Your Ego Sabotages Creativity” for 99U:
“Brilliant creative work requires a willingness to take risks, to experiment, and to venture into unproven territory in the pursuit of great ideas,” he writes. “When an inflated ego becomes the norm, you may become inflexible and unwilling to take the small personal risks necessary to break out of your comfort zone and pour yourself fully into your work.”
Creative or not, we all bring ego to the table in our work and this is exactly why our first step is to acknowledge it. As a leader or creative, it’s important to come into a project with a goal outside of yourself, to collaborate with others on a mission that doesn’t involve your personal gain. So, as a leader, be open to feedback from your own team. Be open to presenting vulnerable ideas and having those ideas critiqued.
By showing your team you’re solely concerned with the final outcome — a great film, campaign, commercial, etc. — they won’t feel the need to defend their own ego against yours. Good and bad ideas can flow freely, feedback can be given, and you’re off to the races.“By being open with your team in every way possible, you’re communicating so much with a simple action: trust, respect, ownership, and worth, just to name few.”
Share the vision.
If you’re going to take one thing away from this article, take away this: Creatives need to have a reason for doing what they’re doing. They need to know their work is going to make a difference. It’s your job as a leader to give that reason, to show them their work matters.
It all starts with communication.
In his book Work Rules, former Google innovator Laszlo Bock describes it as a pathway to an “ethos of ownership.” By trusting your employees with the vision, direction, and motivation for a task, you’re bringing them into your inner circle and showing them that their efforts have a direct effect on the outcome of a mission.
As a leader, it’s easy to veer on the side of opacity to protect your team’s time and keep second-guessing to a minimum. Laszlo, however, says that Google takes the opposite approach:
“Transparency is the second cornerstone of our culture,” he writes. “‘Default to open’ is a phrase sometimes heard in the open-source technology community. Chris DiBona, leader of Google’s open-source efforts, defines it like this: ‘Assume that all information can be shared. Restricting information should be a conscious effort and you’d better have a good reason for doing so.”
By being open with your team in every way possible, you’re communicating so much with a simple action: trust, respect, ownership, and worth, just to name few.
Get them bought in…
In general, creatives are empathetic people. It’s the entire reason they’re good at what they do and most likely the reason you hired them — they can feel and see things that others can’t. So, how do you get empathetic creatives to buy into your mission? You show them how their work affects others.
In his book Give and Take (which Laszlo also cited in Work Rules), psychologist/author Adam Grant describes how showing the purpose behind a project can help increase productivity.
He conducted an experiment at a university call center, where employees’ jobs were to call potential donors to ask for contributions. He divided the team into three groups. Group A simply did their jobs. Group B read stories from other employees about the benefits of a job. Group C read stories from scholarship recipients about how the donations changed their lives. Ultimately, Groups A and B saw no change in productivity and Group C saw an increase of 155 percent in pledges.
The point is: people care for other people, especially creatives. Tell them — better yet, show them — how their work is going to affect peoples’ lives and they’ll work harder than ever to make it a reality. Use their empathy to their own advantage.“Tell them — better yet, show them — how their work is going to affect peoples’ lives and they’ll work harder than ever to make it a reality.”
…Then set them loose.
Leaders, listen up, because this may be the most difficult part for you. At this point in the process, you’ve all checked your egos at the door, you’ve shared the vision, and you’ve gotten your employees to buy in. Now, you need to let go. Trust your creative employees to accomplish their mission; that was the whole point of getting them to buy in, right?
It’s especially important for creative minds. Their brain doesn’t work on the 9-to-5 schedule. It doesn’t have a set rhythm. Back to Andreasen’s study that we referenced in the intro of this article:
“As for how these ideas emerge, almost all of my subjects confirmed that when eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed—during that state we called rest.”
The emphasis on rest was our own because it isn’t actually resting. Creatives know first and foremost that rest isn’t their strength. Their mind is almost always on, pulling from their subconscious to make abstract and novel connections. It’s a well-known creative practice to dedicate thought to a problem, then forget about it for a while, let it simmer, and revisit it in time.
As leaders, you need to let this part of the process happen, which means giving them ample time and the trust needed to accomplish a goal.
Don’t confuse failure with the process.
When director Kirsten Johnson was asked what advice she’d give to a young filmmaker, she said this:
“What feels like the failing of it is actually the process of it,” Kirsten said. “And the searching that you are involved with is what enables you to see over time. It’s not knowledge that you can start with. It’s knowledge that builds over time.”
We’ve talked at length about failure in other articles, but is a failure truly a failure if it helps accomplish a goal? Creative work, more than any other kind of work, is an investigation into the unknown, which inherently means testing theories, following rabbit trails, and coming to dead ends — what many consider “failing”.
So, at the beginning of the process, be sure to frame failure as failure, but also frame the process as the process. Build in time and conversations for revisions and feedback. If your creative team expects there to be dead ends, then they’ll be less afraid to take risks and test hypotheses, which will result in better work overall.
In the end, if you only test and approve one avenue, how can you be sure it was the best path to follow? If they’re given the space to do so, creatives love to throw ideas at the wall to see which one sticks. To adapt an old adage from Edison: Ideas that don’t stick are simply a way of honing in on the idea that does.
Choose progress over perfection.
As a leader, you may only see things as black and white. But, if creatives have one advantage over others, it’s the fact that they know the truth: the world exists in shades of grey.
No matter what the end goal is, it can always be better, but don’t let the pursuit of perfection stifle your team’s creativity. Author and overall guru Seth Godin puts it this way:
“Perfect lets you stall, ask more questions, do more reviews, dumb it down, safe it up and generally avoid doing anything that might fail (or anything important).”
In other words, perfect is the antithesis to a creative soul. Creative minds are built to explore, challenge, disrupt, and refine — all of which are not descriptors of a perfect product. We know, it creates a paradox — the fact that a perfect product is not desirable — so maybe in its own way imperfect is the perfect solution.
As a leader, frame your team’s pursuits in progress over perfection. Always be moving forward, looking for better ways to do something. Instead of starting with the perfect end goal, start an initiative with a strong idea and let your team build that idea to its full potential.
There’s a flow to this process, which makes sense because that’s how the creative mind works: communicate, think, rest, test, execute. In the end, the best way you can support your creative team is by supporting the way their mind works and the way in which they create.
As we cited earlier, creatives are messy by definition, but so is the world in which we live. They don’t think in ones and zeros, so don’t expect them to. By being creative in the way you lead creatives, you can harness their full potential and help them be the assets you hired them to be. Just watch — it’ll be worth the effort.