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How to Motivate Creative People

Photo by Ken@Yokohama

A question that often arises in my work with companies is how to keep creative employees motivated. Sometimes the question comes from a manager who doesn’t see herself as ‘a creative’, so she’s looking for a way to engage people with a different mindset. Other times it’s from a creative director who’s cottoned on to the fact that what drives him isn’t necessarily the main motivator for everyone on his team.

So this is the start of a short series looking at motivation, creativity and creative people. It’s primarily written for managers and directors whose job it is to get top performance out of creative teams — but I hope it will also be of interest to creative professionals of all kinds, who would like a bit more insight into their own motivations and creative process.

Before I start let’s get a couple of things straight.

Firstly, I’m not suggesting that people in the creative department are the only ones capable of creativity. I’ve written before about what makes a creative person, so I hope it’s clear that anyone has the ability to be creative at work. However, it’s a fact that in many companies there still is a creative department, and people with the word ‘creative’ in their job titles. And there’s often a sense that ‘things are a little different’ in the creative department. Even in companies where the whole operation is seen as creative, they often see themselves as different to more ‘corporate’ companies.

This is part of a long tradition of seeing creative people as somehow different, deviant, slightly off the wall and incomprehensible to normal people. And let’s be honest, we do like to play up to the image. Psychologists have devoted enormous efforts to trying to analyse, define and measure the ‘creative personality’ — but it may interest you to know that they have not had much success. Where they have succeeded however, is in demonstrating the importance of motivation in creative performance — so that will be my focus in this series.

And secondly …

You Can’t Motivate Anybody

‘Motivation’ is often spoken about as if it were some kind of magic potion that you inject into people, or get them to imbibe before setting to work, like Asterix taking a tot from his hip flask before laying into the Roman legions. According to this view, it’s the manager’s job to motivate employees, like the stereotypical football coach bellowing at his charges through a microphone. Sometimes that can be a great idea, but as Arsene Wenger says, you can only really shout at people a couple of times a season if you want it to be effective — if you do it every week they just get used to it and ignore you. And if you have to shout, encourage and cajole your people to put the effort in every week, then something’s wrong.

I once went to a seminar with psychotherapy guru Bill O’Hanlon where he talked about motivation in therapy. He drew an analogy with curling, the winter sport in which players take turns to throw a stone across the ice towards a target, while their teammates sweep the ice in front of it with brushes, to reduce friction and help the stone slide further. According to Bill, it’s not the therapist’s job to throw the stone — the impetus for change has to come from the client. The therapist’s role is to sweep the ice and help the client keep going, facilitating rather than pushing. I think the same applies to management — if you’ve got people who put plenty of force and direction into their throw, you can do a fantastic job scrubbing away the ice in front of them. But if there’s no energy coming from them, you can sweep all you like but the stone won’t move.

So you can’t ‘motivate’ anybody else. You can show them the target, smooth the way and cheer them along. But motivation is something you draw out rather than put in.

But You CAN Demotivate People

‘Low motivation’ is sometimes offered as pseudo-diagnosis of an employee who is not performing as desired. But just about every time I’ve had the pleasure of working with such a designated ‘problem employee’ I find them to be incredibly motivated — just not about the things their manager wants them to do. Sometimes they are motivated about stuff that has nothing to do with their work — their allotment, their band, their sports team, their recipe for sweet-and-sour pork or their upcoming ascent of Kangchenjunga. These are often people in the wrong job, or people who see their job simply as a way to pay the bills.

I’ve encountered fewer of these cases in the creative industries than in other sectors, probably because the competition for doing sexy creative jobs is usually so fierce that you have to be pretty driven to get in the door in the first place. But sadly I have encountered the other kind of ‘low motivation’ — where someone’s enthusiasm and commitment have been worn down or destroyed altogether by experiences at work, often involving their manager. Rightly or wrongly, these people have got the impression that their manager doesn’t care about (a) them as a person, (b) their contribution to the team, or both. They’re asking themselves ‘Why should I bother if it doesn’t make any difference?’. And the thing is, the manager often doesn’t realise how little it could take to turn things round.

Once upon a time I was managing a software project. At five o’clock the day before our first big demonstration to the client, I received the delivery from the programmers, several days late. To my horror I discovered a major problem that would involve at least a day’s work to fix. Eager to impress, I stayed up all night to do it, painstakingly cutting and pasting hundreds of photos and captions into place. This wasn’t the first time I had worked late into the night. The next morning, the managing director swept into the office and asked for a preview of the presentation. Halfway through, he stopped me and pointed out a missing caption — “Who added these captions?” he asked. “Well I did, but –” I started, before he interrupted: “So that’s your fault then, isn’t it?”

At that moment, he lost me.

I never worked past 5.30 again, let alone weekends or all nighters. It wasn’t long before I started looking for a new job. I was always professional, but I realised it wasn’t worth going the extra mile for him. Looking back on it now, I guess he probably thought he was setting high standards, pushing me to do better next time. He probably never realised he’d shot himself in the foot — and how little it would have taken to maintain my enthusiasm.

Going back to the curling analogy: as a manager you can’t throw the stone yourself, but you can easily block it if you’re not careful.

So How Do I Make Sure My People Are Motivated?

You can’t. Not 100% sure. As Mark Earls would put it, managers are accelerators and influencers — but ultimately not controllers. People always have a choice.

But although you can’t guarantee motivation, there are several things you can do to make it more likely.

It may sound banal, but the most important thing is to hire motivated people. Remember, you can’t put motivation into people, only draw out and amplify what’s there already. Recruitment isn’t my speciality, but whenever I make a decision to work with someone else, the most important question to me — over and above their talent, experience and qualifications — is: How committed is this person to our shared goal? If I can’t answer ‘very’ then I will think again, no matter how good they look on paper.

Once people are on your team, I suggest you ask yourself two basic questions:

  1. How do I tap into their core motivations and amplify these?
  2. How do I avoid blocking these motivations?

These questions are really two sides of the same coin, but as my example shows, it can be frighteningly easy to fall into the trap of 2 when you think you’re doing 1.

To answer these questions I’ll first look at four kinds of motivation. Then I’ll look at what you can do with them.

Four Kinds of Motivation

My next four posts, I’m going to consider four kinds of motivation — the basic levers of influence available to you as a manager:

  1. Intrinsic motivation – the attraction of the work itself
  2. Extrinsic motivation – rewards for doing the work
  3. Personal motivation – individual values
  4. Peer motivation– group influences

All four motivations apply to most kinds of work, but I’ll explain why I think it’s particularly important to get the right balance between them when you’re dealing with creative work and workers who see themselves as creative.

As well as describing the four types of motivation, I’ll suggest some ways that you can use them to facilitate top creative performance.

Over to You

What motivates/demotivates you?

What influence — positive or negative — has a manager had on your motivation?
(Obviously don’t mention their name if it was a bad experience!)


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