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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!)


  1. ‘most important thing is to hire motivated people’
    And more often than not these people are the scary ones, not the safe dependable options.

    good work fella.
    not been round here much lately, promise to do better!

  2. Thanks – yes, the scary ones are safer. 🙂

  3. Hi Mark,
    Good to see you back blogging again!
    This looks like a great series – look forward to reading further posts.
    Best wishes,

  4. MRichardson says:

    Thanks Mark, The job I am in has totally robbed me of any desire to go extra, due to managers nick-picking and rushing me into creative production, contradicting each other and always overwhelming me. I just do the least expected with a heavy heart most of the time. Has put a bad taste in my mouth and am looking for another job

  5. Thanks Jemima.

    MRichardson — sorry to hear about your frustrations, good luck finding something more rewarding.

  6. I think you’re right that people often take the wrong job for what fires them up. That can be a problem, and there’s rarely a damned thing you can do for someone who’d rather be out curling than working.

    The problem gets worse when that would-be curler sticks at a job that doesn’t fit. Then anything the manager does gets perceived as demotivating. In that case, the manager becomes an excuse. Nothing gets done, the boss is a pr**k, and there’s little solution until the worker finally says, “Damn. I’m gonna go curl for a living.” (It doesn’t pay very well, I don’t suggest it.)

    There’s also the issue of the self-doubts and negative messages many creative individuals tell themselves. They *LOVE* what they do… but can’t get fired up because of one moment of so-called failure that happened 15 years ago. Then anything that occurs after that moment becomes a whispering negative message that influences the motivation of the person.

    So in that case, the manager is screwed the day he said, “You’re hired.”

    Hm. Must go have coffee, I’m feeling too cynical today 😉

  7. I’ve had a similar experience to the one you had as a software manager. I was working for a very small company, staying late quite frequently to get more done, and even working at home. My manager came around one day and dumped 250 leads on my desk that she had been forgotten about 2 months earlier, and told me to contact them. Then, after working tons of extra hours to contact everyone, apologizing 250 times and putting together and mailing sample packets to everyone – I got yelled at by my manager for not cold-calling any new leads that week.

    It was so discouraging. I had worked significant overtime cleaning up a mess she made, and she didn’t even thank me. After that, i had no desire to go the extra mile for her, even though I had gladly done as much as I could to help the company succeed before.

    When she did it again a couple months later, I turned in my letter of resignation. I couldn’t work for a manager like that.

    When I started, I threw my heart into that job. I really wanted to help the company succeed, and I was willing to work as much as it took. But I became really discouraged working for a manager who never took the time to acknowledge my efforts (or even notice them!)

    Had my manager even bothered to say “thank you so much for helping us get through this crisis successfully” on a regular basis, I would probably still be there working my fingers to the bone for them. But she didn’t and it drove me away.

    Bad management can ruin the motivation of a lot of people. No one wants to work for someone who makes them feel like they can never do enough, or that they’re under-appreciated, or not good enough.

    It’s easy enough to put all the blame on a “lazy” creative, but that’s probably not the only factor in play.

  8. Katie’s comment made me think of something else – as she mentioned, “Had my manager even bothered to say thank you,”… But so many people aren’t taught these basic social niceties. They don’t mean not to say thank you, sometimes, but they may not know how.

    Just thinking. Sorry for taking over your comment section with devil’s advocate 🙂

  9. Great comments guys, thanks.

    Re saying thank you, I agree with Katie that these two little words can be worth so much more than the effort it takes to say them.

    James — Devil’s Advocate is always welcome round here, keeps me on my toes! It doesn’t mean I always agree with the devil though. 🙂 yes, many people are not taught these social niceties, but if your job is to motivate other people then it’s up to you to learn what works, including apparently trivial social niceties.

  10. @Katie – a very ‘creative’ act would be (well after you’ve left that company) to anonymously deliver a copy of Max Lundsberg’s “The Tao Of Coaching” to said buffoon with the typed message: “From a secret mentor of your management potential”

    The book’s subtitle has the kicker:
    “Boost Your effectiveness at work by inspiring and developing those around you” 🙂

  11. I teach 5th grade, so the comments, “Just hire the motivated ones,” don’t apply to me. Many of my students arrive at my door unmotivated. Many have found ways to escape by doing the bare minimum. As people, however, these students tend to be uninspired and lacking personal interests. Tapping personal interests is the easiest way I’ve found to motivate students.

    Your theory is extremely helpful in thinking about how to manage a classroom. One) find out what motivates students. Two) teach them how to do the basics they’ll need to reach their goals. Three) get the heck out of their way. Once the kids know what it takes (for step two), most of what it takes is positive encouragement and recognition. That’s easy. This frees up more of my time to coach the students who have a hard time learning step two.

    Matt Samson’s last blog post..Suppose you were asked to start your own school…

  12. Thanks Matt, I like your three-step approach. And having run a few business trainings where attendance was mandatory, I can relate to your point about not always having the luxury of choosing the motivated ones! 🙂 In those cases I’ve found it can really pay off, as you say to try and engage people buy their own personal interests.

  13. It is possible to motivate people; even to do things that they would never ‘naturally’ want to. That’s what happens in any war, the leaders inspire those under their command to go against their strongest feeling – self-preservation.
    The tool used is words. The right set of words delivered in the right manner does it every time. All the best speeches in history are examples.

    I agree completely about how a person’s motivation can be lost by lack of recognition for a job well done. That really rankles and it takes a long time for the feelings to dissipate.

    A great phrase which helps in remembering the right course is: ‘You get more of what you reward’. Works for dogs and people. See: How to motivate salespeople

  14. The right set of words delivered in the right manner does it every time.

    Not every time, – sometimes, for some people, for a short while. You can’t keep pumping it into people forever, if there’s no real desire inside them.

    (Unless we accept your circular logic – which I don’t – that the ‘right’ words must inevitably work – and if they don’t then you’ve got the ‘wrong’ words.)

    ‘You get more of what you reward’

    Again – sometimes. Your article has some excellent suggestions for managers, about ways to reward and encourage employees. I particularly like your emphasis on being honest, clear and fair with people about the criteria against which they will be evaluated.

    But for me, it has too much emphasis on the manager and external rewards. That might be more appropriate for a sales team than a creative team, as salespeople are likely to be more focused on extrinsic rewards than creatives.

    See my article about extrinsic motivation for the pitfalls of over-emphasising rewards.

    Works for dogs and people.

    That sounds a bit patronising to me. Maybe I’ve not picked up your tone correctly.

  15. [Unless we accept your circular logic – which I don’t – that the ‘right’ words must inevitably work – and if they don’t then you’ve got the ‘wrong’ words]

    The fastest runners win the all the races, the best students get the top marks, the laziest people have the ‘worst’ luck – looks like everything is a circular argument. Might be a problem having a discussion about anything if one takes this perspective

    Rewarding the behaviour you want to get and punishing that which you wish to deter is the principal control system employed by all societies.
    What you reward may of course be ‘intrinsic’.

  16. The fastest runners win the all the races, the best students get the top marks, the laziest people have the ‘worst’ luck – looks like everything is a circular argument.

    No it doesn’t. ‘Right / wrong’ is an either/or proposition. It assumes there is a ‘right’ answer, but is too vague to help us find it. The other examples you cite are comparatives, with more specific criteria – much easier to evaluate.

    Rewarding the behaviour you want to get and punishing that which you wish to deter is the principal control system employed by all societies.

    Control leads to compliance, not motivation.

    What you reward may of course be ‘intrinsic’.

    Robert, the word ‘intrinsic’ means something that is inherent in the thing itself, unaffected by extrinsic factors such as rewards. So ‘what you reward’ is by definition not intrinsic.

    Managers can encourage and facilitate intrinsic rewards (see my piece on The Joy of Work) but ‘motivating’ them through rewards is pie in the sky.

    If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe Dan Pink: Why Rewards Don’t Work.


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