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Motivating Creative People – The Joy of Work

Iggy Pop singing
Photo by alexsey.const

In Seth Godin’s new book Tribes, he tells the story of being on holiday in Jamaica, unable to sleep and getting up at 4 AM to check his e-mail in the hotel lobby. As he’s sat there quietly minding his own business, a couple of partygoers roll in from a nightclub. One of them gives him a withering look and hisses ‘in a harsh whisper little quieter than a yell’:

isn’t it sad? That guy comes here on vacation and he’s stuck checking his e-mail. He can’t even enjoy his two weeks off.

And the funny thing is, says Seth, ‘Other than sleeping, there was nothing I’d rather have been doing at that moment — because I’m lucky enough to have a job where I get to make change happen’. Seth is a classic case of a worker driven by intrinsic motivation — i.e. the work is rewarding in itself, something he does for the sheer pleasure of it. Many creative workers say ‘I love my work so much I do it for free’, but Seth take this further — according to one of his recent blog posts, he goes out of his way to avoid making money from most of his work.

I’m not as hardcore as Seth about the money part, but I know how he feels about work. I love my work. I love reading, writing, researching and thinking of ideas. I love spending time with interesting, challenging, talented creative people. I love making new connections, between people, ideas, skills and resources. I love making things — this blog, my poems, my e-books, Lateral Action, my courses, animated films — and who knows what next?

And the chances are, if you use your creativity at work, you feel the same way. You chose your job or your line of business not just because of the money or status but because it’s something you passionately want to do. You started off with a lot of enthusiasm and unless it’s been crushed or blocked, you probably still have it in spades.

Maybe you take this for granted but in a lot of places the idea of enjoying your work would be seen as pretty weird. You’d be regarded as mad or sucking up to the boss. When I worked in a factory it was pretty well universally assumed among the workforce that we all hated being there. No one started work until the buzzer rang. Machines were switched off a minute or two before it rang for breaks, so that you didn’t find yourself shutting it down in a few precious seconds of your own time. At the end of the day, some people literally ran out the door. Whenever we talked about work it was with a kind of gallows humour. The only possible reason you could have for wanting to work late was that you were a ‘grabber’ — i.e. you wanted the extra money from overtime.

But workplaces that foster creativity tend to be different. People want to work there — not just to be there, enjoying the trappings and rewards, but to work there. You might hear complaints about people — colleagues, clients, bosses etc — or about systems and processes. But you are less likely to hear complaints about the work itself — unless it’s not challenging, difficult, interesting or plain good enough. In fact, a large proportion of the complaints about people and systems tend to focus on the negative impact on the work — the client wasn’t brave enough, so the ad is going to be too tame, or the deadline was too tight so you didn’t have time to render the detail properly.

In The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida analyses a survey of IT workers motivations, conducted by Information Week in 2001. Over 20,000 workers were asked the question ‘What matters most to you about your job?’, and given a choice of 38 different factors. Florida points out that not only did money (an extrinsic motivation) rank only fourth, behind three different types of intrinsic motivation, but that ‘nine of the ten highly valued job factors are intrinsic’. Here they are, as ranked in order of importance by the survey respondents:

  1. Challenge and responsibility
  2. Flexibility
  3. A stable work environment
  4. Compensation
  5. Professional development
  6. Peer recognition
  7. Stimulating colleagues and managers
  8. Exciting job content
  9. Organisational culture
  10. Location and community

I might quibble over details — does peer recognition count as intrinsic motivation or an extrinsic reward? — but Florida’s analysis makes it overwhelmingly clear that these IT workers were far more motivated by intrinsic motivations (qualities inherent in the work itself) than by extrinsic motivations (rewards given for doing the work). And as he points out, IT workers are a fairly conservative sample of creative professionals:

they have been said to be a fairly conventional sector of the Creative Class. They are certainly a good deal more mainstream than artists, musicians or advertising copywriters. On the other, IT workers are set to care a great deal about money.

If you are responsible for managing a creative team, the exciting implication of all this is that your workers start from a baseline of enthusiasm. If you can act as a catalyst for this enthusiasm, and ensure that it’s directed towards the business goals of the organisation, you and your team have the potential to achieve spectacular results. Thousands of managers out there would love to be in your shoes.

And the frightening implication is, as we saw in the previous post, you have a power to crush that enthusiasm that may well be greater than you realise. Handle with care!

Intrinsic Motivation Leads to Creative Excellence

If you’re a manager then you might be forgiven for thinking ‘That’s all very well for creative types who like to have fun at work, but this is a business, not a poetry class. I get paid to deliver results, not to keep everyone happy. What difference does it make to me whether they’re enjoying themselves?’.

Good question. In some types of work it may not make much difference — you can get better performance by yelling at them or paying them more money. But if you are managing people engaged in complex creative work, be careful. It may not surprise you to know that wielding the big stick will have a negative impact on their creativity, but did you know that you can do just as much harm with the carrot?

Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile has conducted extensive research into the effect of motivation on creative performance. For example, in one study she worked with two groups of children. The first group were given paper and paint and told to paint a picture. The second group were told that if they painted a really good picture they would be rewarded with a sweet. When the resulting pictures were evaluated, the first group were judged to have produced consistently better pictures than the second group. Amabile’s explanation is that the first group were focused on painting for its own sake (intrinsic motivation) whereas the second group were distracted by the thought of the reward (extrinsic motivation) and so failed to give the painting sufficient attention to produce something really good.

The research findings are echoed by these words from Chris Jones, Chief Executive of J Walter Thomson worldwide:

People who are really good aren’t motivated by more money. They set themselves extraordinarily high standards. You won’t get their standards to go any higher by saying ‘ here’s some more money’.
Quoted in Tantrums & Talent: (How to Get the Best from Creative People), by Winston Fletcher, p.78

So if you’re a hard-nosed manager focused on results, make sure your team are focused on the task itself, by facilitating intrinsic motivation rather than dangling external rewards in front of them.

Types of Intrinsic Motivation


One day in the late 1970s, Sony co-founder Akio Morita called a meeting of his chief engineers. On the table in front of him he placed a very small block of wood. He told them that their task was to make a hi-fi no bigger than the block. At the time this was an outrageous challenge — but one that fired the imagination of his engineers and led to the release of the Walkman in 1979. Creative people like nothing more than a challenge — the more difficult, the better.


Creatives have a very low boredom threshold. One of the most common complaints among junior creatives is that the senior people take all the interesting work and leave them with the routine stuff. And they’re usually right. In some companies, the opportunity to work on complex, interesting briefs is seen as a right that has to be earned. Inevitably, a certain amount of fairly routine work needs to be done in any company; a common way of persuading people to do is to promise them something more interesting ‘next time’.


Challenge and interest fuel the learning process. A large part of the satisfaction of creative work comes from discovering something you didn’t know before and developing new skills in the process. This is what Honda mean when they say that problems are a joy.


When the partygoers looked at Seth Godin in the hotel lobby, they only saw a geek checking his e-mail. They didn’t realise that those e-mails connect Seth with a global audience of hundreds of thousands. They had no idea that for Seth, writing e-mails, blog posts, books and presentations means he is helping to change the world. They only saw the superficial activity, not the meaning, and missed the attraction.


Work becomes more attractive when we feel it is achieving something important. There’s a world of difference between photocopying an expense claim and photocopying inspiring source material for your novel. It can be fun to design a website, but it’s the website of your favourite band or a charity in the business of saving people’s lives, the task goes beyond fun and becomes compelling. Because it involves external results, you might be tempted to consider purpose as an extensive reward — but I’m not talking about a personal reward you receive for having done the work, but an effect that is integral to the work itself, usually affecting people or situations beyond your usual sphere of influence. So does purpose = completely selfless action? Absolutely not. This sense of purpose is the reward.

Creative flow

I’ve written before about creative flow — the state of intense absorption and pleasure that for many of us is the main motivation for doing creative work. The cause of creative flow is usually a combination of the intrinsic motivations I’ve just listed, particularly a balance between the challenge in front of you and your levels of skill. The result is what happens when all the different elements resolve themselves into a highly focused state, experienced as sheer joy. If you don’t believe me, look at Iggy’s face.

Managing Intrinsic Motivation

I could easily have called this section ‘nailing jelly to a post’. By definition, intrinsic motivation works through spontaneity, pleasure and fascination — none of which can be served up to order. No wonder managing creative people is often described as ‘herding cats’, notoriously wilful and independent creatures. But if you can’t control it, you can coax it to some extent. Here are a few suggestions:

Set them a challenge

Remember, creatives love a challenge. How can you make the brief more difficult? More inspiring? More extreme?

Define the goal clearly

If there’s one thing worse than a boring or easy brief, it’s a vague one. ‘Write a story’ is terrible. ‘Write a superhero story’ isn’t much better. ‘Write a Batman story’ at least gives me something to work with. ‘Write a Batman story in which his identity is exposed’, or ‘where he lets himself and the city down’, or ‘where he loses all his gadgets and has to rely on his wits’ – now I’ve got something to get my teeth into.

Eliminate distractions and interruptions

Help them concentrate. Don’t interrupt them — or let others interrupt them — unless it’s important AND urgent. As far as possible, help them ‘batch’ meetings, conversations, and day-to-day tasks so that they don’t keep interfering with focused work. Whatever distractions arise, remind them that the work itself is their primary responsibility.

Match the work to the worker

Make it your business to know everyone on the team, including the kind of work they love to do. Whenever possible, give them tasks that suit their talents. Their reward will be more job satisfaction. Yours will be better results.

Let them get on with it

This is a tricky one. Creatives hate being micromanaged and told what to do every step of the way. But ultimately you’re accountable for the work, so you need to make sure they are delivering on brief. If you’re a creative yourself, you’ll have to deal with the added temptation to show them how you would do it, and the fact that they may approach it in a very different way. There are no easy answers, but it helps if you’re very clear about what you are asking them to make, and your criteria for success, and then leave how to do it up to them.

Reward behaviours, not results

At the US software developer SAS, managers are trained to reward those responsible for new initiatives before it becomes obvious whether the initiative has succeeded or failed. Why? Because their aim is to foster a culture of innovation. If they only rewarded successful projects, employees would be much more careful about proposing and acting on new ideas. This way, the company benefits from many more ideas and people who are more prepared to take a risk and try things out.

Coaching creative flow

Coaching is a great way of coaxing creative flow out of people — have a look at my post How coaching creates creative flow for some tips.

Right, that’s enough intrinsic motivation to keep us going for today. The next post in this series will look at extrinsic motivations and their effect on creative people.

Over to You

How important to you are intrinsic motivations such as challenge, learning and creative flow — relative to external rewards like money or status?

Can you think of any other intrinsic motivations to add to my list?

Managers facilitating intrinsic motivation?

Would you like your team to be more motivated and creative?

And if you’d like some help motivating your team to produce stellar work, ask me about running my popular motivation training workshop How to Motivate Creative People (Including Yourself) for your organisation.


  1. The opportunity to learn is one of my key motivators and my managers have cultivated that. My current manager has explicitly stated his understanding of it. He’s also good at setting specific challenges and letting me get on with it while still pointing out the particular immediate accomplishments that are most important to him, even if they aren’t the most interesting ones.

    I’ve never cared much about status and make enough money that we can do many things we want. It’s actually annoying when my desires for “stuff” increase (I’d really like to move into a larger house in the next year or two) because I need to figure out how the money that requires fits into my workplace motivations or into budgeting discipline.

  2. answers r very right ,,, but for a student how would you define ?
    how to motivate a student towards studies??

  3. Beth — great to hear your manager is so switched on to your motivation to learn. As a fellow learnaholic I can understand what a difference is that must make!

    Soul — Having been a student a few times, I’m not sure they are are all that different to the rest of us. 🙂

    Ideally, a student would be taking a course because he or she found it interesting and wanted to do it. If that’s not the case I’d ask why you’re doing the course at all? It would probably be more rewarding to switch to another subject. Does that help?

  4. thanx Mark McGuinnes…..
    I M STUDING BBA (business administration ) and i chosed with my interest but i want to know that many student come with their own interst but they used to say there should be motivation for students…what does mean it,,, i wonderd thats y i asked u guys… what kind of motivation should be there???
    from teacher ? dep? faculty and etc???
    what u say????????????????????

  5. I think the motivation really needs to come from the student. Of course the teacher should do everything s/he can to inspire the students and present the subjects in an interesting way – but that won’t count for much unless the student is keen to learn.

  6. I think the biggest issue in motivation is just making people feel appreciated! Sadly this can’t be forced, fake appreciation would just backfire!

    Meg’s last blog post..All Artichoked Up

  7. Meg – yes, the appreciation needs to be genuine, and the expression often needs to be tailored to the individual. What makes some people feel appreciated leaves others cold.


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