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Motivating Creative People – Rewards for Work

Photo by Steepways for Obama!

“I went into the business for money and the art grew out of it. If people are disillusioned by that remark, I can’t help it. It’s the truth.”
Charlie Chaplin, Academy Award acceptance speech, 1972

Show me a professional artist or creative with no ambition and I’ll show you a liar. No matter how much we may love our art for its own sake, very few of us will turn our noses up at the rewards on offer, such as money, fame, status and privilege. Such rewards are known as extrinsic motivations, because they are external to the work itself. In many creative fields, the extrinsic rewards on offer are so spectacular that competition is cutthroat and hordes of young (and not so young) hopefuls are prepared to invest huge amounts of time, effort and energy for a shot at the big time.

‘But hang on a minute — didn’t you say in the last post that intrinsic motivation is critical for creative success? And that most creative professionals are more motivated by the joy of work than by money?’

Absolutely. If you want to produce outstanding creative work, then while you’re working you need to be 100% focused on the task in hand. In fact, you probably need to be obsessed by your work. But that doesn’t mean you don’t care about the rewards. Have another look at the list of IT workers’ motivations in the last post — ‘compensation’ is not the highest ranked motivation, but it still is comes in fourth place, above professional development, peer recognition and ‘exciting job content’. Money may be relatively less important than things like challenge and flexibility, but it’s still important. IT is a reasonably well-paid profession, so it could be argued that these workers are sufficiently well off that they have the luxury of not having to worry about money. Unlike the young Charlie Chaplin, who ended up in a south London workhouse after his father had abandoned him and his mother was committed to an asylum.

Have another look at Chaplin’s words. He didn’t say that his art was driven by money, but that he ‘went into the business for money’, implying that this was a hard-headed career choice. He also said that ‘the art grew out’ of the business, suggesting something separate but related, as if the business and his professional ambition where the soil, and his art a beautiful flower that emerged from it. Or to change the metaphor, it’s as though art and business are parallel rails in any creative career. Both are essential for success and leaning on one at the expense of the other can be disastrous. Lean too far towards the rewards and you become a hack, churning out mediocre work to pay the bills; neglect the money side of things and life becomes too stressful to focus on your work properly.

Managers of creative professionals are faced with the same dilemma. On the one hand, it’s in their interest to spend company money wisely. But if they fail to reward people according to their expectations, this can become a point of contention and a distraction, affecting the team’s performance. Think of the premiership footballer whose form dips during protracted contract negotiations. Before we look at options for striking the right balance, it was reviewing the different kinds of extrinsic reward on offer for creative work.

Types of Extrinsic Motivation


In the last post we saw that money isn’t necessarily the most powerful motivation for creative work. Great creators set themselves very high standards anyway. But money can be spent huge motivation for a creative career, especially if you’re as poverty stricken as the young Chaplin. Like Chaplin, money could well motivate you to put in the hours necessary for success. Which is fine, as long as the work itself is your focus within those hours.

Money is also a clearly defined way of ‘keeping score’, measuring how highly regarded you are by your employer or your audience. You may be very happy with your salary, until you learn that the guy at the next desk is earning twice as much as you — especially if you fancy yourself as better than him. (We’ll be saying more about this when we look at peer motivation later in this series.) And violinist Nigel Kennedy writes in his autobiography ‘I think if you’re playing music or doing art you can in some way measure the amount of communication you are achieving by how much money it is bringing in for you and for those around you’.

Fame and recognition

There’s a bit of a showoff in most creators. Even if you don’t yearn to see your name in lights, you’re probably not averse to a bit of public recognition for your efforts. Your ‘public’ may be your team, a select group of your peers, the industry critics, a subculture of devoted fans, or the public itself.

Fame and recognition can serve as a kind of currency even in fields devoid of monetary rewards. The term ‘egoboo’ is used within the open source programming community, referring to the ‘ego boost’ you receive from being publicly credited for good work. So even though there’s no money involved, it’s not strictly true to say that open source programmers work ‘for nothing’. Poetry is another creative medium with very little cash on offer, but which operates on a kind of ‘reputation economy’ — the higher your reputation, the more prestigious your publisher will be, the more magazines will want to take your work, the higher up the bill you will be on readings, etc. I once asked a famous UK poet whether he thought the spirit of ‘egoboo’ was alive and well in the poetry world: he immediately sat up very straight and looked me in the eye. ‘Oh yes’, he said with feeling.


Creators love a good awards ceremony — as long as they or their favourites are on the shortlist. Every year, there are plenty of commentators ready to deride awards ceremonies as tacky, elitist or simply irrelevant to ‘hard’ measures of business success. And every year, they are ignored in the feverish speculations, celebrations and recriminations before during and after the ceremonies. In some organisations a mere rumour that a certain project ‘might be up for an award’ can prompt outsiders to flock to the project and insiders to redouble their efforts. Where the rumours begin, and how hard management works to quell them, is often hard to establish.

Praise and appreciation

What fame and awards are to the public sphere, praise and appreciation are to the private. You may be perfectly happy to shun the limelight, while treasuring praise from people you respect — such as your peers, your boss or your mentor. And while a difficult task may be worth your while, a thankless task is not. Katie Konrath left a heartfelt comment to this effect on the first post in this series:

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.

Status and privilege

In Confessions of an Advertising Man, David Ogilvy has nothing but admiration for his former boss’s habit of rubbing his nose in it:

We cooks were badly paid, but M. Pitard made so much from the commissions which supplies paid him that he could afford to live in a chateau. Far from concealing his wealth from the rest of us, he drove to work in a taxi, carried it came with a gold head, and dressed, when off duty, like an international banker. This flaunting of privilege stimulated or ambition to follow in his footsteps.

It’s not always so blatant, but look around any office or studio and you’ll see signs of status and privilege in people’s behaviour. At meetings, the intern is unlikely to sit at the head of the table. The creative director probably doesn’t do the morning ‘bun run’. As long as status is clearly linked to achievement, and achievement is seen to be fairly assessed, striving for seniority can be a powerful ingredient in the motivational mix.


Why are so many people prepared to work for little or nothing, making tea, running errands, ordering taxis and doing the photocopying, on film sets, in ad agencies, in TV and fashion studios? Because it gives them a foot in the door, an opportunity to be in the right place when more exciting positions become available. Ogilvy didn’t choose the life of a brigade chef for its own sake — he had his eye on M. Pitard’s gold cane.

Obligations and deadlines

As soon as you sign a contract or make a promise to someone else, you have an obligation to fulfil. Sometimes this can be just the push you need to get you through the wall of resistance that would otherwise lead to procrastination. I occasionally have coaching clients who say to me ‘I know exactly what I need to do, but I’m more likely to do it if I’ve promised you do it by a certain date’. The funny thing is, the work is usually quite enjoyable when you get going and intrinsic motivation takes over. But to get you going in the first place place, you sometimes need the extrinsic motivation of ‘deadline magic’.


According to legend, Dylan Thomas was so unreliable at fulfilling contracts to write radio plays for the BBC that his producer used to literally lock him in a room with nothing but a typewriter and telephone. When Thomas had finished an act, he was allowed to use the telephone to ring the producer — who would then reward him with a tot of whisky, and the promise of another when he’d written the next act. This kind of thing probably isn’t a viable long-term strategy, but if you know your team’s foibles and desires, then dangling the carrot of an (ethical) bribe could get you out of the occasional tight spot.


As with bribes, we need to watch our ethical footing here. We also need to be mindful of effectiveness — it won’t be news to you that managing by threats and coercion leads to pretty poor performance. But you can’t let people get away with murder either. Sometimes you need to challenge people’s behaviour, and make it very clear that Bad Things Will Happen if they don’t change their ways. Some of us are more comfortable than others are doing this. If you’re not a confrontational type, then you can often get a surprising amount of leverage by highlighting consequences in a chain of events, rather than making personal threats. For example:

I know you think it doesn’t matter what time you come in as long as you get the job done. But the MD disagrees and it’s his company. He’s asked me why the rule should be different for you than for everyone else in the office, and I’m struggling to come up with a good reason. Can you help me with that?

Sometimes that works. Other times people respond better to a good kick up the backside. (Metaphorical, of course.)

Managing Extrinsic Motivation

Don’t rely on extrinsic motivations

If you try to motivate people using nothing but money, praise, flattery, opportunities, privileges, deadlines, bribes and threats you end up with a crew of mercenaries, egomaniacs, toadies, opportunists and cowards. It worked pretty well for Blackbeard, but it may not be such a good fit for you. Remember, if you want top quality work, focus on intrinsic motivations to get people excited about the work first and rewards second.

Get the balance right

Extrinsic factors may have limited value as motivators but you can’t afford to ignore them — because they make excellent demotivators. If someone feels they are not sufficiently appreciated or rewarded, this will prey on their mind and distract them from their work. Their griping and sniping could also undermine the rest of the team. It can take a fair amount of negotiation and mutual adjustment before all parties are happy with the working arrangements. In fact, a bit of uncomfortable negotiation can even be a reassuring thing — if everyone agrees to your terms too quickly, you may be offering too much.


Satisfaction is usually relative. 60K feels a great salary if everyone else is on 45K. But if a new person is brought in at 80K, it suddenly feels inadequate. If you’re responsible for deciding on financial rewards, calibrating average remuneration within your industry or company gives you a good starting point. You don’t have to follow the market but you’ll have some idea of how well your offer matches people’s expectations.

Calibration, or benchmarking norms, also applies to other extrinsic rewards: I’ve noticed that software developers tend to be pretty robust in giving and receiving feedback, whereas performing artists are often more fulsome in their mutual praise, and more tactful when delivering criticism.

Notice what has the biggest impact

Some people are squarely focused on financial remuneration. Others are more interested in recognition and reputation. Others have plenty of enthusiasm but need a looming deadline before they really knuckle down. The better you know your team, the more obvious it will become to you which forms of motivation they respond to — positively and negatively. And their motivations may be very different from your own — as we’ll see in the next post, when we look at personal motivation.

What Do You Find Most Rewarding?

What kind of extrinsic rewards are most important to you?

Which are the most prominent in your industry or creative field?

If you’re a manager, which extrinsic rewards have the biggest impact on your team?

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.


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  9. Die Erfinder says:

    Wofür werfen sich Kreative ins Zeug? Kleiner Tipp: Geld ist es nicht….

    Wer ein Gehalt bezahlt, erwirbt damit den Anspruch, den Empfänger im vereinbarten Umfang für seine Zwecke einzusetzen. Kurz gesagt: Geld gegen Lebenszeit. Wer kreative Leistungen möchte, muss ein bisschen mehr bieten. Oder besser: etwas anderes. Dass S…