Decades of psychological research suggests that creative people are quite different from others when it comes to personality, values, and abilities. And managing creative people tends to require special attention and consideration. To keep your creatives engaged, maximize the fit between their natural behavioral tendencies and the role they are in, and then surround them with with good implementers, networkers, and detail-oriented project managers. Few things are more demotivating than being asked to do very easy and unchallenging work, and this is especially true when employees are creative, so be sure to challenge them, and apply the right amount of pressure to projects – not enough pressure will lead to a lack of motivation, and too much of it will create stress that inhibits one’s ability to think creatively. Organizations that provide their most talented people with personalized development plans and mentoring opportunities, and that promote a culture of support and inclusion, will benefit from increased creative performance.
In any team or organization, some individuals are consistently more likely to come up with ideas that are both novel and useful. These ideas are the seeds of innovation: the intellectual foundation for any new products and services that enable some organizations to gain a competitive advantage over others. However, organizations are often unable to put in place the right processes, leadership, and culture to turn creative ideas into actual innovations, which causes even their most creative employees to underperform. This mismanagement of innovation is further exacerbated by the fact that managing creatives tend to require special attention and consideration. Indeed, decades of psychological research suggests that creative people are quite different from others when it comes to personality, values, and abilities. In light of that, here are eight evidence-based recommendations to get the most out of your creative employees and to stop them from underperforming:
- Assign them to the right roles: No matter what industry or job people are in, they will generally perform better when you can maximize the fit between their natural behavioral tendencies and the role they are in. This is why the same person will excel in some roles but struggle in others. Thus, if you want your creative employees to do well, you should deploy them in tasks that are meaningful and relevant to them. In fact, research shows that while creative people are generally more likely to experience higher levels of intrinsic motivation, they also perform worse when not intrinsically motivated. There is therefore a higher cost and productivity loss when your disengaged employees are creative; but the benefits of engaging them are also higher.
- Build a team around them: It’s been said that there are “no statues of committees,” but innovation is always the result of coordinated human activity — people combining their diverse abilities and interests to translate creative ideas into actual innovations. Just try managing a team full of creatives and you will see that very little gets done. In contrast, if you can surround your creative employees with good implementers, networkers, and detail-oriented project managers, you can expect good things to happen — such are the benefits of cognitive diversity. Whether in sports, music, or regular office jobs, creatives will thrive if they are part of a team that is able to turn their ideas into actual products and services, freeing them up from implementation.
- Reward innovation: You get what you measure, so there’s no point in glorifying creativity and innovation if you then reward people for doing what they are told. Paying lip service to innovation will frustrate your creative employees, who will feel underutilized if you show indifference to their creative ideas and imaginations. Conversely, if you actually incentivize people to come up with new ideas, to think outside the box, and to devote some of their energy to improving existing processes, products, and services, you will notice that even those who are not naturally creative will attempt to do things differently and contribute to innovation.
- Tolerate their dark side (but only up to a point): Everybody has a dark side, defined as his or her undesirable or toxic behavioral tendencies. Research has shown that creative individuals are naturally more irritable, moody, and hard to please. Furthermore, because of their imaginative disposition, creatives may come across as odd or eccentric, and they often specialize in making simple things complex, rather than the other way around. However, these non-conformist and individualistic tendencies also provide some of the raw ingredients for creativity: it is usually those who are likely to question the status quo and defy existing norms and traditions that push the most for innovations to happen. As the artist Banksy recently posted on Instagram when he made one of his art works self-destruct at a recent auction (just after the buyer spent over $1.3 million on it): “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge”. In contrast, if you only hire people who are well-behaved and do what you tell them, you can forget about innovation! However, it should be needless to say, no matter how creative employees are, there is no excuse for misbehaving or harming other employees and the organization.
- Challenge them: Few things are more demotivating than being asked to do very easy and unchallenging work, and this is especially true when employees are creative. Data show that in the U.S., 46% of employees see themselves as overqualified for their jobs. This makes it critical to push your employees beyond their level of comfort. Failing to do so will significantly increase disengagement, turnover, and poor psychological health. Investigating this issue, researchers found that situational factors can mitigate these effects. Organizations that provide their most talented people with personalized development plans and mentoring opportunities, and that promote a culture of support and inclusion, will benefit from increased creative performance. Providing such opportunities may be a heavy lift for some organizations, yet failing to do so will risk losing their creative talent to competitors.
- Apply the right amount of pressure: It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention — if a problem must be solved within a given timeframe, it probably will. Yet research shows that working in high-pressure environments can harm an employee’s well-being and in turn reduce their productivity. Yet, when it comes to maximizing one’s creative output, applying some pressure can be a good thing: indeed, scientific evidence indicates that there is an optimal amount of pressure to drive creativity. Not enough pressure will lead to a lack of motivation, and too much of it will create stress that inhibits one’s ability to think creatively. Managers must get this balance right and induce a moderate (optimal) amount of pressure by first defining resource boundaries and expected output, and then clearly communicating their support for the creative process.
- Promote cognitive diversity: When organizations look to hire new employees, their “fit” with the culture is often an important selection criterion, and there is good reason for this (see again point 1). Evidence suggests that employees whose psychological profile and skills match the organization’s culture and mission are more motivated and productive. Yet, if organizations are pursuing innovation, they should in fact promote cognitive diversity amongst their teams. Specifically, leaders should build teams whose members have compatible, yet significantly different, psychological profiles. This is because teams that are cognitively diverse are more likely to view problems differently and produce better decisions. This rule also applies to leaders: if you want leaders to drive any sort of transformation or entrepreneurial activity, you are better off hiring moderate misfits than perfect fits!
- Be humble: With narcissism on the rise, humility is an underrated virtue in today’s society. Narcissists often become leaders thanks to their charisma, charm and confidence, which helps them attract followers and persuade others that they are more competent than they actually are. Yet such leaders are rarely more creative, even when they manage to come across as innovative to others. In fact, leaders who want to produce a creative team should practice humility. A recent study found that a leader’s humility was a significant predictor of a team’s creative output, as they evoke feelings of safety, trust, and cooperation among their followers. To practice humility, leaders should become more willing to publicly admit their mistakes and limitations and become more forthright in displaying appreciation and giving credit where it is due (Elon Musk should take notes).
As individuals are increasingly turning to self-employment and entrepreneurship, organizations are at risk of losing the talent needed to drive growth and fend off disruption. The ability to successfully manage and retain creative talent is therefore critical. While stories of innovative and revolutionary breakthroughs speak of their organic and mythical origins, the reality is that turning creative ideas into an actual reality is hard — and it requires great leadership. Fortunately, there is enough evidence to help leaders develop an effective strategy to not just manage, but also leverage, their creative employees.