Seven Rules for Managing Creative-But-Difficult People
by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Moody, erratic, eccentric, and arrogant? Perhaps — but you can’t just get rid of them. In fact, unless you learn to get the best out of your creative employees, you will sooner or later end up filing for bankruptcy. Conversely, if you just hire and promote people who are friendly and easy to manage, your firm will be mediocre at best. Suppressed creativity is a malign organizational tumour. Although every organization claims to care about innovation, very few are willing to do what it takes to keep their creative people happy, or at least, productive. So what are the keys to engaging and retaining creative employees?
1. Spoil them and let them fail:
Like parents who celebrate their children’s mess: show your creatives unconditional support and encourage them to do the absurd and fail. Innovation comes from uncertainty, risk, and experimentation — if you know it will work, it isn’t creative. Creative people are the natural experimenters, so let them try and test and play. Of course, there are costs associated with experimentation — but these are lower than the cost of NOT innovating.
2. Surround them by semi-boring people:
The worst thing you can do to a creative employee is to force them to work with someone like them — they would compete for ideas, brainstorm eternally, or simply ignore each other. That said, you cannot surround creatives with really boring or conventional people — they would not understand them, and fall out. In line with this, recent research indicates that teams made up of diverse members who are open to taking each others’ perspective perform most creatively.
The solution, then, is to support your creatives with colleagues who are too conventional to challenge their ideas, but unconventional enough to collaborate with them. These colleagues will need to pay attention to details, mundane executional processes, and do the dirty work: Messi needs Busquets and Puyol; Ronaldo needs Alonso and Ramos.
3. Only involve them in meaningful work:
Natural innovators tend to have more vision, research I’ve done indicates. They see the bigger picture and are able to understand why things matter (even if they cannot explain it). The downside to this is that they simply won’t engage in meaningless work. This all-or-nothing approach to work mirrors the bipolar temperament of creative artists, who perform well only when inspired — and inspiration is fueled by meaning. This rule can also be applied to other employees: everyone is more creative when driven by their genuine interests and a hungry mind.
As novelist John Irving said, “the reason I can work so hard at my writing is that it’s not work for me”. At the same time, in any organization there will be employees who are less interested in, well, doing interesting work; they are satisfied with simply clocking in and out, and are incentivized by external rewards. Companies should ensure that trivial or meaningless work is assigned to these employees.
4. Don’t pressure them:
Creativity is usually enhanced by giving people more freedom and flexibility at work. If you like structure, order and predictability, you are probably not creative. However, we are all more likely to perform more creatively in spontaneous, unpredictable circumstances — because we cannot rely on our habits. Don’t constrain your creative employees; don’t force them to follow processes or structures. Let them work remotely and outside normal hours; don’t ask where they are, what they are doing or how they do it. This is the secret to managing Don Draper, and why he never went to work for a bigger competitor. This is also why so many top athletes fail to make the transition from a small to a big team, and why business founders are usually unhappy to remain in charge of their ventures once they are acquired by a bigger company.
5. Pay them poorly – Don’t overpay them:
There is a longstanding debate about the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Over the past two decades, psychologists have provided compelling evidence for the so-called “over-justification” effect, namely the process whereby higher external rewards impair performance by depressing a person’s genuine or intrinsic interest. Most notably, two large-scale meta-analyses reported that, when tasks are inherently meaningful (and creative tasks are certainly in this condition), external rewards diminish engagement. This is true in both adults and children, especially when people are rewarded merely for performing a task. However, providing positive feedback (praises) does not harm intrinsic motivation, so long as the feedback is perceived as genuine. [Editor’s note: This is clearly a controversial point; Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic has expanded on it in his new article, “Does Money Really Affect Motivation? A Review of the Research.” In line with his comments in the thread below, we’ve also updated the header on this section to be more accurate.]
The moral of the story? The more you pay people to do what they love, the less they will love it. In the words of Czikszentmihalyi, “the most important quality, the one that is most consistently present in all creative individuals, is the ability to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake.” More importantly, people with a talent for innovation are not driven by money. Data from our research archive, which includes over 50,000 managers from 20 different countries, indicates quite clearly that the more imaginative and inquisitive people are, the more they are driven by recognition and sheer scientific curiosity rather than commercial needs.
6. Surprise them:
Few things are as aggravating to creatives as boredom. Indeed, creative people are prewired to seek constant change, even when it’s counterproductive. They take a different route to work every day, even if it gets them lost, and never repeat an order at a restaurant, even if they really liked it. Creativity is linked to higher tolerance of ambiguity. Creatives love complexity and enjoy making simple things complex rather than vice-versa. Instead of looking for the answer to a problem, they prefer to find a million answers or a million problems. It is therefore essential that you keep surprising your creative employees; failing that, you should at least let them create enough chaos to make their own lives less predictable.
7. Make them feel important:
As T.S. Eliot noted, “most of the trouble in this world is caused by people wanting to be important”. And the reason is that others fail to recognize them. Fairness is not treating everyone the same, but like they deserve. Every organization has high and low potential employees, but only competent managers can identify them. If you fail to recognize your employees’ creative potential, they will go somewhere where they feel more valued.
A final caveat: even when you are able to manage your creative employees, it does not mean that you should let them manage others. In fact, natural innovators are rarely gifted with leadership skills. There is a profile for good leaders, and a profile for creative people — and they are rather different. Steve Jobs had better relationships with gadgets than people, and most Google engineers are utterly disinterested in management. One of the reasons for the rapid plateau of start-ups is that their founders tend to remain in charge. They should learn from Mark Zuckerberg who brought in Sheryl Sandberg to make up for his own leadership deficits. Research confirms the stereotypical view that corporate innovators — intrapreneurs — exhibit many of the psychopathic characteristics that prevent them from being effective leaders: they are rebellious, anti-social, self-centered and often too low in empathy to care about the welfare of others. But manage them well, and their inventions will delight us all.
Editor’s note: We updated the headline on this post April 10 to reflect that its intent is to discuss a small subset of people who happen to be both creative and difficult to work with; not to imply that all creative people are difficult. We regret the error.
Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in personality profiling and psychometric testing. He is a Professor of Business Psychology at University College London (UCL), Vice President of Research and Innovation at Hogan Assessment Systems, and has previously taught at the London School of Economics and New York University. He is co-founder of metaprofiling.com.