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How to Motivate Creative People

Mark McGuinness

This was an "e-book" but it's short and not very detailed, so it is documented as an article.

The author begins with the assertion that "creative work is different" and so are the people who tend to gravitate toward jobs that require creativity. There are stereotypes of their being brilliant, temperamental, and rebellious, and the traditional methods of management just don't work. This is largely because the traditional methods of management are best suited to un-creative work: doing known tasks in the most efficient manner possible. Creativity is about exploring the unknown and discovering new things. There is no step-by-step procedure for being creative.

Likewise, traditional methods of motivation do not work with creative types. Their interest is in creation, solving problems, exploring opportunities - and they are quite often not interested in traditional rewards because their motivation is intrinsic to the work itself. He mentions research with schoolchildren (Amabile) that found that incentives decrease rather than increase performance. A creative person doesn't want to win a prize, but to create something that's really good, often by their own standards. It's also observed that the works in an artist's portfolio that are done for clients are considerably less creative/good than the ones they have done for their own sake.

This puts managers in a bind: their firm demands that they get top performance out of their creative team, but the traditional management "levers" that are successful for other kinds of workers are not effective with creative workers, and may even do more harm than good. The author describes this as "a very interesting challenge."

What Gets You Out of Bed?

The author contrasts extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, giving the example of Anthony Trollope, a prolific writer of the Victorian Era who had written more than 47 novels. He had made enough money from his work that there was no need for him to ever write another book, but he kept after it - not because he wanted to make more money, but because he had an intrinsic love or writing.

He mentions that a writer, particularly in the Victorin era, had a great deal of control over his own work. There was no creative "team" of people competing for control, and even his publisher could only reach out to him via the post office and could not constantly interrupt and micromanage his work. Writers in the present day are constantly pressed upon by their publishers, who are attentive more to what kinds of book will be popular with the mass market rather than literature that has intrinsic quality and of which the writer can be proud.

And anyone who works in a creative profession has to cope with supervisors who want to dictate what they produce and colleagues who are constantly competing to push their ideas to the fore. Creativity inside of a corporation is very different than creativity of a lone artist - some would argue that the two bear little semblance to one another at all. And while one can disparage the subjective "quality" of the work - it cannot be denied that creative work is a lot less autonomous than it had been in ages past. Creative passion is smothered for the sake of commercial success.

You Can't Motivate Others ... But You Can Demotivate Them

"Motivation" is often spoken of as if it is something that one person can do for another - to inject other people with a will to succeed and excel. It is this sense that the football fan, shouting at the television from his living room chair, feels that he has some part to play in their victory - that they would have lost the game, or sat sleepily on the bench, if it weren't for all his cheering. The boss who feels he has "motivated" his people by barking orders at them, telling them to do what they already know how to do, and nagging them to do it better and faster without providing any means of practical support erroneously feels that he has practiced leadership and caused his employees to perform better.

Browbeating people can "motivate" them to do something they are not interested in doing, but only to the degree that is necessary for them to escape nagging. People who are truly motivated to excel do not need a cheerleader or slave-driver, and in fact such people often distract them from their goal and detract from their performance. You can direct a person's enthusiasm to a specific course of action (only if they had none in mind), you can clear barriers to their success, and you can provide them with the resources they need to succeed - but you cannot make them want to succeed if they are not already motivated from within.

Ironically, most methods for motivating people tend to demotivate them instead: telling them to do things that they already know that they need to do, giving vague encouragement (or threats) to do things "better" or "faster" without specific guidance or additional resources, and otherwise interfering with and distracting from their ability to do the good work they might have done if they were left alone to do it.

Consider that the things that people do in their leisure time is not so different from the things that people do for a living - the difference between a gardener and a farmer, between a woodworking enthusiast and a carpenter, between a home cook and a restaurant chef, between an amateur golfer and a professional athlete is negligible.

Some highly motivated employees have chosen a profession that matches their interests, but more often the motivated employee has taken an interest in what they happen to do for a paycheck. There are many people who are quite happy working as janitors, a job that is often regarded as low-paying, tedious, and unpleasant - but a janitor who takes interest in the work, who finds mopping a floor an engaging challenge and believes he has served others by doing the work, can happily carry on for years.

(EN: This is common in some eastern philosophies, and is a characteristic of the Japanese culture. People focus on doing a small task as well as possible - the man who devoted his life to making the perfect noodle - and find that they are able to find pleasure and engagement in the pursuit of such objectives.)

Creative people are drawn to professions because they love the activity, but lose their passion because of the lack of autonomy: they cannot create at their leisure, and cannot create work that is "good" by their own standards. Instead, they must work to deadlines and satisfy specifications, and are often beset by meddlers who have less knowledge or expertise - yet who still feel that it is their role to tell the creative worker how to do his job.

This is where a domineering manager or a toxic work environment can drain the enthusiasm of creative workers. Many people bounce out of "creative" jobs quickly. Others persevere for a number of years but are worn down and burned out over time - they attempt to contribute but are unable to do so, they hold out hope that the next project will be better, and over time they realize that they will never be able to contribute in a meaningful way and resign themselves to becoming hacks.

The author gives the example of an enthusiastic worker who was highly motivated, and who worked long hours to complete projects on short deadlines - but whenever he delivered his work, his manager would always find fault, shaming him in front of the group for minor flaws in the work. It wasn't long before he quit putting in the extra effort and directed his creative passions to leisure-time pursuits.

Managing Motivation

Again, the premise: people bring their own motivation to the job, or discover a way to take interest in what they have to do. A manager cannot give them motivation - he can direct it, support it, or destroy it. But if he is to do so, he must understand where it comes from and know how to handle it. To this end, the author focuses on two characteristics of motivation:

(EN: these two pairs are common to other theories of motivation I have read - it's not comprehensive, but it's a good starting point.)

Intrinsic Motivation

The person who is intrinsically motivated is one who enjoys his work, which runs completely opposite to the cultural perception of work: it seems to be assumed that work is boring and unpleasant, that people cannot wait until the end of the day or the end of the week, and that it is something they would not do if they didn't need the money. It does seem rare, but there are people who genuinely enjoy what they do, and who seem a bit weird and obnoxious to the majority of workers who hate their jobs.

At the same time, there remains the notion of finding one's "calling" in life, or finding a job that you enjoy doing. Even people who dislike their jobs have the sense that there's something out there that they would be happy, or at least happier, if they were doing it.

There are also "job satisfaction" surveys, that find people report liking jobs better where there is challenge and responsibility, flexibility in activities, and the ability to learn and grow. The surveys also have findings that report about qualities that appeal to other forms of motivation (better pay for the extrinsic, a sense of camaraderie for the social, and so on), but the factors that speak of intrinsic motivation typically dominate the top of the list.

He mentions that people who apply for creative positions "start from a baseline of enthusiasm" that their supervisor and organization can either capitalize upon or crushed, and very often it is crushed when the job doesn't turn out to be as promised. There's reference to the "hard-nosed manager" who puts performance before morale, and who very often seems to think that happy workers are unproductive and make a point of placing people under pressure to perform. What results is the death of creativity and productivity as well.

There's a brief list of some of the qualities of a job that feed intrinsic motivations:

He then provides a handful of suggested actions for managers:

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation should be familiar to traditional managers - it is the motivation to earn some reward that is not related to the work itself. Monetary compensation is the most common form of extrinsic motivation: workers are motivated by pay, so a boss can threaten their pay or promise a bonus in order to control their behavior.

The author re-asserts that intrinsic motivation is the primary and most important type for creative professionals - but it is not the only type. Extrinsic motivation (compensation, specifically) is not the highest ranked, but it is number four on the list. Creative people will accept less money for an engaging job, and do so more than people in most other professions, but when they begin to feel disillusioned, extrinsic rewards become their focus. Ideally, the creative professional does not work because he wants a paycheck, but happens to be paid for doing work he finds compelling.

In other instances, the compensation for a job is a signal that supports some other kind of motivation. A person who wants to feel their work is important (intrinsic) may be influenced by the amount he is paid to do it (low salary signifies low importance). A person who feels like their work is valued by others (social) may likewise consider the amount he is paid to be a signifier of the degree to which others value him.

He mentions that creative people often disdain those who have financial success - those who churn out mediocre work in order to gain financial success are seen as "hacks" or "sell-outs" who have betrayed their craft for the sake of money. (EN: Though very often, this is "sour grapes" on the part of someone who is less successful.)

The author lists a number of things that contribute to extrinsic motivation:

Each extrinsic motivation also has an opposite, which can be used to motivate people - whether it is denying them something (failure to earn a bonus) or taking something away (a pay cut for the worst performers). A person who craves praise can be motivated to avoid being shamed, etc.

He then provides a handful of suggested actions for managers:

Personal Motivation

The author's idea about personal motivation is about doing work that aligns with a person's values. Consider the monk who joins a religious order, renounces all worldly possessions and adopts a solitary and austere lifestyle. Such a person is obviously not pursuing the traditional rewards with which most people identify (money, fame, and the like) but is seeking to act in a manner aligned with his values.

There are other professions that offer little in the way of wealth and recognition, but which are attractive to people who seek a profession that enables them to achieve personal goals and express their individual values merely by participating in the activities. Consider the work of a college professor, which is certainly not a path to wealth and fame. The academic is a person who has a love of knowledge, and who takes a profession in which they can contribute to an academic area of interest. Consider the rank-and-file soldier, who is modestly compensated and who remains an anonymous one among many in his army, yet who feels great fulfillment in serving in that capacity.

There is far too much elaboration on the "enneagram of personality," a diagram that allegedly traces its roots to roman philosophy and defines nine basic personality types and their core fears and desires: the reformer who wants to create balance, the helper who wants to feel loved, the achiever who wants to feel valuable, the individualist ho wants independence, and so on. (EN: There are other sources of information about this, and the author gets too deeply into the weeds, so I'm skipping a good deal of filler content here).

Ultimately, the sense is that there are people with certain values and proclivities, who are happiest working (or acting in any regard) in a manner that aligns with their personality. Some personality types align with creative professions and become discontent when they are pushed outside of their comfort zones.

This said, the author has a few pieces of advice:

Social Motivation

People are social creatures, and take great satisfaction in belonging to the group and having the group value them as a member. While this form of motivation is not entirely absent in creative workers, it tends to be rather week: the creative is by definition a deviant who seeks to break from group conventions rather than follow them. Those that have social motivations are generally motivated not to fit in with the herd, but to guide the herd.

(EN: It may be worthwhile here to distinguish between the genuine creative and the wannabe creative - as there are many people who wish to be perceived as creative but who are actually imitative by nature. They imitate the creative people when an idea seems to be catching on, and while they fancy themselves as leaders they are merely the first wave of followers. Their following gives the rest of the herd the sense that a creative person's idea was a good one, so they have their part to play - but it is not in the origination of original ideas.)

Competition is a form of social motivation - whether it is the competition between two people or the competition of many in a crowd. It is very common for any movement to have several individuals in competition to be the "leader" of a change, one of whom will "win" and become recognized as an intellectual leader, another who will "lose" and be mostly forgotten. Consider the competition between Mozart and Salieri, or between Thomas Edison and Nicolai Tesla. Many people are driven by the desire to be the winner, or the fear of being the loser.

Collaboration is also a form of social motivation - there is a sense of camaraderie and belonging among people who work together to achieve a common goal. And where many people work together on the same thing, they form an identity as a group and there is a sense of solidarity and goodwill among them. Even if they are not collaborating directly, there are common interests among people in the same profession. This is the concept of "tribes" in the modern world, and a person may belong to multiple tribes due to their multiple interests. In the context of the workplace, people in the same role are members of a tribe.

The line becomes slightly blurred when a person's commitment to a tribe becomes part of their personal identity. It is common among leisure interests to be not merely a person who likes to surf or play video games, but to be a "surfer" or a "gamer." Notice how often and how quickly in social settings a person's profession is mentioned - a person will introduce themselves by giving their name and their profession as a badge of their identity. Not even religion or nationality is presented with such regularity and alacrity. To say that "I am a doctor" or "I am a carpenter" is a profound declaration of personal identity.

Then the typical list of suggestions for leveraging social motivation:

Balancing Creative Motivations

Given that there are two qualities that are considered to be opposites of one another, the next obvious step is to matrix them against one another, thus:

Personal-Intrinsic (Individual Satisfaction)

In this quadrant, individuals are motivated to gain personal satisfaction from an activity, that derives from the activity itself. People simply like doing their jobs and so long as they can make a living wage, aren't interested in reward.

Key motivation factors include challenge, learning, meaning, creative flow, authenticity, and achievement that satisfies personal standards.

This is likely the quadrant that is the greatest driver of quality, as people here are motivated to achieve outstanding results and take great pride in their work.

At the same time, people in this quadrant are most likely to become self-absorbed, disconnected from others, and pursuing individual goals that do not support (and may even be counterproductive to) organizational goals.

Personal-Extrinsic (Individual Rewards)

In this quadrant, individuals are motivated to be rewarded for performing the activity, and are focused on the reward rather than the activity. People may not like their job at all, but the wage and other rewards are good.

Key motivating factors are money (salary and bonuses), prizes, privileges, opportunities, and other tangible and measurable rewards.

It is generally straightforward and simple to motivate people in this quadrant - simply offer a prize and they will jump through hoops, or threaten their rewards and they will obey. This is very familiar to traditional managers, but is not terribly effective in motivating problem-solvers.

On the downside, people interested in the rewards are not interested in doing quality work - sometimes they will take shortcuts and cheat in order to get what they want. There's a competitiveness among people who ask "what's in it for me?" and see others as obstacles to getting things they want for themselves. It can also be quite expensive to constantly "up the ante" to make rewards more and more appealing.

Interpersonal-Intrinsic (Social Interaction)

In this quadrant, individuals enjoy social interaction with peers and the sense of belonging to a group.

Key motivation factors include collaboration, competition, commitment, mutual support and encouragement, harmony, loyalty, and fellowship.

Creators in this quadrant interact with their peers, their customers, and others in the organization and can be highly collaborative. They are focused on group goals rather than personal ones.

On the other hand, they may suppress their own ideas in order to get along with the group, or may compete with others in dysfunctional ways (shutting down others' ideas, establishing restrictive rules, etc.) in order to be in a high-status position within the group or to compel others to conform - and conformity is the opposite of creativity.

Interpersonal-Extrinsic (Social Recognition)

In this quadrant, individuals enjoy being recognized for their individual performance and gaining rank and esteem in the context of a group.

Key motivation factors include recognition, appreciation, fame, status, and other demonstrations of value that praise the person in a way that others can witness it.

The main benefit for managers is that praise is cheap and easy to arrange and its opposite, shame, is likewise easy to inflict on a person who craves to be admired by others.

However, esteem is like any other prize - people who are interested in being praised will do whatever it takes to earn praise, including non-productive or counterproductive things (undermining colleagues, kissing up, etc.) Praise wears thin over time and it is easy to cheapen the coin by overusing it. It can also be difficult to motivate a person who wants praise from other groups (compliments from a manager are less valued than industry recognitions)

Personalized and Sustainable

When motivating employees, it's important to discover what motivates them individually. Offer a cash prize and some employees will be motivated, others will not be motivated, and some will be offended. Know which quadrant appeals to which person - and when there is general motivation, covering as many bases as possible is recommended.

There's also a mention of a sustainable programs: do not consider each instance of motivation to be a separate incident, or you may end up doing foolish things (like offering a bigger prizes for minor tasks or insufficient prizes for major ones).

Also consider the sustainability of the workforce. Over time, people who are not given what they want become disgruntled and wander off in search of what they really want. A company that offers only monetary rewards will find that it will be staffed by people who want monetary rewards and don't care about the quality of their work. A company that only offers social recognition will find that it is staffed by people who are constantly jockeying to be the teacher's pet.

Before Beginning Any Collaborative Undertaking

The author has focused on the topic of management, but considers that motivation and influence are necessary in any social undertaking. It is the manager's responsibility to motivate his team, but even among peers it is useful to be able to understand another person's motivations and expectations to gain their commitment and cooperation. One of the biggest obstacles to success in any effort is discovering that other people are not committed to playing their role as they may have led you to believe. To motivate them to keep their commitment, it's necessary to consider their motivation.

It is also important to consider the weapons of influence from a defensive perspective: to recognize when others are attempting to manipulate you by appealing to your motivations. Once you are aware of the tactics and techniques, you may be surprised to discover just how often this happens. And particularly for a person in a management position, it is a common play in office politics to attempt to gain control of an entire team of people by taking control of its manager.

The author concludes with a quick summary of some of the questions to consider when you seek to engage the cooperation of others, or to recognize whether a proposition that demands your engagement is worth pursuing:

Individual Satisfaction (personal intrinsic)

Individual Rewards (personal extrinsic)

Social Interaction (interpersonal intrinsic)

Social Recognition (interpersonal extrinsic)