Do you lead a team of creatives or work with them? Be it web designers, digital media production teams, online marketers, software engineers, writers, musicians, visual artists, actors, dancers or a full production team of diverse and talented professions – this blog is for you!
Foreword: This blog is part of a series A Leader’s Handbook to Navigating People in the Workplace. The aim of the series to explore the core needs and behaviours of some different personalities in the workforce and provide actionable leadership pointers to growing individuals into the best version of themselves. Much of the content is derived from the Enneagram, and placed into everyday language that can be understood and applied by managers and leaders with no prior knowledge of enneagram literature.
Knowing how to lead and grow your creative colleagues is likely to present a different set of challenges than more traditional teams would.
Creativity is rapidly becoming the number one sort after skill in the workforce. Some studies show that creatives are on average the happiest in the work place. However, many managers still struggle to know how to manage creative types. Whether that’s because managers traditionally rely on structured systems of leadership and hirachy, and creatives by nature thrive in more open system and autonomous environments – or just because creatives can be a little more left of center compared with ordinary folk – who knows. We’ll leave that to the academics to research.
But anyone with experience in leading both highly creative individuals and more conventional types will tell you that there is are notable differences. Thus it is important to identify a different set of rules of engagement to integrate into your leadership style.
Creative problem-solving, be it constructing a narrative for your next marketing campaign, designing a new branding toolkit, or elegant coding, creatives provide solutions that reflect their own individuality. While this ability to generate left-of-center ideas may seem like a magical gift to non-creative types, what skills actually make up the creative process, and how can leaders develop these core skills to enhance the creative output of their team?
Openness to Experience
Creativity is naturally complex, but one key element is a psychological strength called “openness to experience”. Creatives naturally expose themselves to new ideas, stimuli and experiences, and curate a wealth of inner resource and inspiration. Thus they approach problem-solving with perspectives and knowledge resources that others do not. Ironically, many creatives search for inspiration through deeper emotionally fulfilling experiences rather than just knowledge, consuming unusual art, literature, philosophy, religion, and other art forms outside their own skill set in their hunt. As a consequence of this ‘openness to experience” high levels of creativity often correlate with higher IQ scores as a result of constantly absorbing and learning new things (Gardner, 2011; Hennessey & Amabile, 2010).
Leadership Tip: Build a working culture that encourages exploration of new and stimulation things. While traditional management says ‘avoid distraction’, you will likely increase the quality and quantity of innovative output of your creative team if you keep them inspired with fresh books, art, concept design, film, discussion etc.
Critical Thinking and Expression
Other components of creativity are the need to internally processes the stimulus and the express their response. Thus critical thinking skills naturally develop. The absorbing/critical review/ processing of the experience often demands an output, and thus the creative is driven to forms of expression. Designing, painting, writing – what every the output is, the expression becomes play as the creative attempts to sustain the emotional experience they have absorbed, and explore and heighten the emotion through mixing their own individuality into that expression. This process triggers an endorphin release in the brain resulting in a powerful natural high. It is the pursuit of this ‘creative rush’ that many describe which fuels high levels of motivation and autonomy to upskill, practice and produce marvelous works – even amid great adversity.
One caution for team leaders is be aware your creatives may to lose track of reality in this heightened state of energy and output. It’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of the idea in the moment, and spin it to sound so good key risks and threats are overlooked. Don’t shoot the idea down in the moment, but review later on. Thus review ideas in planning a week after creative ideation is good practice, when the levels of enthusiasm can settle and critical evaluation can expose any weaknesses in the solution generated.
In practice, what goes up must come down, and when creatives are not operating in creative flow or searching for it, they can be hard work! Vivacious energy can give way to moody apathy and the flood of ideas turns into fogginess. Often creatives feel emotionally numb in this state. Creatives become hyper-critical of their work and their own competence, and left in this state they can sabotage good work by nitpicking over a project. Leaders of creatives must recognize when the ‘tide’ has shifted direction, and creatives have passed the zenith of their creative flow and are on the come comedown.
Leadership Tip: Hands on support and contact with your team is vital – even if you feel more like a counselor treating patients for depression than their boss.
– Celebrate their achievements in the project thus far
– Invite them to recall the core vision and excitement they felt for the project.
– Help them recognize they are on a ‘come-down’, and to get good rest and nutrition (chances are they solely ate Uber Eats and worked 14 hour days for a week while they were on a creative high).
– Assign more methodical tasks. In this low state, the less highly creative work they do, the better. Creatives can seek to regain inspiration too quickly while they are still tired from the last wave of activity. They can feel like they’re grasping at straws and spiral deeper into moodiness and self-criticism.
– Remember – depression and apathy are not here to stay – this is just their body and their brain coming down from a natural high. It’s worth considering how you can build your product development cycles to match the ebb and flow of your team’s creative stamina. This could be achieved by building more flexibility into roles (such as restructuring deadlines, better remote work policies and rotating creative leads on different jobs).
At a glance, you could mistake the behavior to thrill seeking, but it’s important to not view creatives as emotional experience junkies. Underpinning their openness to experience is a quest to ‘find themselves’. Discovering their true self and what makes them a unique individual is the ultimate quest, and that’s why they strive to output – and do so in a way that is unique and true to their individualism.
Leadership Tip: Giving constructive criticism isn’t that straight-forward when their work can be so close to their heart. Criticism of their creativity can feel like their own person is under scrutiny – and in a way – it is. A hallmark of maturity in a creative is to emotionally separate themselves from their work when it is complete – a skill that that will greatly benefit your creative team members when they feel the comedown or are in a phase of self-evaluation. You can focus on three key areas:
– Identity: Encourage them in their individuality beyond their abilities.
– Self- awareness: Help them recognise where they are in the energy cycle, demystify their emotion and to go easy on themselves.
– Productivity: the low state can also be a productive one. Honest objective review and constructive feedback are you friends here. In the low energy state, the creative will be looking for input and learning (it’s that ‘openness to experience’ thing again), and need warm encouraging practical advice to get them back on track.
Creatives are often inclined to take more risks (i.e. risk of failure) in their creative pursuits – which is great for innovation, but can put them at odds with company policies. This risk-taking is usually within the boundaries of their discipline, which is important for management to ensure creatives can experiment and develop new solutions when they are not distracted by external risk or threat. To put it simply, they take more creative risks when they have a general sense of security in their job, relationships, health etc. This is actually a real opportunity for you to be an exceptional leader.
Leadership Tip: Cultivating an environment of respect, trust and exploration, while shielding them from organizational politics will go a long way to achieving this. Creatives may not have the political capacity to get their ideas endorsed by senior management. You can help this by:
– Encourage creativity, while protect from risks which destabilize the creative ‘safe space’. This might be a good time to review your own risk-appetite within the organization and confer with your superiors or executive leadership to make sure you understand what level of risk you and your team can undertake. For more on this, read here.
– Champion their ideas to higher leadership, providing access to top level support, resources and authority. Interface between the organizational needs and their creativity to guide innovation projects to better fit the organizational norms (google ‘systems exchange model’ for more reading).
– Have a positive review process where failure is learning. Creatives intuitively accept this, however they need reminding to view their shortcomings and mistakes in their work as growth opportunities, not incompetence.
The energy and emotional dynamics that govern the creative process of your team can at times feel like a roller-coaster ride for the individual and colleagues alike. However the goal of good leadership should never be to achieve total balance of these dynamics, but to create enough stability that mitigates the risks at the extreme highs or lows of the creative process. Creativity is the superpower and kryptonite of your team, and careful planning of managerial structures is critical to amplifying the genius of your creatives and ensuring they flourish.
Managing people and different personalities in business are what can make or break teams and client relationships.
AT UHY Haines Norton we know that long-term success in business is a result of great leadership. We created our Business Improvement and Coaching services to equip business leaders to navigate the challenges of leading a diverse collection of people, overcoming personality differences and cultivating healthy teams.
Talk with Our Business Improvement Specialists, and let’s discuss how you can get your team functioning at peak health and productivity.
Dean Vane: D.Vane@uhyhnseq.com.au
Written by Judah Kampkes
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