I share a mutual friend with an elderly Melbourne artist of some repute. She has won a number of awards and taught art at a big art college. Her love of art first began at school, but she didn’t make a career out of art until she was middle-aged. What prompted her to pursue art seriously? Basically she kept getting sacked from her day jobs, so had no choice but to devote herself to art!
For a long while this woman worked in retail, as a shop assistant in a major department store. She worked in fashion, and believe me this lady has a flair for dressing. Initially she enjoyed the job, but gradually she became frustrated with her customers and colleagues. She was distressed by their lack of flair and poor fashion choices, and couldn’t hide her disdain. After her first dismissal, she found another job in a dress shop but the pattern repeated. She was disgusted by the poor choices of customers and colleagues. This artist has an eye for colour and design, but not everyone appreciated her creativity. Her story got me wondering about the challenges creative people face when they work in conventional jobs and with teams.
Creative people are original
Creative people have a need for originality. They resist, even resent rules and conventions. They are rebellious and feel compelled to do things no one else does. But many work places demand people work as teams and team work is essentially about cooperation and collaboration, accepting a shared goal and working towards it. If you are highly creative and see the world differently from your colleagues, it will be difficult for you to accept shared goals. A 2013 Norwegian study of creative people found they share a number of key traits, and believe me these traits are not conducive to team work.
Professor Øyvind L. Martinsen of BI Norwegian Business School identified seven key personality traits after studying artists, musicians and writers. Martinsen found they have ‘associative orientation’, meaning they were imaginative, playful, had a wealth of ideas and could easily slide between fact and fiction. They also had a strong desire for originality and were motivated.
Creatives can commit to projects, but they are often anti-social
They loved committing to big projects and saw the project through. He found many creative people were ambitious, desiring influence and recognition. Creative people are flexible and can see different aspects of issues and come up with brilliant solutions. Martinsen then discovered that creative people have low-emotional stability. They have a tendency to experience negative emotions, greater fluctuations in moods and their self-confidence often falters. Creative people are also not particularly social. They are not good at being considerate, are obstinate and find flaws in other people’s ideas.
Many of these traits make for poor team members. What challenges does it create for a team if one team member wants influence and recognition more than the other members? How do employees go working with someone who is moody and at times plagued by self-doubts? How would a worker respond to a colleague who is obstinate and always critical of their suggestions?
Highly creative people are not always employable
Martinsen even acknowledged that highly creative people were not very employable. He advises employers “to conduct a position analysis to weigh the requirements for the ability to cooperate against the need for creativity”. In other words can the organisation tolerate a fickle, slightly neurotic individual who will come up with endless good ideas, but probably will get all their colleagues off side? Many bosses warn it's not worth it and it is better to employ a less creative person who is capable of being a team player.
When I read Martinsen’s article I immediately thought of the Melbourne artist I know. She once told me that being creative was not a gift but a curse. At work she felt herself to be out of step with other people and found their short-sightedness endlessly frustrating. She is much happier painting alone in her studio, than trying to find clothes for people with no dress sense!
Teams can drive creative people mad
I have heard stories from other creative, intelligent people who almost went insane trying to work in teams. I once met a marketing genius who worked on a disastrous political campaign. “I saw my colleagues make mistake after mistake,” he told me. “It was like watching a flock of lemmings throw themselves off a cliff one by one, but I didn’t have the people skills to win them over to my ideas. I’m sure the outcome would have been very different had this team of seven listened to me.” This marketing genius now works for himself and is much happier.
Many creative people opt out of the conventional jobs and start their own companies, because they are not good at being part of a team. With the advent of the internet it is easier than ever before to run your own business and many creatives are happier doing their own thing, but is it possible to effectively manage highly creative people?
How to manage creative workers
In 1998 Warren Bennis and Patricia Beiderman wrote a book, Organising Genius, the Secrets of Creative Collaboration. They examined six of the 20th century’s most extraordinary teams, including the Manhattan Project and Lockheed’s Skunkworks.
Bennis and Beiderman found that only a gifted leader can manage creative people. The manager needs to be like the “first citizen” of an organisation, the embodiment of its values. They should be perceived to act with integrity and competence. Integrity will lead the creatives to trust their manager, but that trust is fragile and can be destroyed in a moment if integrity is lacking. It is the steady force of the manager’s character which establishes a productive environment for the creative.
Creative workers need to be understood and valued
Creative workers need to know that they are understood and valued. Remember highly creative people suffer bouts of self-doubt, often because their work is so new and radical. The manager must encourage the creative worker to achieve goals with empathy and praise. Berating or chastising them only causes resentment.
Creative people hate being micro-managed. They work best if they are given the space to get on with their work.
Creatives need exemplary managers
The manager also needs to be highly competent with strong technical abilities and superb interpersonal skills. Creative geniuses do not suffer fools. Their manager must be open to the truth and treat everyone fairly. Basically creative people need an exemplary manager, who maintains momentum and never blames external factors if things go wrong.
But how many managers of this calibre have you met during your career? Now you know why creative people struggle to work in conventional jobs and often go out on their own!