Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Why You Can't Buy Creativity

“The work had better be good, I’m paying them enough.” Over the years I’ve heard this statement – or versions of it – from many different managers charged with getting creative work out of their teams.

From a conventional management perspective, it probably sounds like common sense. But to anyone who understands the nature of creativity and what motivates creative people, it’s a recipe for disaster.Rewarding people for hard work is a great thing to do, but it’s no guarantee of loyalty – and certainly no guarantee of creativity. And using rewards as an incentive – or even a threat – has been proven not to work when it comes to complex, challenging, creative work.

There is a large body of research evidence – from the work of Harvard Business Professor Theresa Amabile and others – that relying on extrinsic motivations (a.k.a. rewards and punishments) has a negative impact on creativity. While it may seem obvious that the stick has a negative impact on creativity, it’s counterintuitive that the carrot has the same effect.

But when you’re focused on a reward, you’re not focused on the work itself. And as any creative will tell you, doing outstanding creative work – whether solving a technical problem or creating a work of art – requires 100% focus on the task in hand, to the point of obsession. You have to love what you do.

Of course companies need to pay people well. If they don’t, compensation becomes a bone of contention, and a distraction from their work. But if you really want outstanding creative performance, you need people to focus on intrinsic motivations – factors inherent in the work itself. Things like challenge, interest, learning, meaning, freedom, and creative flow. They are what really motivates creative people – and the research demonstrates a strong link between levels of intrinsic motivation and creativity.

If you really want outstanding creative performance, you need people to focus on intrinsic motivations – factors inherent in the work itself.

In The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida discusses the results of an Information Week survey of 20,000 IT workers, who were asked “What matters most to you about your job?”. Florida points out that not only did money (an extrinsic motivation) rank only fourth, behind three different types of intrinsic motivation, but that “nine of the ten highly valued job factors are intrinsic”. And remember, it was a survey of IT workers, who might be expected to take a more hard-nosed approach to motivation than more artistic types.So the nature of creativity and the inclinations of creative workers presents a challenge, both for managers and the workers themselves.

You Can’t Buy Creativity – You Have to Inspire It

If you’re a leader or manager, how do you attract top creative talent and get the best from them?

To some extent it’s an organizational issue – allowing people to work in smaller units with greater autonomy is more conducive to creativity than in large corporate departments with centralized control.

But it’s also about the relationships between leaders and teams, and among peers – how the challenge is framed, what managers say to their teams, and how team members support, encourage, and challenge each other.

Money buys you people’s time. It should also guarantee you basic professional competence. But you don’t get outstanding creativity by simply offering more money. You get mercenaries.

If you want real creativity – the magic ingredient X that sets the product apart – you need to inspire it, by showing them what makes the work fascinating, challenging, meaningful, and fun. And you need to give them freedom to do it their way, rather than micro-managing every step.

How to Keep Your Creative Spark Alight

If you’re a creative, you probably experience a tension between following your own creative inclinations vs giving the market (your boss, clients, or customers) what it wants. Spend too much time on your own pet projects and you risk disappointing the VIPs in your working life. But if you spend too much time on well-paid work that doesn’t inspire you, your creativity will fade away.

So it’s vital to strike a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations in the work you take on. Sometimes you need to take on a less glamorous project or job to pay the bills – if so, make time for more interesting creative pursuits, in the evenings and weekends if need be. This will keep your creative spark alive and make you less resentful of the grunt work.

And challenge yourself to take a creative approach to any job you take on, no matter how unpromising the brief. It could be as mundane as packaging elastic bands, but if you keep coming up with original and valuable solutions, you’ll earn a reputation for priceless creativity.

What Motivates You and Your Team?

Think about the best piece of creative work you ever did – what motivated you to do it?

Any tips on motivating and inspiring creative employees?

More insights on: Leadership, Money, Office Dynamics

Mark McGuinness

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Mark McGuinness is a coach who helps creative professionals create more, suffer less and attract more opportunities. He is the author of the popular blog Lateral Action and the book Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success.
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