Managing Creative People: Are They a Little Crazy?

Everyone loves what creative people do, but many find their lifestyles and behavior a little strange.  Just hire an advertising agency, or glance at MTV to confirm that there are some pretty odd creative people out there.  But for the organizations to reach their real potential, we have to learn to maximize our creativity, and cultivate our relationships with original thinkers.  There’s no question that creative people are wired differently.  Their perception of the world, their reactions to events, and even the way they sleep is often dramatically different from most.  Therefore, much of that behavior comes out of biological differences.  So trying to change their behavior is often a futile and impossible task.

They even have different priorities. Instead of political battles over a corner office, access to the boss, or a bigger title, creative people are more interested in the color of their office, or being able to listen to music while they work.  Few creative people care about the same things other workers care about.  Creative people see different ways to achieve the same goals.  When it comes to nonprofits and religious organizations, most pastors or ministry leaders want to achieve goals, but often they are overly concerned about how to reach the goal.  They are interested in rules, procedures, and paperwork.  One Christian TV station executive I know has a “flow chart” for the station that looks remarkably like Dante’s Journey Through Hell.  Just reading it gives me the chills.

On the other hand, creative people are just as driven, but much less concerned about “how” they reach the goal.  That’s why “breakthrough” thinking often comes from creative people.  They see the world differently, and are more concerned about achieving the goal than rigid, specific ways to get there.

The fact is – if you have creative people in your office, you need to make a conscious effort to deal with them differently.   Here’s a few suggestions:

1)    Within reason, don’t let their habits, appearance, or style bother you.  Sure – there are unavoidable office rules for smoking, suggestive clothing, breaks, etc…  But if it’s not absolutely critical to the mission of the church or ministry, cut them some slack!  Let them have a little fun with their hairstyle or clothes, and you’ll see their motivation dramatically increase.

2)    Give them flexibility in their schedules.  Who cares if they do their best work at night?  In most creative functions, you can easily measure their output and the quality of the work, so worry less about how many hours they put into it.  As long as they keep up and are doing great work, what does it matter when they do it?

3)    Learn the art of compliments and motivation.  Most creative people are easily hurt by criticism – it’s part of their make-up.  But if you can compliment and motivate them, you won’t believe how the level of work will improve.  Remember – a carrot always works better than a stick.

4)    Finally – learn to value creativity.  If we’re going to impact this culture with a message of hope, we need the most creative people doing their best work.  Can your church, ministry, or organization do things in a more creative way?  Are you reaching this generation in a language and style they understand?  Are you always on the look-out for creative people to help you achieve your vision?

Learn to manage creative people, then stand back and watch the difference it makes.

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  1. I could not agree more. I have been in environments where creative people are allowed to be creative, and other situations where creative people are tolerated. Managing creative people requires a person who gets the concepts of “feelers”. Creative people want to be respected, protected, and heard. They do not have to be right all the time, but they have to have space to be allowed to feel. If creative people do not feel they have that space, that they are not respected and are not protected from those who do not understand how they work, you will never be able to get their best work out of them.

    Love your blog posts Phil.

  2. Thank you  ; cant say it enough, esp today , thank you God bless this blog.

    Am such an odd one in a regular church/ office , but  know for sure God has placed some very generous people around me / esp my husband, kids, Church ..                                  I suspect though, they are a lot more understanding than I am.

     “biologically different,..”  ? thats a relief.

    Any ideas how a ” creative person ” can  understand everyone else better, give them their due as well as get  work actually done ?




  3. Managing a creative group in a church environment was probably one of the greatest relational challenges I ever experienced.  With top down management grids still in place in the faith community, I sense the challenge is very much still with us.

    Intensely right brained creative types need – as Brewster said – space to feel.  They need to be nurtured in an environment that values innovation, rewards ideas and allows them to be what God has created them to be.  In a “tither sensitive” atmosphere – i.e. don’t do anything to offend givers – stifling rules and codes are put in place.

    My team wanted to have Star Wars figures hanging from the ceiling – wanted their computers to wake up with the famous (Three Stooges) Curley line – “I try to think and nothin’ happens.”  These and other relatively harmless attempts to build a unique atmosphere were shut down with the phrase – “This just isn’t in keeping with office decorum.”  Eventually church culture degenerates into a Dilbert “cubical world where creative types can’t survive.

    Great post Phil – SO TRUE!

  4. Great post Phil, and I completely agree.

    Thankfully, I am in a position where I can ensure our department is free to be creative. Your first three points in particular could read as part of a textbook of how I try to run things.

    Oh – and I couldn’t care less where my office is as long as I can dress how I like, decorate it how I like (I have much sympathy with the poster above and his comments about Star Wars figures etc) and listen to music, etc.

    If you tell someone creative they have to work strict 9-5 hours only and make no effort whatsoever to motivate them or provide stimulating challenges, you will get, at best adequate results. If on the other hand you adopt a more flexible approach, you get excellence, dedication and loyalty.

    Those who work in this department will often take their work home and work on it in silly hours of the morning to get it as good as they can. Who cares if they turn up a little late the next day?

  5. I certainly agree with you about not having the same drive for a position or title. I go out of my way to make sure people don’t mistake me for the guy who is jockeying for position (not that wanting a position is a huge sin or anything). It’s just a little frustrating being lumped in with everyone else, and hearing about how you need to stop “trying to take over” or whatever. Please…

  6. I have the duel uncomfortable/exciting role of both being creative and managing creatives. Let me add some more things to keep in mind:

    1) The only way to have an effective brain storm session is to make the logic people put tape over their mouth if they can’t remember that in a time like that, no idea is a bad one. What sounds like a bad/impossible idea may be a springboard to a good or even great one. Shoot it down at your own peril. You will shoot down the creative juices with it and never will get the end goal.

    2) Share results, real numbers with the creative. I promise the good ones won’t glaze over. They will see a direct relationship between what they did, what worked, what didn’t and how to adjust in the future.

    3) Balance the young blood with the mature experience. Too much of one or the other and you have with a cool thing that can’t be done or a buggy whip.

    4) Protect the creative process/people and your own income by testing and measuring before rolling out with the “great” new idea. I had a client once who loved my idea so much that they canceled an annual project that typically generated $250K in net income. I begged them to test it first. They were too delighted to listen. It didn’t raise dust.

  7. Could not agree more.

    As one who has come full circle from a RIGID-style CHURCH culture to a culture that embraces cReAtIvItY and in/Uality, i Opine the church as a whole needs to hear this message.

  8. Creative folk wither and die under management.

    However, those same folks will sprout wings and solve problems you never even knew you had. They’ll pour jugs of creativity into projects that make you money and put butts in seats. They’ll do this, if they are lead instead of managed.

    Managers just count stuff and keep rules. Leaders inspire and empower.

    1. I’ve found this is where I excel at and took me quite awhile to figure this out. I found in my current job I started having the latitude to fix problems. I still do my regular tasks of designing and coding, but where I derive the most joy is creative problem solving. Someone telling me it couldn’t be done, then coming at it from another angle and coming up with an unconventional solution.

  9. As a creative and a manager I do encourage leaders not to be scared of nudging creative people if the work isn’t what you’re looking for. Creatives do need feedback, we like to know we are making the boss happy and they are involved with our creativity. If your creative bucks ever suggestion. Not a good situation either.

  10. Phil, I love your wisely informed words on this.

    More needs to be said about how to manage and lead creatives–one area of research and writing that I undertake, especially in the local church/non-profit arena.

  11. Especially–don’t play artist. Kev has illustrated over 200 books and for shows on 3 networks, yet there are authors who say, “Can you change this,” “No, change it back,” “Well maybe it was better before,” so by the time he’s changed an illustration he may as well work at McDonald’sm he’s put so much into it that he’d make more there. Stop hanging curtains. It’s almost always women authors who do this…. So now, he’s real careful about authors he works for. But the stereotype of the prima donna artist who throws a tantrum–I can see why (and I know from other illustrators this is not unusual). So to people that hire creatives–don’t try to get them to work for nothing!

  12. “… most pastors or ministry leaders want to achieve goals, but often they are overly concerned about how to reach the goal. They are interested in rules, procedures, and paperwork.” What you said brother!!

  13. So true! I tried for the longest time to create a schedule for my day (mom of three, writer, lots of hats to wear) and I would fail daily! Finally I realized I’m such a creative type (art major) it doesn’t work for me and I needed to find something that did. I created a system where it was goal focused rather than schedule focused and I have rewards/consequences for myself to help me stay on track. I am a thousand times more productive now than I was trying to do it with a regimented schedule.

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