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How to motivate your creative department

Last updated on
December 6, 2018

Managing creatives isn’t exactly a walk in the park. The creative process is inherently erratic and messy, and doesn’t easily lend itself to tight deadlines, neat workflows and predictable achievement. You can start every project with the same resources, but there’s no guarantee of a consistent level of “great work”.

With high competition, talent shortages, and pressure to deliver work to rigid deadlines, agencies can be punishing places for creatives to work. And, in the race to deliver, managers can actually block creativity despite their best intentions.

So how do you protect against it? How can you lift your team above the pressures of the industry environment? Crucially, how do you motivate your creative department to really get the best out of them?

Types of motivation

Before diving in, it’s worth stressing that you can’t actually motivate anyone else; it’s something that is drawn out of people rather than put in by others. As managers, we can only create the right conditions to help our colleagues and employees find their motivation.

However, we do definitely have the power to demotivate creatives, so it’s worth understanding the different types of motivation in play:

  • Intrinsic motivation: enjoyment of the work itself, as understood through having purpose, autonomy and mastery.
  • Extrinsic motivation: external reward for completing the work, often expressed using prizes, bonuses, promotion or company profit sharing.
  • Personal motivation: achieving individually-set values, goals and achievements.
  • Peer motivation: working off collective encouragement and excitement for the thrill of shared success.

We need to tap into these motivations and ensure we’re not actually standing in the way of any of them. While every type can be useful, research suggests going after intrinsic motivation might be your best bet: studies show that creatives are more likely to experience higher levels of intrinsic motivation, and the absence of it can actually harm their performance.

The best ways to motivate creatives

It sounds simple enough: focus on intrinsic motivation. But how do you actually go about it? What can you do practically to create the right conditions for it? It takes a combination of approaches – here are just a few places to begin.

Give meaningful recognition

Intrinsic motivation comes partly through taking pride in your work – in producing something whose value and quality is clearly recognised by others. While you may know that you’ve done a good job, hearing it from your team takes that motivation to the next level.

Feeling appreciated is important for any profession, and creatives are no different in wanting credit for their work. So make space to recognize achievement: praise individual skills, explain how they’ve made a difference, share their work beyond your team, and introduce them to clients as the brains behind the work. The last one is particularly effective and gives creatives the opportunity to speak for their own ideas.

Provide the security to fail

There is no precise formula to creativity; it’s a wild, unbounded force that needs space to be effective. If your employees don’t feel they are trusted to try new approaches, you won’t get their full potential – and you’ll probably kill their creative drive in the process.

So lead compassionately: create an environment where people feel confident as masters of their own work, where no ideas are “bad ideas” until proven otherwise, and where everyone is encouraged to go beyond what they’ve already done. Try out new methods and recognize that failure is an opportunity to learn. You simply won’t get winning creative if you only stick with what you know.

Give your creatives interesting work

It seems pretty obvious, but no one wants to churn out boring, uninspiring work based on a template they never designed in the first place. Creatives thrive off challenge, so make sure everyone in your team is actually engaged in the work they’re doing.

There are a few ways to go about this: challenge the limitations of client briefs for more adventurous angles; set internal challenges that let your team develop new skills and test new learnings; make sure the work you give your employees is a natural and relevant fit for their skillset; and then expose them to unfamiliar opportunities to encourage them to keep expanding their capabilities and thinking.

Support their lifestyle

Every effective creative team should be built on cognitive diversity; uniting people with different psychological profiles and ways of thinking. Why? Because teams who are cognitively diverse solve creative problems in different ways and produce better results.

So, your management needs to account for all the individual needs of your team and support their lifestyles. Make your extrinsic rewards more relevant – from personalised benefits, childcare support and a solid pension provision, to giving them the option to work remotely when they want to. Offering flexibility – to change your work environment, balance personal commitments, adapt your schedule and take the leave you want – is one of the best ways to lead with compassion.

Invest in their skills

The creative industry moves at an impeccably fast pace, without the right time and space to develop skills and explore new ideas, your creatives will feel like they’re falling behind. It’s a common problem – feeling like you’ve peaked professionally, that the kids have overtaken you – and managers can help keep it at bay by making sure that their creatives are continually learning.

While many businesses realize the value of professional development, few actually prioritize it. To be effective, you need to give your team a variety of learning opportunities – from regular courses and conferences, to networking and mentoring. But you also need to protect thinking space for your team: have regular team workshops to solve specific challenges, offer regular one-to-one support, and give employees a minimum amount of time each week for self-enrichment – whether that’s research, learning new tools or exploring new ideas.

Promote collaboration over competition

More companies are trying to introduce competitive gamification into their teams, and while it may encourage performance among Sales teams, it can completely destroy creative collaboration. Good creative depends on a free flow of ideas and pooling of resources, so it’s completely at odds with the individualistic drivers of competition. And besides, your creatives likely have different skillsets, so it’s impossible to create a level playing field.

Focus instead on collective success, supporting the individual training needs of your staff in the context of bringing new advantage to the whole team. Keep communication open and equal, so everyone knows what’s going on and feels involved from the start. And if you do want to work novel competition into the workplace, keep it non-work related – office fitness challenges are great for this.

Manage as a group

People feel more invested when they are made personally responsible for a specific outcome – and applying this idea to actual group management can work magic for intrinsic motivation. An open, collective approach to team management helps everyone feel involved and considered.

So make sure everything is up for discussion and everyone feels responsible for success. Involving the team in setting and reporting performance KPIs is a great way of achieving this, since everyone gets to influence the purpose and direction of the team. But you should also let employees feed back on your performance too, and publically admit to your own challenges. It all goes back to the idea of group trust and psychological safety, and research has shown that humility as a leader significantly predicts the creative output of your team.

Constantly revisit your processes

While they have their uses, predictability and routine can lead your team to complete creative block. Creative work should never follow habitual patterns; you need to keep shaking up your approach and using novelty to stimulate new thought.

Nothing should be set in stone – if a process isn’t working or you keep using the same methods to start new projects, try something else. Just switching up your team’s daily routine can breathe refreshing change into their thinking – whether that means having “away days” to think, changing your scene or simply changing the structure of your week.

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