How to Harness the Power of Your Creative Employees Without Losing Your Mind
Differently-wired people need different approaches to reaching their peak productivity. A bet on thinking outside the box just might pay off.
You hired them because they were brilliant — but now they're getting on your last nerve.
Creatives are typically passionate people. When they're free to create, they love what they do. They're idea-generators. They see the world through a different lens. They're inspiring.
But sometimes, they don't show up on time. And sometimes, they are terribly disorganized. They might seem to space out during meetings. Those traits are often interpreted as unproductive or even anti-social. But what if our unmet expectations have more to do with our expectations than the fact that they're being unmet?
Creative work is a different beast
Those brilliant, innovative ideas your creatives produce are literally a product of their ability to think outside of convention. Work is about productivity, right? Output? But creative work is such an oddity. The work that is critical to your bottom line — a marketing campaign that goes viral or idea that revolutionizes company efficiencies — can happen in an instant.
Recently, a client gave some feedback about a piece I had written. There was a particular line that he especially loved. In fact, it colored his view of the entire piece. I was a bit stunned (as I usually am after thinking, "this is terrible, okay, just hit the submit button"), because that particular line had gone from my brain to the keyboard and promptly been forgotten about in a series of moments. Sometimes, the fastest things we do represent our best work.
Ideas may seem to materialize from nowhere, but the reality is that they're built on a foundation of other hard work. As a professional creative with decades of experience with the 9-5, I realize I have actually had to unlearn everything I knew about work. It felt strange to take a break in the middle of the day to take a shower (thank you, remote work), a walk or even a nap to cultivate the proper mindset for ideas to germinate. I love to read. Reading at work is often frowned upon, unless perhaps for research purposes. But I discovered something even stranger: the more breaks I took to think, learn or rest, the more productive I was.
Creators gotta create
Surely, you can't let someone take unlimited breaks or sit at their desk reading all day, right? Can you imagine the office outcry? The bitterness, the accusations of special treatment? After all, it wouldn't be fair. If you feel there's a possibility that making changes to your expectations could unleash more from your creative employees, consider the following:
Acknowledge their contribution: If you're a routined, structured, predictable person, you may find yourself constantly frustrated with these types of people. That's normal — dealing with differently-wired people is an inescapable part of being human, but you may also find that you have certain pre-defined ideas of what work ethic looks like that cause you to dismiss their efforts. The modern office workday (especially pre-pandemic) was not structured for these types of people.
Help them introspect: You probably have employees who could benefit from a re-evaluation of their work schedule. But that doesn't mean every single one will have the self-awareness (or self-discipline) to implement these changes. Jumping in the passenger's seat as they drive, begin to ask some questions to help them discover what makes them work best. Do they need a shorter workday to make room for a late-evening sprint? Are there simple tasks bogging them down that would be efficiently done by another person? The idea is to create freedom for productivity, not freedom from productivity.
Help them find their rhythm: Being creative on demand is not an easy task. It can often feel like returning, day after day, to an empty well. They are observers. They need variety, they need to take on something new. Help them explore what this means for them as an individual by reverse-engineering what's going wrong in their workday and being bold enough to try something new.
Keep them accountable: Consider whether your company's standards for employee success are built on an antiquated model of punching a clock and following the rules simply because — well, we can’t remember, but it's just the way it's done. Being creative is not a free pass on meeting attendance, deadline, or regular output. But allowing your creatives to design a schedule and targets that work for both of you could potentially give these folks a shot at increasing the value they bring to your organization.
How to prevent a mutiny
Consistency is huge. These principles apply to more than just your marketers and idea people.
Creativity is a spectrum, not a diagnosis. And though you may have people in your organization who are perfectly content to maintain their routines, there may also be folks in many departments who just need permission to work smarter, harder and better.
Keep your eyes open to what can be adjusted and model being a lifelong learner. I was in the "wrong seat on the bus" (as Jim Collins would say) for many years, serving as an office administrator and failing miserably. Though I recognize it may not garner sympathy from all, I struggled — a lot — getting anything done before 11 a.m. It wasn't until I started my own business that I realized what I was capable of … between 11-6 and 9-11 p.m. That simple shift blew my mind. Getting up and moving locations with my computer every hour or two helped me plow through mental blocks, sometimes as if they weren’t even there in the first place.
Be willing to trial, pilot and pivot. Your team is worth it. You hired them because you know they're brilliant. Set them up for success by placing freedom in one hand and accountability in the other.
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