All advice on how to manage creative people is awful

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A good manager is someone who makes everyone feel like he or she is creative in their work. Because creative work is the most fulfilling work, and we are each capable of that kind of work.

My favorite research on this topic is from John Mirowsky, professor of sociology at University of Texas, Austin.

Mirowsky finds that people who work are happier than people who don’t because people who are employed spend more of their time being creative. This was true regardless of age and race and the amount of creativity that a given job had.

He concludes that people make choices to be more creative if they are gainfully employed. But also that we have more control than we realize over how creative we make our worklife. He says, “One thing that surprised us was that the daily activities of employed persons are more creative than those of non-employed persons of the same sex, age and level of education.”

How can you tell if you are creative at work? You could just ask yourself if you like your job. It is nearly impossible to like a job if you are not solving problems that are challenging. And if you are doing that, well, that is creative.

For a more scientific gauge, you can look at your cell phone call log. If you routinely call your friends from work, you’re probably not happy at work, according to research from Nathan Eagle, at the Santa Fe Institute.

Here are five ways to make a job more creative. And if you want to be good at managing creative people tell these tips to everyone who reports to you:

1. Change your mindset. So much of solving our own problems is fixing our outlook. Bad situations breed creativity, but only if you feel responsible for fixing your own problems. So stop blaming your job or your boss or your work, and start looking to yourself to make your life more creative.

Also, you should know that it’s as misguided to divide the world into creative and non-creative jobs as it is to divide the world into creative and non-creative people. All jobs have opportunities for creativity. Some have more and some have less, but you usually get more opportunities to be creative by demonstrating that you are a creative problem solver over and over again.

This usually means solving problems no one asks you to solve. That’s right: Creativity at work is often about finding your own work, finding and solving your own problems. So most of you should blame yourself, not your job, for lack of creativity in your work.

2. Change your response to stress. We tend to respond to stress with routine responses — almost all of them bad for us in some way. Natalie Angier writes in the New York Times about our predisposed type of response to stress: “Regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors had shriveled, while, conversely, brain sectors linked to habit formation had bloomed. Rodents were cognitively predisposed to keep doing the same things over and over, to run laps in the same dead-ended rat race rather than seek a pipeline to greener sewers.” So when you have stress, try a new response and see what happens. No job prevents you from doing that.

3. Change the pace of what you do. John Freeman points out in the Wall Street Journal that changing the pace changes what it’s like to do that task. You know this intuitively from dancing or sex. But it’s also true of workplace tasks like writing email or cleaning our desk—both of which we often do quickly with no examination of whether or not that is a good pace for that task.

4. Try job hopping. This is a way to change your level of creativity on a larger scale. A big reason that job hopping helps your career is that people who job hop are more engaged in their work. Mirowsky explains this further: “People with a wide variety of jobs manage to find ways to make them creative.”

5. Get in a long-term, intimate relationship. Be careful putting too much burden on a job. You need to be creative in order to feel fulfilled, yes. But there are infinite ways to be creative, and they don’t necessarily have to relate to your job. Which is why the connection between a job and happiness is totally overrated. Intimate, long-term, intimate relationships matter most — and, not surprisingly, the act of putting two lives into one life requires creativity, always.

(Hat tip: Emily, Caitlin and Jay)

59 replies
  1. LPC
    LPC says:

    I remember taking a class in business school, in 1981 on Managing Innovation. Afterwards when I looked back I realized the entire course could have been summed up as, “Make some space. Give high level parameters. Get out of the way. Don’t forget to take care of them occasionally.” The same can be said for managing one’s own creativity. But none of the above will have any impact if we ignore or repress the impulse to solve.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks, Alexandra. In this case, the research comes from Caitlin, Emily and Jay — hence the hat tip at the end of the post :)

      I am really lucky that people send me such interesting stuff.


  2. Marcus
    Marcus says:

    Good post, though I think the logic is flawed here:
    “Also, did you ever notice that you never read advice about managing creative people from someone who does not count himself as creative?”
    1.Most writers – period – would call themselves creative people.
    2. I’ve come across a few talented professionals who would say they were uncreatives managing creatives. Many work in advertising agencies but one that really comes to mind managed a team of fashion designers. He himself wouldn’t ever offer opinions on trends of color, style, etc., yet he was a master of synthesizing the information his creatives gave him and helping them to do their jobs better while at the same time communicating the trends to management.

    In the end, I think you’re right: most people can be creative, but there are lot of reasons they either choose not to be or don’t wish to do the things you suggest would make them more creative.

  3. Lance
    Lance says:

    I definitely agree with the headline and I agree with the idea that all people are creative. Humans are creative, intelligent creatures. It’s no secret that most workplaces are focused on the bottom line, and that being creative is not necessarily a money-making quality. The trick is finding a way to integrate your creativity and still make money for your company AND not threatening your superiors.

    I recommend Ken Robinson’s TED video on creativity and educationm which is inspiring:

    • Helen
      Helen says:

      Also check out Dan Pink’s talk on motivation on I think he makes a good point about autonomy, mastery and purpose relative to our intrinsic motivation and ultimate creativity.

  4. fairytailteller
    fairytailteller says:

    I dont completely agree, creativity might be one thing, but do you also hold the same thoughts about an over active imagination ……….. I know I have one and I can day in and day out see how differently I see things, I am always called in every brainstorming meeting and well you get the point …………. also about your conclusion that it is hard to be creative when you have a kid and worries etc, well do you know of a person named J.K Rowling , heard her story, in what situation she wrote harry potter, so ya I agree everyone is creative but there are different kinds of creativity I guess …………..

  5. Matthew | Step into the Flow
    Matthew | Step into the Flow says:

    I think that “creative” is a synonym for “fully alive”. When you’re completely THERE, in the moment, whatever it is, you’re both alive and creative. There’s a reason the Artist’s Way resonated so much with people who didn’t consider themselves artists.

    On the other hand, the modern day workplace is not really that supportive for the creatives who like variety. I think this is changing, but it will take decades or more. In the meantime, there’s only taking responsibility for one’s own happiness. I ended up becoming a part time shakespearean actor to balance my IT job. They thought I was nuts at work, but ended up appreciating when I brought a different energy there.

  6. Brad Fults
    Brad Fults says:

    I usually interpret this type of advice somewhat differently.

    Instead of assuming that the distinction is the one stated (between creatives and “non-creatives”), I see this type of writing as a veiled attempt to address only those people who “get it” in the business world – the new, transparent, quick, casual, etc. crowd. The idea being that people who think they are non-creative or think they work with non-creatives are stuck in a fundamentally broken and incompatible worldview compared to those who do consider themselves to be creatives.

    Instead of drawing so stark a distinction (old and busted vs. new hotness) in their writing, these authors couch the divide in a kind of code such that their advice seems obvious to those who have a newer, more dynamic way of approaching business, but doesn’t directly insult or otherwise provoke the traditionalists.

    That said, there’s certainly room for authors to instruct and convince traditionalists directly to be more creative and bridge the divide, but I simply see that as another subject.

  7. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    It’s a wonderful, world-enlarging point that we are all creative and there is room for creativity in all jobs, even the most menial. I’m not sure that means that advice on managing creative people is actually useless, or whether it means that it’s advice that applies to managing anyone.

  8. Jen
    Jen says:

    I think the real gem in here is getting missed–essentially: Take responsibility for your own happiness. That means actively working to solve problems, evaluate shifts you need to make to improve your personal outlook, act on troubling issues rather than complain about them to someone else you hope might act.

  9. GInger Rose
    GInger Rose says:

    le sigh. While I agree that everyone has the *capacity* to be creative, it’s like a muscle which atrophies out of misuse. Take my assistant — please (rim shot). She won’t do anything which she thinks is beneath her, which is most things. And the things she deigns to do — the more creative work — seems to bring on a bout of paralysis.

    If you take any stock in Myers-Briggs and personality profiling, some people are as happy as pigs in shit straightening out the filing, taking notes, etc. Leave them be!!

  10. Taylor
    Taylor says:

    How do you let people be creative?

    I’m a young/new manager and I have an employee that doesn’t seem too motivated. She may even like repetitive tasks? I’m not sure – She doesn’t have a ton of confidence, either. I want her to like her job and feel like she’s making a good contribution. But the only tasks I can get her to do are repetitive, which she starts out strong on then gets bored.

    I guess if I were a little more adept at managing it would come more easily. I just get all awkward…

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      I was reading something that said that people have a sweet spot where challenges are – they like a little challenge, but not so much that they get overwhelmed – and I think that spot varies based on how afraid they are of failure and how successful they think they are. I think the only thing you can do with timid people is to praise them for their successes and hope it brings them confidence. And if they aren’t much for taking initiative, you have to follow up with them more than other more self-directed people.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is a great question. And maybe is answered by the comment above, about Myers Briggs. I think each person’s sweet spot for creativity is, actually, related to their Myers Briggs score.

      I definitely think people who like repetitive tasks can be creative. My ex is one of those people. He is super creative in picking his repetitive tasks and his films are in the Whitney for being obsessively (and interesting) repetitive.

      Oh. Wait. Here’s a great example of repetitive creativity: Kusama


  11. Clare
    Clare says:

    The less time you have to come up with a solution, the more creative you get. Works here in Italy, where plans routinely fall by the wayside as clients change their mind at the last moment. In fact, making plans is considered a lesser ability than being able to come up with a flexible, creative solution on your feet.

  12. John DeFlumeri Jr
    John DeFlumeri Jr says:

    Penelope, Thanks for quoting Yourself from your older blog post “Bad Situations Breed Creativity” It is right on the mark and accurate. You are a smart person. I will read your stuff a lot now! Hope to hear from you on my blog, It is a site that discusses all money maters, current news, and trends in the World today. Caution, may be controversial to some people! You can speak your mind; I never censor! Thanks.

    John DeFlumeri Jr, Clearwater, Fla.

    Decisions About Money

  13. Jake
    Jake says:

    “All advice on how to manage creative people is awful”.

    I beg to differ: Joel Spolsky’s extensive advice at Joel on Software seems to be pretty good.

    In any event, I’m not sure “1. Change your mindset” is practical advice: the “how” of changing one’s mindset could (and has) fill books.

  14. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    Oy vey. “Change your response to stress?” Did you not -read- the research you quoted, that describes how the brain responds to stress by essentially becoming less creative and retreating into habit? What makes you think that any of us can overcome evolutionary biology by sheer force of will?

    Better solution: if you feel your job is causing that kind of stress response, it’s okay to just go find a new job.

  15. Nigel Collin
    Nigel Collin says:

    Great post. I agree that everyone is creative (see the work of George Land) and although I agree that you should manage creative people I do believe you must lead them

    And by the way, before you get pent up – by lead I mean nurture, empower, inspire and be custodian of.

    There is a gap between Business and Creativity and this is the result often of leaders not fully understanding the creative mindset and how to work with creative people (which is anyone who thinks or does uniquely) and creatives failure to often fully understand the commercial mindset.

  16. Pat Rocchi
    Pat Rocchi says:

    In the years I interviewed for positions as a manager of communications, I always hated getting the question, “How do you manage creative people?” I wish I had answered as articulately and insightfully as you did in this post. Well done.

  17. Candice
    Candice says:

    Wow, I love this post, and the comments that followed. I am struggling with my job, feeling like I am too “creative.” So maybe I need change my mindset. I used to think that creative solutions were a good outlet as well as hobbies on the weekends. Taking responsibility like Jen said, is good too. But, now, I’m thinking Andrea’s comment might be the one for me! Thanks again for a great post P!

  18. Deepa
    Deepa says:

    This “post” can easily serve as cliffnotes to life.

    It got me thinking about all of the times that I have found problematic coworkers who create agonizing situations due to their lameness. However, I guess things don’t happen TO YOU, it’s how you process and deal with them. This post instantly allowed me to introspect on all the different occasions throughout my career where I could have made a different decision, taken a different action, and have learned from it.

    My question:

    So the other thing that keeps haunting me since I read this post – like, yesterday – is that while it is true that I have been turned down for a lot of jobs, but I have also turned down offers due to this circumstance or that one.

    However, I keep wondering if taking-the-bull-by-its-horns, or recognizing and seizing opportunities at the right time, is a part of creativity. I wonder if you can go back to a job that you overlooked, an offer you didn’t take because it involved that you would have to do a lot of paperwork and move to another country all for a pittance of a salary while you were strapped with student loans.

    My question is, can you go back? Can you woo that company again? Especially after you realize that everything you do and want to do professionally is something that company is the #1 at? Especially after you have realized you are more creative now, or you have learned to channel your creativity better; you are more experienced, more thoughtful, less rash, more focused. Can you go back? If so, what are some ways to successfully re-apply, re-establish connection with that company, recognize your own mistakes from the past, and try again without coming off as someone who had given up before?

    Basically, how can anyone make amends for the way-we-were “before-we-had-experience” and come back stronger?

  19. Jason Young
    Jason Young says:

    Penelope-have you ever heard of the new book put out by Harvard Business Press called, Clever? it is a book on how to lead the smartest and the creative people on your team.

  20. Beth S
    Beth S says:

    I loved the post …However, the comment “But there are infinite ways to be creative, and they don’t necessarily have to relate to your job. Which is why the connection between a job and happiness is totally overrated.” I disagree completely. Those who have an employer spend most of the day either at work or commuting to work. If you are spending most of your time at a place that you are not happy with, this is a very unpleasant situation. How can you be happy when you are miserable at the place you spend most of your time. Obviously if this is the case, you should listen to your feelings and move on. My point is, you should love what you do, whether you are managing a house with three children or filing in an office.

    • Deepa
      Deepa says:

      I think it also boils down to being happy with Who You ARE and being content. Then you are not really scared about making mistakes, being fearful, not being “creative enough”, etc. If your core is not there, then it’s hard for anything to stick and easy for you to be frazzled each time.

  21. Danny
    Danny says:

    Yawwwwwwwwwwwn. I want to hear about your legs! (not a bad post, but just not that exciting you know?)

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        John. I almost never censor on the comments. It’s gotta be something really bad. Like a comment that references Nazis without any insight.

        That said, the legs comment doesn’t seem nearly as bad as you writing the name of you blog in the comments string twice :) It’s too spamy.


  22. Roger
    Roger says:

    Being creative is the ability too see problems that others miss . The ability to step back and notice there is something missing here.
    Listening close in a conversation and notice they posed something new. Many times when we blurt out comments without thinking them all the way though there is a kernal of an idea there. Your job is to take that kernal rephrase it and bounce it back to the originator. Then see where the idea takes you.
    It isn’t the knowledge of the solution that drives you. If you can define the problem in the rough to make understandable by all then the question can be answered or discarded.
    Just a thought or two.

  23. econobiker
    econobiker says:

    So you how do you manage these creative people and still hoodwink them into thinking that they are “cared about” by the company or the business owner(s) without paying money, increasing benefits, or giving them equity in the firm?

    This seems cynical but it is reality. So how do you do this?

  24. Max
    Max says:

    I like what you said about changing your response to stress. According to Dr. Paul, there are 3 things you can do with anxiety: 1) impulsive reaction- this is where over eating and other addictions come into play 2)masochistic response (poor me, worry, complain) 3) Do something courageous- admit what you are afraid of and give it your all. Even if you fail, you will gain an amount of confidence exactly equal to your initial fear.

    I don’t know if I agree with changing the pace of your tasks; I don’t know if ever doing things slower than you could is beneficial… Liked the post though.

  25. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think the best link (WSJ – A Manifesto for Slow Communication) in this post was the one in #3 (Change the pace of what you do). Many times I don’t review the links because I don’t have a real interest in that particular topic or your summary is sufficient. However I didn’t really understand the gist of your short summary until I read the article and found it to be fascinating.
    The article covers much more than changing the pace of a task. It covers setting priorities for the tasks we do online and the time spent online as well as the speed at which we perform them. It mentions e-mail addiction and addiction to spending time online in general. It covers how the meaning of the verb speed has changed in today’s society – “Speed used to convey urgency; now we somehow think it means efficiency.”
    I also really liked this quote from the article – “We need context in order to live, and if the environment of electronic communication has stopped providing it, we shouldn’t search online for a solution but turn back to the real world and slow down. To do this, we need to uncouple our idea of progress from speed, separate the idea of speed from effi­ciency, pause and step back enough to realize that efficiency may be good for business and governments but does not always lead to mindfulness and sustainable, rewarding relationships.”
    As far as being creative in your job, I also think it helps to associate with other creative people with whose company you enjoy and with whom you are fulfilled. Changing your mindset or a job hop may be necessary.

  26. DarrinGrella
    DarrinGrella says:

    As a personal professor of creative and marketing talent (executive recruiting and interview coaching) this is pretty good. I will definitely use this as a post to refer people to. I agree with the majority of the points however number four (Start Job Hopping) may help you be more creatively involved in ideas however as a career coach I would not advise that! Unless you want to be consultant or freelancer then that is something different.
    Even though it is starting to be more acceptable, frequent job change causes a negative twist to your competitive advantage. Not to be completely spammy but if feel free to check out theinterviewgods

    Thanks again for the post.

  27. Dan Erwin
    Dan Erwin says:

    A century ago I read an article in Fortue about managing knowledge workers and creatives. The author suggested that the best way to manage them was to think of them as volunteer Sunday School teachers. Provide a great environment and whatever resources they need and let them.

    With today’s more research-based background in managing creatives, that still makes some sense. Yet research by Teresa Amabile at Harvard emphasizes process and interaction. Here’s my input on creativity as contact sport:

  28. Confused
    Confused says:

    I LOVE this post! I agree that when you’re allowed to be creative at work, you’re the happiest… which is why I quit my previous job because I was told that I had “too much energy!” I took the initiative to try to solve a problem that had not been addressed after I had asked about it MANY times, and I was clearly excited when I had created a solution. I presented my solution and can you believe I was told that my energy was NOT needed?! I was told that it was NOT initiative, and that I should essentially wait until I was told what to do.

    Not cool. At all.

  29. Ada Wong
    Ada Wong says:

    Engaging in a long-term, committed relationship takes two to do so. But changing one’s normal responses to a situation sounds enticing a proposition. I might try that with my work one of these days – surprise the heck out of clients by proposing something entirely different and unusual, or giving unexpected feedback that will blow their socks off!

    I always love your off-the-beaten-track ideas Penelope (though i might not always have the courage to follow suit).

  30. Deep Blue
    Deep Blue says:

    When Alexander the Great visited Diogenes and asked whether he could do anything for the famed teacher, Diogenes replied: ‘Only stand out of my light.’ Perhaps some day we shall know how to heighten creativity. Until then, one of the best things we can do for creative men and women is to stand out of their light." — John W. Gardner (1912-2002)

  31. Roger
    Roger says:

    A tale of two managers
    #1 Encouraged creativity. Actively supported innovation. Willing to take some leaps of faith in expanding employees expertise. Highly technical able to understand the use of ideas in the rough.
    #2 Wanted every thing done to the minute. Expected ideas to be reduced to immediate impact. If it didn’t change today’s output it wasn’t important. Extremely high on process to point where getting the process done right was more important than getting the job done right. Low understanding of any of the technical terms. When explaining ideas felt like I had to reduce to baby terms to get it understood.

    After getting really up to speed with #1 moving to #2 was a disaster. Which manager would you want to work for?

  32. teach
    teach says:

    How to be an effective ____________________:
    I’m so late on this, it won’t be relevant, but I have to say it anyway.
    It is a really simple, simple fact that managers forget, hell, employees forget it, too. Call it creating, call it innovating, call it making coffee with a new creamer.

    Everyone wants to say/do/feel something no one else has said/done/felt before that makes a difference to the audience. Children are born seeking it, regardless of race, income, intelligence. It’s called FEEDBACK- and while positive is better for everyone involved, rest assured every single employee wants it.
    If someone is “just working on files and coffee for you”- they WANT to be good at this. They want to be TOLD they are good at this. And they want to be told what else specifically they can do to earn your FEEDBACK next time.

    That’s why the hamster gets on the wheel everyday, managers. Try a little feedback-consistently-, and you can get that hamster running marathons if you ask it.

    Not rocket manager-ing. Just knowing PEOPLE. (and hamsters =).
    How do I know? I am a teacher, and I have little people in my class each day who succeed solely based on FEEDBACK. I have parents who need my FEEDBACK, and co-workers who want my FEEDBACK and I theirs, and a boss of whom I seek feedback.

    Isn’t every single relationship based on this? And it seems so complicated? Why?

    Creativity is a nice lofty idea, but you are focusing on one of the crayons, instead of the whole idea of the box. The box being- USE ME, I MATTER.

    Doctor, lawyer, grocery clerk, teacher, student, sales person…….
    Sometimes these things seem over-thought.
    Just my two cents.
    No need for feedback +)

  33. Graham B
    Graham B says:

    I totally agree that it is almost impossible to like your job if you are not solving problems that challenge you in some way. Sadly, although my work does involve very intersting technical challenges almost every day, it also offers challenges in dealing with my employers!

  34. Resume Objectives
    Resume Objectives says:

    I loved the word ‘ change your mind set..yes this is true. We are leaving in a world of interesting its important to change our mind set according to the changing world! this was world-class write up..which needs to be shared with every citizen..cheers!

  35. Guy Farmer
    Guy Farmer says:

    Great post Penelope. I’ve also found that employees are more creative if leaders allow them to be by not hovering over them or micromanaging. When managers trust their employees to think on their own or find their own answers, it opens the door to thinking more freely and expansively.

  36. Juegos de Motos
    Juegos de Motos says:

    Even if you do work that is not what you wanted or was not part of your ideals still do not think we should be ashamed of what you do. The important thing is to work honestly and you’ll always appreciated.

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