My Rebuttal to the Seven Rules For Managing Creative People

Last week, this article, Seven Rules for Managing Creative People by Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic from the Harvard Business Review blog caused quite a reaction online. To put it mildly, most commenters found the condescending tone off-putting, and many wondered if it was an April Fool’s Day post posted a day too late. Indeed, if any employer were ever to follow these seven rules to the letter, I doubt they’d have anything to show at the end except an exceptionally high staff turnover rate.

I read the article and was dismayed at the way creative types were portrayed. The words “egotistical,” “anti-social,” “eccentric,” “erratic” and so on were associated with those that create. But to me, that’s like stating that every single senior executive is a sociopath – it’s just not true. Creatives, just like everyone else, can’t be painted with a single swipe of a condescending brush. We’re not all a homogeneous group of unreliable, rebellious, management-shunning free spirits who disdain the feelings of others. But, there were some points that were hidden within Chamorro-Premuzic’s post that had some validity. I decided to find those points and re-write Chamorro-Premuzic’s seven rules; albeit with a more positive tone.

  1. Spoil Them And Let Them Fail: It’s fine to encourage the creatives in your organization to take risks, but it’s not okay to treat any employee – creative or not – like a child. Unconditional support is great, and people do learn from failure, but the fact that Chamorro-Premuzic suggests letting people do the absurd and then celebrate it is short-sighted. Yes, innovation is born from risk, but risk does need to be tempered with common-sense in the business world.
  2. Surround them by semi-boring people: Why would anyone want to be surrounded by semi-boring people? Pairing creative types with other creative types will encourage more thought-sharing behaviour – and will encourage innovation. I do agree with the author when he states that diverse teams are critical to moving things along, but I do not agree that a creative will refuse to work with like-minded individuals and that nothing would get done if they put a room full of creatives in charge of a project.
  3.  Only involve them in meaningful work. I agree that innovators want to be involved in work they feel is meaningful, but doesn’t everyone? Of course, there are people who go to work, collect the paycheque and go home, but they’re hopefully the exception in most organizations. And calling creative types bi-polar in this point was just insulting, Mr. Chamorro-Premuzic. And, to your other point, I can explain exactly why my work has meaning – and so can most others. Telling creatives that they don’t have the words to state why their work is meaningful is quite a bold, incorrect statement.
  4. Don’t pressure them: Freedom and flexibility is a good thing in the workplace. Time and again, studies have shown that most employees will work better and more productively in such an environment. It’s not just those who are creative that appreciate such things in a workplace.
  5. Pay them poorly: Excuse me?! This is where the author lost me completely. I’m sorry, but “job satisfaction” does not pay the bills. I value my time and my work at a rate that I think is fair for what I do (see my previous post, What Are You Worth?). And I certainly wouldn’t accept poor pay because I feel like I’ll do a better job because I’ll get genuine praise instead. I have commercial needs – a mortgage and bills. Last time I checked, a genuine ‘thank you’ from a supervisor isn’t a currency I can use to keep a roof over my head.
  6. Surprise them: Not every creative I know will take a different route to work daily or never order the same thing twice. People come in all stripes – creative people included. Not every creative thrives when things are complex. But I agree with the author on this point: chance are, if you present a problem to a creative type, they’ll likely give you a considerable number of potential solutions in return.
  7. Make them feel important: Okay, this is one area where the author and I agree. If you treat every employee just like the other employees, the superstars won’t shine and they will go elsewhere, and the ones that are chugging along will keep with the status-quo and won’t do anything but the basics. Treating employees as they deserve to be treated makes sense. A poor performer shouldn’t get the same rewards as a great performer and vice versa. But not every creative employee is worth that recognition. If they’re not a star, don’t treat them like they are because you think your “temperamental creative” might get upset if you don’t break out the kid gloves to handle their fragile egos.

Chamorro-Premuzic’s final caveat, that creative innovators are rarely good managers or leaders because they’re too focused on themselves, rebellious and anti-social, is crazy. I may be generalizing here, but the creative types I’ve had the pleasure of reporting to challenged me to be better. They would question my decisions, provide additional perspectives that I may not have thought about and generally, push me to do my best each and every day.

I think every creative would agree – we’re not all the same. Just like you can’t generalize that every accountant is boring and unwilling to innovate, you can’t assume that every creative is one step away from being a self-important psychopath who will work for peanuts. You may be a thought leader, Chamorro-Premuzic, but this is one area where I really hope that your advice is not taken as fact in every situation.

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