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Managing Creative Types

Mandy Love with members of her creative team

Creatives are vital to most organizations, but an entire design department or an advertising agency full of artists can be a manager’s worst nightmare.  If the success of a business depends on the happiness of the employees, keeping the creative department happy requires a unique skill set including a vast understanding of the creative personality, effective communication skills, and hours of patience.  The rewards are great, but the challenge steep and not all managers are called to the task.

In order to effectively lead a team of creatives, one must first understand the personality of an artist, what motivates, what inspires greatness, what provokes and what completely shuts down the creative flow. Gregorie (2014) stated, “Psychologically speaking, creative personality types are difficult to pin down, largely because they’re complex, paradoxical and tend to avoid habit or routine. And it’s not just a stereotype of the “tortured artist” – artists really may be more complicated people” (2014).  Without getting a better understanding about how each artist works a manager can be stuck with unproductive employees.

Gregorie does a great job to define artists perfectly; Most creatives contradict themselves in their actions and behaviors.  Creatives are often arrogant, yet deeply sensitive, unreasonable, but enthusiastic. Creative people are emotionally involved in their work.  Torr (2008) stated, “The truth is that creative people are different from other people — special, in a way that we’re only beginning to understand” (p. 68).  While creatives typically do not play by the rules and can be defiant, artists are highly driven by passion for the project, more concerned with the intent than the compensation for the project.

Not every person is creative; this is why the artist has such a unique character.  If everyone was a creative type there is a good chance nothing would ever be accomplished.  Riley (2012) said,  “Creatives might find themselves more easily overwhelmed, and often live chaotic lives, affecting not only personal relationships, but also their own productivity.” It is a hard task to keep artist on focused; there are times they are capable of keeping themselves on track and times when they need to be motivated to get back on track.  To manage effectively require great skill at organizing money, people and projects. Skills that tends to work against the manager when dealing with creatives because generally artist aren’t organized and their idea of order can make a managers head spin.

Artists prefer to keep a schedule that can be difficult to monitor.  Cousins (2011) said, “Be flexible with work schedules if possible. Maybe some of your workers would benefit from a schedule that does not fit in the 9-to-5 mold. Try to accommodate shift variances for people to optimize their skills” (para 11).  A lot of artists tend to do their best work later in the day, having a flexible schedule can mutual beneficially to all. When he or she is “in the zone,” he might lose track of time. Any disruption to the zone can cease further progress. Once the zone has been disrupted it could take hours to get back on track.  

Artists typically give passionately to a project that speaks to them, hours, days, even years.  However, working on a project of little interest will require minimum time because the artist will just want to get the job done.  Because the artist has a lot of passion for their work, anytime the artist feel as if, their work is being diluted it hurts their pride and sense of self.  Paul (2008) reminds us to, “Respect their emotional attachment to their work: Creativity requires putting a part of yourself into the work. So with that in mind critique a creative’s work with a little bit of a softer hand” (para 6).  Any criticism, even constructive criticism, is not easy for an artist to accept, especially if it is a piece in which they are emotionally invested. A gentle reminder that we all see art differently may be a good approach when dealing with a sulking artist. Help the artist understand there are circumstances that we can and cannot control.

A constant challenge in managing creatives is to keep the talent on task.  Lyman (2000) said, “Creative people may appear absent minded, or single-minded, out of touch with reality, and perhaps they are.  They may already be living in the future, a future the rest of the world will discover later” (para 25). To keep an artist on track, a successful manager must provide all information and project specifications upfront as well as a deadline.  Once an artist is emotionally invested in a project, changing requirements or deadlines can disrupt the creative process or decrease the output significantly. Gustavson (2014) wrote, “Of course, team members must receive the appropriate tools and training to help them achieve their goals.  Otherwise, they will merely be spinning their wheels” (p. 116).  

When working with a creative team, a strong leader will often employ a team approach   to accommodate both the introverted and the extroverted. While it is not natural for creatives to respect authority, the department manager needs to have procedures in place.  Lyman (2000) said, “Thinking creative thoughts is not being creative. There must be an action, a product, or a performance, some work done, some creation for there to be creativity” (para 17).

Just as the creative personality can be both sensitive and tough at the same time, artists require a manager that can lead the same way.  It is also important to get the artists away from the stifling monotony of an office environment. Getting a team of graphic designers out of the office for a game of hacky sack can rejuvenate and refresh the team, generating new bold ideas.  A wise manager can sense a stagnant environment and will take the department outside, or away from the office for a short break, to energize the creative flow.

Artists are not known for the attention to details or fastidious time management skills. It is important that the leader helps the team with management of their time.  Lipman said, “Not surprisingly, this group doesn’t respond well to micromanagement” (para 2); however, it is a good idea to approach them a few days before the deadline to get an update on how the project is coming along.  A gentle reminder to the artist that the deadline is fast approaching can prevent deadline being missed or a rush to finish the job at the last minute. Hagg and Coget, (2010) said, “creatives need decisiveness in direction and stopping points.  Passion in creativity may lead to obsessiveness or overworking a concept” (p. 279). Visual creatives need to know exact details on needed to finish a project but prefer to have to creative freedom of that situation. Artists tend to obsess over part of the project that the client may view as insignificant to the overall design.  Gentle guidance in weekly update meetings is a good method to help keep on task and focused.

It is important to allow designers to work independently, yet keep them informed with spontaneous meetings.  Learning the artists’ preferred method of communication whether it’s face-to-face, via phone, email or chat.  It is easy to distract an artist from their work, which can compromises the look of the final product. Interruptions can be a setback on any project of an artist for an entire day or longer. Conrad (2013) said, “management shouldn’t be disturbing them when the door is closed, they probably killed a brilliant idea before it had the chance of being born” (para 13).

Artists need a manager who’s willing to who will to stand up and support the artist and their vision. The less they have to interact with others outside of their work, the smoother the workflow and ultimately, a better result. A versatile manager acts as an intermediary, connecting the vision with the end product, managing expectations as well as output.  This in no way means that an artist should never have interactions with the client, this is just a general rule to keep unnecessary interrupts out.

Most of the problems that arise with creatives will come from interactions with other departments or clients; rarely does the creative department have a problem from with itself.  When choosing a creative team it is vital to find personalities that interact well and make a harmonious department. If one artist that does not fit well with others, chaos ensues. Introverts often shut down when faced with adversity.  This is another example of how the persona of the artist is complicated. They tend to be introverts but still love the camaraderie of other artists.

When the creative department experiences a rare interdepartmental problem that arises the situation must be handled immediately.  It is best to tackle the problem headfirst. If a leader wait to see if the problem works itself out the manager will be left with an even bigger problem.  This is when a manager must know when to be accommodating and when to draw the line. According to Hill and Lineback, (2012), “your formal authority can be useful for directing people’s time and attention to the right issues and conditions.” (para 10).   More emphasis should be placed on keeping the creative team happy. Most artists like to deal with a majority of issues in a group setting, which prevents anyone from being singled out. There are exceptions to the rule and at times an individual needs to be singled out to address a certain.  Sena (2013) said, “at times managing the design process might feel like herding cats or dribbling a football. This is normal.” (para 15)

While it takes a different kind of manager to properly lead a group of artists, the fundamentals what are the same.  Artists still need a leader who is positive and inspires them to be the best they can be. Once a manager has proven themselves to the artists, the creative will become a loyal to the leader and department.

Earning respect and loyalty from an artist is not an easy achievement.  If an artist does not like working with a person, they will let you know, usually in a passive aggressive way.  Ebenstein (2013) “you need to truly put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You need to strive to tell people’s stories as they would themselves by putting them in the center, making them the hero and making yourself the villain” (p. 115).  Sometimes it requires leadership to step outside of the comfort zone. If the artist truly believes in what they have done and someone is trying to convolute the design the manager needs to be willing to stand up and fight for their designer. Puccio, Mance and Murdock (2011) said, “Through the leader’s high standard of moral and ethical behavior, and as a consequence, there is a strong bond of trust with others.”  

When changes are being made in any of the companies, departments, or, procedures artists are not quick to adapt.  They need to know why things are being changed and will voice an opinion about the decisions. The best thing a manager can do is listen intently on what they have to say, answer honestly and let them know they are not being ignored, the artist must have a follow up, preferable within a reasonable amount of time.

The majority of artist will be quick to give opinions on what they think will be a better solution to the problem.  The participative style of management is becoming more the normal in the business place. It is found that employees thrive when they are included in decisions, it boost moral and allows the employee to take more pride in their work.  However, Cousins reminds us, “Help designers learn to explain their decision-making and why things look a certain way. Don’t accept “because it looks cool” as an answer; push creatives to justify the reasons why something works or does not” (2011).

For artist communication is not the strongest skill.  Most prefer to work in their own bubble with little to no input from outside sources.  When the creatives are ready to talk, they need to know they are heard and be responded to with helpful insights.  Cottrell and Nix said, (2014) “Listening effectively is not easy. It requires three things most people lack: time, patience, and consideration.” (p. 67).   Artists do like to challenge authority and even if a procedure is put into place from upper management, the creative team lead will have to handle the fall back with each team member.  Reassurance is a creative manager’s friend and will calm a defiant team member. If a change can be made to improve the new procedure than it should be brought to the attention of those who had the final decision.  Leadership needs to keep their team abreast of information that is essential to their roles.

Riggio (2009) said, “Research clearly shows that transformational leaders – leaders who are positive, inspiring, and who empower and develop followers – are better leaders.  They are more valued by followers and have higher performing teams.” To lead a team of artists, a successful leader what they are talking about, in the art world. If a leader is not up to date on the latest technique or unable to explain how something can be accomplished, the artists involved will know and will lose respect.  

Managers are often called to be positive even when all others are pessimistic.  Goodwin and Griffith. (2009) stated, “Employees do not always resent being disciplined, if it is done the right way, and often admit that help was needed” (p.134).  As a manager it is important to weigh the talent of the artist verse their quirks and habits. If a graphic designer is very talented, it is easy to let minor deviations from procedure slide.  Over months, a pattern of small slips becomes the trend and a larger problem arises. A time will come when the talent no longer outweighs bad habits and poor decisions. It is an unconventional style of management to allow a person’s idiosyncrasies to continue for a long period, but is often found in creative departments, due to the naturally occurring unique personalities.  A successful manager will avoid this pitfall and prevent the trend by addressing the situations up front.

Being conscious of the tendencies of various personalities can help a manager redirect the team at the first sign of trouble.  Offer up solutions, that are clear and concise that will help them avoid risking their job. If coaching does solve the problem, eventually the poor behavior will affect the moral in the department.  It is important that the manager begins the discipline process with a written warning that concisely gives the employee a time frame that results are expected. Sometimes the manager will have to meet with certain employees more than once to get results, it is always good to give a follow up meeting.  Occasionally you must come to terms that you can no longer help the employee and the tie must be severed. This should be a last resort but one that at times cannot be avoided.

A happy creative team is what every company should strive for because they are necessary and need to be valued. Han and Bromilow (2010) stated that, “Companies are looking to design leaders to deliver innovation, establish brands, and improve systems.  They are using designers more strategically across their businesses to help them grow and compete more successfully in the market” (p. 29). There still seems to be very little research, in regards to how to mange artists; however, with branding and marketing increasing, it is a critical that managers are educated on how to give creatives the leadership they need to thrive.  Unleashing the capability of creative people demands a new style of leadership; managers cannot be the sole driving force to growth.

The respect of the department is a treasured reward of productivity and satisfaction. However, if one is not up to the challenge or cannot see past the traditional management styles, the road will be long and bumpy one with low productivity.  Leading creative people can be astonishingly trying and frequently requires huge personal sacrifice and humility on part of the manager. Once a manager learns to properly handle the balance of successfully leading a team of creative with their idiosyncrasies, the results will be tremendous and successful.  


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