Seven Rules for Creative People

There’s an article at the Harvard Business Review titled “Seven Rules for Managing Creative People;” It’s one of the more insulting and condescending dispatches from Corporate America, but creative people need to read it. It will, if you can get past the arrogant and dismissive tone, teach you exactly what the bean-counters and button-sorters think of you.

The article, by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, demonstrates a cheerful obliviousness and contempt for creative people; he suggests that we are children, have emotional issues, are needy and egocentric, can’t cooperate with others, and need to be manipulated in order to benefit the bottom line, and that paying us poorly is the only rational approach.

It’s only right, then, that we offer our Seven Rules for Putting up with Management.

1. Remember they are blind. Always remember that most managers are oblivious to how creative people work or what they can do. They may grudgingly admit that our work is important, but they don’t get it. They say things like “if you know it will work, it isn’t creative.” They really think we’re just randomly experimenting, we have no methodology, and, most significantly, we don’t know what works. They think this because they have no instincts. This is why they say nonsense like “let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes.” They have to do market testing and conduct focus groups because they really can’t tell if something is good or not; they can’t do what we can, and they don’t believe we can do it either. You have to be patient with them.

2. Accept that they don’t get us. The office drones have no clue how we work, and more importantly, how we work with each other. They think that if you put a bunch of creative people together, they will “compete for ideas, brainstorm eternally, or simply ignore each other”; they don’t understand that creative people energize and inspire each other. In their dull, tiny, dark world, everyone has to jealously guard their few ideas, because they don’t realize that ideas are a dime a dozen; what matters is what you do with them and execution is everything. They don’t understand that Walt Disney was such a success because he put his “Nine Old Men” in a room together and got out of their way, letting them inspire each other to greater heights.

They also don’t get how we work with the non-creatives. They think we “would not understand them.” They don’t recognize that we’ve been dealing with “conventional people” all our lives. We’re related to them. We went to school with them. We know perfectly well how to work with uncreative people; it mostly involves listening patiently to their bad ideas and trying to find some way to make something that won’t be terrible out of them. So when they prattle on about needing to surround us with “semi-boring people,” remember that they are trying to convince themselves that they aren’t in fact totally boring themselves.

3. Focus on the work. Remember that the management types not only don’t understand what we do, they don’t understand what they do. They think that some of the work being done at their company is “trivial, mindless, and meaningless,” and yet they pay people to do it anyway. They focus so much on the procedures that they overlook the point, and as a result they can’t understand that we take pride in our work, even if parts of it are tedious, repetitive and dull. We care about doing a good job, because we are artists. They are goal-oriented, we are process-oriented; how we do things is at least as important as why we do them.

We understand that there is no such thing as “meaningless work” unless the managers are running things badly. I’m reminded of the story of the janitor at NASA who took incredible pride in his work; when asked why he was so proud of sweeping the floors, he explained, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

Creative people do not “perform well only when inspired;” we perform well when we see that what we are doing is noticed and considered important. If management thinks we are temperamental, bi-polar children making messes, we’re probably not going to put forth our best efforts, unless we’re focused on taking pride in our work.

4. Humor their need for obedience to arbitrary rules. The Suits think we’re all scatterbrained free spirits who can’t abide rules. They utter absurdities like “if you like structure, order and predictability, you are probably not creative.” They don’t realize that as artists and creative people, our primary function is to bring structure and order to chaos; we take their piles of scribbled notes and doodles and transform them into something logical and beautiful that even middle management can follow and understand. We have no problem with structure and order, but we have a real problem with it being arbitrarily imposed for no good reason in areas that don’t need it. If we go to lunch at 12:27 instead of 12:00, it’s not going to shut down the assembly line, because we’re not on the assembly line. It’s not going to affect anyone at all, because we’re going to go to lunch when we’re between tasks, when we hit a natural stopping point. Going to lunch at some arbitrary time just because the boss has decided that this is lunchtime interrupts the flow and disrupts our workday, but if you have to go along with it, do the best you can.

5. Remember that money is everything to them. The managers have a nasty habit of reading research studies and reaching exactly the wrong conclusion. If a study tells them that creative people are more motivated by intrinsic rewards (like job satisfaction and the sense that one’s work matters) than by extrinsic (money), they will misunderstand; they will say things like “when tasks are inherently meaningful, external rewards diminish engagement,” and will erroneously and insultingly conclude that underpaying creative employees causes them to be more productive. They really don’t get it that it’s not the extrinsic reward that’s the problem; it’s the disregard for the intrinsic reward. They don’t understand that telling us that our paycheck is our only reward is saying that the things we love about our work don’t matter. They think their paycheck is a reward, not a transaction, and they forget that even though we aren’t motivated by money, we’re not stupid, and we will leave if we get a better offer.

Here’s a simple principle: in my experience, employers who value me and my work, who make me feel like an important part of the team and act like what I do is valuable, have no complaints about paying me. “The better they treat you, the better they pay you.”

Your paycheck is a handy way to measure your employer’s opinion of your value. You may not be motivated by money, but the boss is; demand top dollar, not just because you’re worth it, but because if he’s paying you more, he will treat you better in the ways that matter.

6. Don’t let them trivialize you. These dull-witted automatons think we “are prewired to seek constant change, even when it’s counterproductive.” They think we create chaos to amuse ourselves, they say things like “creatives love complexity and enjoy making simple things complex rather than vice-versa.”They don’t understand that the essence of good art, good design, good anything is elegant simplicity. We don’t make things needlessly complex, and we don’t go looking for “a million answers or a million problems.”We’re just a whole lot better than they are at seeing potential problems further off, and trying to solve them before they become problems.

They really think we thrive on chaos and deliberately create it around us “to make our lives less predictable.” They honestly can’t recognize that it isn’t chaos, it’s the creative process in mid-stride.

They really don’t understand what we do, but they know that they need us to do it because they can’t. Here’s your warning sign: the word “just.” Any time this word emerges from the mouth of a non-creative, prepare to be confronted with an absurd request. “Can you just rotate the image a little?” “Can’t we just put up a new web page?” “Why don’t we just tear it down and start over?” If a sentence has the word “just” in it, the speaker is telling you that he has absolutely no understanding of the process or difficulty, and more importantly, he doesn’t care. He knows only that he is the boss and you are not. It is vitally important at that point that you explain to him, clearly and in little words, exactly why you can’t “just” do whatever two-day job he thinks you can dash off in five minutes.

7. Make them feel important. As T.S. Eliot noted, “most of the trouble in this world is caused by people wanting to be important”. Non-creative people want desperately to be creative, but they want to do it in rigidly defined and overly structured ways, and they want to be told they are doing it right. They want validation. If you manage to use one of their stupid suggestions as a jumping-off point to come up with something good, let them have a little of the credit. If they feel like part of the creative process, they might get off your back a little.

A final suggestion: learn to speak “managerese”; use empty jargon and buzzwords, and position yourself as an “asset creator” rather than an artist. As we’ve seen, they have contempt for anyone who isn’t focused on money and the bottom line, isn’t jockeying for position and climbing the ladder, and does not consider economic success to be the only standard to go by. If you can learn to parrot their doublespeak, you’ll impress them in meetings and get the reputation for not being “a typical creative.” They might even stop trying to motivate you by paying you less.

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25 Responses to Seven Rules for Creative People

  1. Appreciate this.

    Articles like this guy’s tell more about his weaknesses than the group who he’s pointing the finger at.

    Looked at his bio, quote: “…[he] has published 7 books and over 100 scientific papers, making him one of the most prolific social scientists of his generation.”

    All in journals I’d never heard of.

    I am thinking we are looking at a bit of an attention-seeker here. Nothing more.

    • Christopher says:

      And your reply says more about you.

      This article was in response to a Harvard Business Review (it’s right there in the first line…).

      Your ability to take something out of context & cynically miss the point, leads us to believe you’re truly a happy individual.

  2. Allison says:

    THIS. Is the best, and most intelligent, response to the HBR’s article ever. Thank you!

  3. Kristin says:

    Excellent response.

  4. JB says:

    A lovely response to an offensive and badly-written article. Thank you.

  5. Leonard Kirk says:

    Thank you so much! This is fantastic! 🙂

  6. Kate Beall says:

    A beautiful, simple, middle management-accessible riposte. Thank you.

  7. Angela says:

    Nice response, but you should not then turn around and insult and generalize those who work hard to live successful lives while managing bipolar disorder. Mental illness is a legitimate medical condition which should not be stigmatized. It is insulting and insensitive to use the statement “bipolar children making messes”.

    • admin says:

      You are correct. I know people who are living with bipolar disorder, and should have used a different term in characterizing the author’s view of creative people, though he clearly thinks we all suffer from some sort of mental disorder, based on his description of us.

    • JB says:

      The author of the original article is the one who brought up the idea of being bipolar: “This all-or-nothing approach to work mirrors the bipolar temperament of creative artists, who perform well only when inspired.” This article is just responding to that claim.

      (And the HBR article also called innovators “psychopaths,” just for the record.)

  8. Liz Heller says:

    This is an excellent rebuke to last week’s HBR train wreck of a post. Was crying out for the other side’s voice to be heard when I read it face-palming at my desk, and for any insight and words of advice in having to work with the kind of withering condemnation found in “Seven Rules for Managing Creatives”, which was written so condescendingly that no amount of tweaking could un-blemish the tens of thousands of creative faces that had been brutally slapped by that article. Thank you for your service!

  9. Kelly Richardson says:

    Somebody paid attention.. see the Editors note, added TODAY:
    “Editor’s note: We updated the headline on this post April 10 to reflect that its intent is to discuss a small subset of people who happen to be both creative and difficult to work with; not to imply that all creative people are difficult. We regret the error.”

    • admin says:

      Changing the headline is a desperate attempt at a CYA move, one that does nothing whatsoever to mitigate the arrogant tone and insulting comments about creative people. It’s also a lie. The article in no way addresses the problem of “creative but difficult.” It speaks in general terms about creative people as a class and offers condescending (and wildly unhelpful) advice about how to manage them.
      Managing difficult people is easy. Fire them and replace them. Nobody is such a special little snowflake that they can’t be replaced. No matter how creative your staffer is, if he’s a pain to work with, there’s somebody else out there who is every bit as talented and not a PITA. But of course that means you have to be somebody people want to work for, and deliberately underpaying them is not how you get there.

  10. Mike says:

    Though I think the original article wasn’t exactly eloquent, I can’t find anything that’s really that controversial other than the tone.

    1. Is essentially, “Let them take risks.”
    2. Is essentially keeping them away from potential conflict.
    3 and 6. are pretty much don’t let them get bored. As a creative person that is getting bored with what I’m doing, I can tell you it has affected my productivity.
    4. Is just “Give them freedom/flexibility”
    5. Is probably most controversial, but he cites several studies that show that overpaying people makes them less productive. It’s hard to argue with. Also you should note that management cares about productivity; Executives care about money. A small but significant difference.
    7. I don’t get why making your employees feel important is a bad thing.

    The article is condescending, but I feel like you ignored a lot of objective evidence so you could get pissed off. You should reread it through the lens of someone who has to get you to work most productively; as condescending as it was a lot of it did actually apply to me. I think it’s important to know your own flaws, and ignoring them so you can be pissed off at people who criticize you doesn’t do you any good.

    My controversial .02.

    • Orv says:

      I feel like #5 is just another restating of the tired old idea that you can’t create art unless you’re suffering. The myth that starving artists are more creative is incredibly toxic, especially since far too many artists believe it. This attitude has really gotten a boost from the “information wants to be free” open-source crowd that became prominent in the 90s; since then they’ve been trying to convince everyone that intellectual property in general — and creative works in particular — have no inherent value, and artists should either work for free or for tip jar contributions.

  11. Malcolm Ryder says:

    1. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer
    2. Eschew UnTelligence.

  12. Ruth Barshaw says:

    If I’d seen the original article and then this brilliant rebuttal back in my 9-to-5 days, I’d have been more successful (and probably a lot easier to work with). Unfortunately I was young, and more invested in the creative process than in understanding and working with management’s point of view. Fortunately it was such a tight, constraining fit that I left to work on my own, where I blossomed.
    Thanks for helping me figure out where I went wrong (and right).

  13. Absolutely loved this response to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s ridiculous and outrageous blog post on HBR. Thank you! Funny, articulate, equally offensive yet so true.

  14. says:

    Nice job. We worked together at Dynamedia a long time ago. This is an awesome response!!

  15. Pól Rua says:

    The HBR article seems keyed to the corporate philosophy where, unless people are living lives of dread and oppression in a Kafkaesque shark tank, they might ‘slack off’.
    There are many ways to motivate employees. One of them is this kind of atavistic gladiatorial arena where you blow smoke up your employees’ posteriors, treat them like unruly children and make sure there’s a solid delineation of ‘us’ and ‘them’ where the left hand never knows what the right hand is doing.
    The other is where you treat your employees as genuine human beings, regard their concerns and needs as genuine and address them accordingly, instead of trying to distract them with sleight-of-hand and snake-oil techniques, genuinely value their contributions to the success of the business and compensate them accordingly… not just in money, but in esteem, regard and recognition.

    If you treat your employees as unruly chimp children who need to be cajoled, tricked and bewildered into executing their responsibilities, then that’s what you’ll get, and it’s exactly this self-fulfilling prophesy which is informing the original article.

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