Wielding the Velvet Hammer
What's the best approach for leading creative people, and does it really differ from leading everyone else? — Joe Burke, Los Angeles
Do the creatives in an organization need special handling? In a word, yes. Leading people who often don't think of themselves as employees of anyone or anything, let alone followers embedded in an organization consisting of levels, layers, and moving parts, is about as far from Management 101 as you can get.
In fact, it's an art, drawing on all sorts of soft skills, like empathy, an ability to nurture, and ad hoc psychological counseling. But what a mistake if you lead creative people from your heart and stop there. Managing creative people also requires—it even demands—a measure of authority. Nothing heavy-handed, of course. You don't want your resident out-of-the-box thinkers running for the exits. With their fresh ideas and unique perspectives, they can be, and often are, the reason for breakthrough products and new ways of working, and even the impetus for whole new businesses. Still, creative people must know that boundaries and values exist, and they have to respect them. Because if they don't, creative people have a way of going off the rails—and taking the workaday core of the company with them.
Now, we realize that the velvet hammer part of the approach we recommend is somewhat counter to the conventional wisdom about managing creatives, which runs that writers, editors, artists, software designers, engineers, research scientists, and even a few particularly inventive investment bankers should be left alone. They're different from you and me, the thinking goes: deeper, more mysteriously wired, more fragile. Treat them like worker bees, and they sting. Treat them like hallowed Yodas, and their wisdom flows.
We'd be tempted to blow this view off as nonsense, except that some of it is true. The most creative people can often be intellectually complex and emotionally delicate. They can be odd or prickly. Some are quite antisocial. Many started hating the status quo in grade school and have never stopped. Who knows whether those traits are due to the way their brains work or the way most societies allow (and even encourage) artistic types to act. Regardless, true creatives do seem to shut down when squeezed into normal strictures, and good managers need to be wary of that.
But businesses aren't museums. They exist not to showcase creative output but to capitalize on it. For that to happen, something has to give. And that something is the typical creative person's underlying notion that he's a free agent. One employee—a gifted writer who used to miss deadlines with abandon—once told one of us: "You're not the boss of me." Technically, he was flat wrong, but not in his own mind.
Now, many creative types do accept basic organizational principles and procedures. They push boundaries but do not cross them, and as a result, their teams and organizations forge ahead. But too often, companies also contain those who are so exquisitely talented that their buck-the-system behaviors get a pass. The brilliant scientist who treats his young associates like serfs. The award-winning art director who scoffs at corporate pleas for cost-cutting. The ingenious video game designer who won't talk to the marketing department. Outrageous behaviors, yes. But when the creatives displaying them are good enough, many managers look away. Who wants to drive off the goose that lays the golden eggs?
The problem, though, is that negative behaviors tend to be highly contagious among creatives. After all, many of them are already acting against type on the job: They're conforming far more than they'd like. And so they seize upon any opportunity to break from the corporate herd. The next thing you know, dysfunctional behaviors start to spread. People start working when and where they want, which usually means alone. They stop sharing ideas with mainstream "grunts." Often, they start sniping at each other over, of all things, creative differences.
Such freedom may be a relief, if not a thrill, for the creatives who are enjoying it, but it's usually agony for regular employees, who start to feel like disenfranchised outsiders. "Why do the creatives get so much slack," they wonder, "while we get none?" That's a question conducive to only two kinds of environment: chaos or stalemate.
Which leaves leaders in a unique, but not irresolvable, bind. To win in the marketplace, leaders absolutely must respect the individuality of creative people. They are different. But if you want your organization to cohere and thrive, you must make sure they keep that difference within bounds. Yes, some creatives might balk; some might even walk. But remember, you are indeed the boss of them—and everyone else. For the sake of the organization, you need to act that way.