How to change your creative team’s bad habits

As the old saying goes, “we become what we repeatedly do.” This means we must repeatedly do things that are constructive, useful, and lead us towards our goals. But, as any creature of habit knows, it’s not that easy to start new habits and break bad ones. We’ve covered breaking your own bad habits in previous posts, but breaking the bad habits of an entire group presents an even bigger challenge.

If you’re looking to change your team’s habits for the better, especially in a creative and collaborative setting, here are some of the most common bad habits of teams:


Bad habit #1: Frequent personality clashes

Domineering colleagues bulldozing their teammates, small problems escalating into major conflicts, team members gossiping and talking negatively behind each other’s backs… these are all signs that your collaborative efforts are being stifled by personality clashes. Here are other signs:

  • Team members conceal key information from each other. This usually happens when members of your team don’t feel comfortable expressing their ideas or feedback, even for creative projects that require them. They might also hesitate to approach specific team members for help, even if that person has the expertise or knowledge that would be a good fit.
  • Time is spent on interpersonal drama. If you notice any posturing, personal attacks, or back-channel discussions, then time and energy is being wasted on personal politics that drain the energies of the group.

While differences and conflict are to be expected in any workplace— after all, only 0.8% of Canadian employees report having never experienced workplace conflict, with the majority of these conflicts coming from personality clashes (see above)—the conflict should not be so bad that it affects team cohesion and output. Since conflict is unavoidable at work, especially in projects that require a lot of collaboration, it’s often best to work through them rather than around them. Here are some suggestions:

  • Evaluate the dynamics of the situation. What’s the current status of the conflict? What does each person involved have to lose by ending the conflict or by maintaining it? Understand all parties involved, including their feelings and positions, and you’ll be better equipped to decide what the next step should be.
  • Have conflict management training. A study of workers from nine different countries shows that conflict management training is the biggest driver for producing good outcomes after conflict. Speak to HR about your training options.
  • There must be a safe space for ideas and feedback. Feedback is often a source of conflict, especially in creative work. To avoid this, make feedback a normal, low-pressure part of the process. For example, animation studio Pixar is known for their culture of openly giving and receiving feedback, even for works in progress. According to Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, “We’re constantly showing works in progress internally… We make a concerted effort to make it safe to criticize by inviting everyone attending these showings to e-mail notes to the creative leaders that detail what they liked and didn’t like and explain why.”


Bad habit #2: Uneven work distribution

Another bad habit common among creative teams is the uneven distribution of responsibilities and labor.

  • Missed deadlines or deliverables. Because your team is underperforming, it’s likely that there will be missed or almost-missed deadlines, incomplete deliverables, or sub-par work quality. Still, it’s possible for the most productive members to compensate for the least productive ones, so it’s best to review individual input.
  • Resentment when discussing the output of others. As you ask for updates or look at work in progress, you might notice that when you talk to your team they might point out items or tasks that they are still waiting on from other members. Listen to them carefully to see if these are just unexpected mistakes or the cause of a deeper resentment.
  • One or a few members are the source of most of the ideas, direction, and labor. In some cases, as the leader, you might even be the one carrying the burden of motivating and disciplining the team, when they should be able to do this for themselves and each other. It’s also possible that one person actively dominates the team by choice rather than as a result of other members’ loafing. This could be because of their personality or because they simply have the most experience or knowledge.

If you notice that the individual team members are putting in disproportionate amounts of work for similar tasks, you need to find a solution before your project deadlines are derailed and the more productive members feel overburdened. By making full use of each team member, you’ll benefit from their unique input. Here’s how to make that happen:

  • Keep group sizes small. Sometimes, finding the optimal work distribution is as simple as keeping the group size small enough for everyone to have a pivotal role, but not too large that some people can get by without doing much work. A study from the University of Illinois showed that as groups became larger, cohesiveness decreased and loafing increased; people exert less effort when in these groups than they would when alone. Large teams can affect how leadership estimates the workload as well. Research published in “Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes” described a phenomenon called “team scaling fallacy.” This means that as teams get larger, managers tend to underestimate the labor required to complete a project. If your creative team has too many moving parts, break them up into smaller teams with specific objectives.
  • Track individual progress. It will be harder for less productive members to hide behind the high productivity of others if you individually track their output. Create assignments for each member or keep track of the tasks that they volunteer to be accountable for. This also helps clarify for each person what their role is in the project, making them realize that their input is vital.


Bad habit #3: Poor communication

It’s easy to spot a team that communicates poorly. There’s usually a lot of back-and-forth messaging, with members asking the same questions over and over, or frequently requesting clarification on matters that have already been settled. More broadly, however, the symptoms of poor communication can be divided into the following:

  • Frequent misunderstandings. When communication isn’t clear, your team may misunderstand you, the client, and each other. Even detailed instructions or creative briefs might lead to wasted work hours because of simple misunderstandings that should have been clarified in the beginning. A survey from Interact/Harris Poll shows that 57% of workers complain that their leaders don’t give clear directions, while the rest of the complaints are communication-related as well.
  • Decision paralysis. Without clear communication, it’s difficult to get group buy-in, even after a decision has already been made. Second-guessing is common, and most decisions and ideas are revisited over and over again because of the lack of consensus and clarity. The team might defer even minor decisions to you, the client, or another supervisor, leading to frequent delays.

We’ve previously covered some of the ways agencies can improve their communication, including understanding how master collaborators communicate, the best practices for interdepartmental collaboration, and how to avoid misunderstandings via email and text. To add to those resources, research from MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory showed that successful teams have several communication styles in common, including the following:

  • Everyone on the team talks and listens equally. Communication should be two-way. Even in meetings where there might be one person assigned to take notes, everyone should be listening to whomever is speaking so that anything unclear is ironed out on the spot rather than in hindsight.
  • Members communicate directly with each other, not just the leader. Though there might be a hierarchy in traditional agencies, the leader should not be the hub of all activity and communication. Members should feel comfortable directly addressing each other, without the need for mediation or pulling rank.
  • Members find and communicate external information. This means that if a client or creative director shares feedback on the most recent campaign materials, this feedback quickly spreads throughout a creative team.

Take a look at how your team currently communicates and see if you can spot which of the techniques above aren’t being used to the fullest. Then, work on that to improve how your team members deliver and interpret information.


Bad habit #4: Lack of cohesion

When bad habits become deeply ingrained in a team’s culture, the team becomes less committed and less cohesive. You’ll recognize a deep-seated habit when you notice the following issues recurring:

  • Ambiguity. Though this is often already present with poor communication, ambiguity affects team commitment if the “big picture” is unclear. Think about the larger vision of the project and its main objectives. Are your team members able to articulate and refer to these ideas back to you and to each other?
  • Low engagement. During meetings and other collaborative situations, does your team display signs of low energy and engagement? When individual members or the team as a whole experiences challenges and obstacles, is the atmosphere supportive?

If you’re leading a creative team, the above symptoms make it more difficult as you try to lead a team that doesn’t want to be one. Even if you personally have a strong vision for a project or campaign, its execution will be slow and problematic—everyone involved will feel drudgery when it comes to doing their work, especially if they have to do collaborate with the rest of the team.

To encourage better group cohesion, you can try the following solutions:

  • Invest in team building. While the word “team building” can induce cringing from the most cynical employees—31% of office workers say they can’t stand it—team building works. A comprehensive analysis of over 100 studies revealed that team building improves many aspects of team performance, from goal setting to interpersonal relationships. If you’re worried about the label becoming an issue, don’t call it “team building.” Choose something more specific to the activity and the interests of your team.
  • Spend informal time together. Team building can also be as simple as spending time together outside work settings. According to the research from MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory mentioned earlier, the best predictor for team productivity was their “energy and engagement outside formal meetings.” One case study from the research showed that by simply scheduling team members to take coffee breaks at the same time, they became 20% more efficient and found that employee satisfaction also increased.
  • Boost group pride with stories. We’ve previously covered how stories affect teams by deepening commitment, improving performance, and increasing motivation. With those ideas in mind, consider your team’s story. What would have happened if the team didn’t come together to work on this project? What was it that brought the team together in the first place? What obstacles have you already overcome together? Distill the key ideas into a story that you can retell with your team as you review your current progress so far. Creating a team manifesto can also help tell an inspiring story, as long as it’s based on reflecting your team’s past successes rather than prescribing specific behavior. For example, ustwo, the creative studio behind the game Monument Valley, reviewed their past work and created a manifesto to reaffirm the team-building principles that have worked for them in the past.


Don’t let bad behaviors become habits

The best way to fix bad habits is to prevent bad habits. Taking a more preventative approach might require more attention or caution, but given the situations above, it’s simpler than trying to cure a problem that’s deeply ingrained in a group of people. Be more proactive in spotting problem situations so that they are quickly addressed and solved before they become “business as usual.”

Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.