Managing creatives: the right way + the wrong way

Harvard Business Review is often a beacon of clear and practical insights, but Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s recent post on managing creatives provoked such a backlash that, in the words of one irate commenter, Harvard trashed its entire reputation with a single article.

Call me crazy, but I think Harvard will survive. Chamorro-Premuzic’s post, however, already died – at least in its original form. The headline was changed to clarify that the article was meant to offer tips on managing creative-but-difficult people. Then, one of the more inflammatory pointers – “Pay them poorly” – was changed to the somewhat more benign “Don’t overpay them.” The soft backpedal didn’t do much to quell the angry mob.

Beneath the unnecessarily provocative tone – which seemed almost purposefully designed to troll for arguments – there are some fairly reasonable pointers lurking. Let’s dissect this thing.

“Spoil them and let them fail.”

This is standard advice for innovative companies – and not just for managing creatives. As long as it leads to eventual success, we romanticize failure. Edison failed to perfect the light bulb – until he didn’t. LeBron James failed to win a championship – until he didn’t. Facebook’s “move fast and break things” marching order is one of the best-known in business today. Of course, Chamorro-Premuzic can’t help himself and compares creatives to playful, experimenting children, while you, brave executive, are the parent watching with an indulgent smile.

“Surround them by semi-boring people.”

Out of context, this just sounds like weird advice, but what the author apparently means is that you want a diverse team that respects each other’s perspectives. Sure, if you have two dramatic divas or two alpha personalities who desperately need to get the last word, you may run into conflict. Of course, that can happen on your finance or product team, too. The writer caps off this point with a soccer analogy; look for my upcoming scientific study on the effectiveness of soccer analogies in American business journals.

“Only involve them in meaningful work.”

Not particularly controversial. Is it realistic?

“Don’t pressure them.”

Michael Cornnell has a great take on this (and a withering takedown of the article as a whole):

The Harvard blog post makes a lot of generalized claims about what creatives do and don’t like. They don’t like pressure, they don’t like routine, they don’t like mundane work. These are all fine and (possibly) true generalizations to make the large-scale level. Maybe 70 percent of writers do hate pressure. Maybe 85 percent of graphic designers do hate routine. But what happens when you move away from the broad, general level and try to apply this reasoning to the specific team you’re managing?

“Pay them poorly aka Don’t overpay them.”

“The moral of the story? The more you pay people to do what they love, the less they will love it,” Chamorro-Premuzic somehow thought, then actually typed, then brazenly emailed to his editor. He fails to connect this “moral” to the more obvious point that you must offer more motivation than a paycheck. Again, that should apply to all of your employees. Give them challenges. Let them chart (or at least influence) their own course. Don’t be stingy with praise. Some job candidates may be willing to take less salary for more flexibility. Find out what motivates your team on an individual level, not a category level.

“Surprise them.”

Again, the writer discusses creatives like a 17th century explorer discovering “primitives” – and Cornnell’s above point applies here as well – but if it encourages any overly structured managers to relax a little and accept a productive dose of controlled chaos into their day-to-day, so much the better.

“Make them feel important.”

Better idea: just make them important.

Did you read the original article on managing creatives? What did you think? I’d love to read more takes.

Adam McKibbin
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.

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