Seven Rules for Managing Creative-But-Difficult People

Seven Rules for ManagingHere is an excerpt from an article written by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.

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Moody, erratic, eccentric, and arrogant? Perhaps — but you can’t just get rid of them. In fact, unless you learn to get the best out of your creative employees, you will sooner or later end up filing for bankruptcy. Conversely, if you just hire and promote people who are friendly and easy to manage, your firm will be mediocre at best. Suppressed creativity is a malign organizational tumour. Although every organization claims to care about innovation, very few are willing to do what it takes to keep their creative people happy, or at least, productive. So what are the keys to engaging and retaining creative employees?

[Here are the first three of seven.]

1. Spoil them and let them fail: Like parents who celebrate their children’s mess: show your creatives unconditional support and encourage them to do the absurd and fail. Innovation comes from uncertainty, risk, and experimentation — if you know it will work, it isn’t creative. Creative people are the natural experimenters, so let them try and test and play. Of course, there are costs associated with experimentation — but these are lower than the cost of NOT innovating.

2. Surround them by semi-boring people: The worst thing you can do to a creative employee is to force them to work with someone like them — they would compete for ideas, brainstorm eternally, or simply ignore each other. That said, you cannot surround creatives with really boring or conventional people — they would not understand them, and fall out. In line with this, recent research indicates that teams made up of diverse members who are open to taking each others’ perspective perform most creatively.

The solution, then, is to support your creatives with colleagues who are too conventional to challenge their ideas, but unconventional enough to collaborate with them. These colleagues will need to pay attention to details, mundane executional processes, and do the dirty work: Messi needs Busquets and Puyol; Ronaldo needs Alonso and Ramos.

3. Only involve them in meaningful work: Natural innovators tend to have more vision, research I’ve done indicates. They see the bigger picture and are able to understand why things matter (even if they cannot explain it). The downside to this is that they simply won’t engage in meaningless work. This all-or-nothing approach to work mirrors the bipolar temperament of creative artists, who perform well only when inspired — and inspiration is fueled by meaning. This rule can also be applied to other employees: everyone is more creative when driven by their genuine interests and a hungry mind.

As novelist John Irving said, “the reason I can work so hard at my writing is that it’s not work for me”. At the same time, in any organization there will be employees who are less interested in, well, doing interesting work; they are satisfied with simply clocking in and out, and are incentivized by external rewards. Companies should ensure that trivial or meaningless work is assigned to these employees.

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A final caveat: even when you are able to manage your creative employees, it does not mean that you should let them manage others. In fact, natural innovators are rarely gifted with leadership skills. There is a profile for good leaders, and a profile for creative people — and they are rather different. Steve Jobs had better relationships with gadgets than people, and most Google engineers are utterly disinterested in management. One of the reasons for the rapid plateau of start-ups is that their founders tend to remain in charge. They should learn from Mark Zuckerberg who brought in Sheryl Sandberg to make up for his own leadership deficits. Research confirms the stereotypical view that corporate innovators — intrapreneurs — exhibit many of the psychopathic characteristics that prevent them from being effective leaders: they are rebellious, anti-social, self-centered and often too low in empathy to care about the welfare of others. But manage them well, and their inventions will delight us all.

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.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in personality profiling and psychometric testing. He is a Professor of Business Psychology at University College London (UCL), Vice President of Research and Innovation at Hogan Assessment Systems, and has previously taught at the London School of Economics and New York University. He is co-founder of To check out his other HBR articles, please click here.

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