Why Motivation Is Crucial to Creative Performance?

If you are a leader or manager your job is to get the best work out of the people on your team. Traditional approaches to corporate management often rely on ‘the carrot and the stick’ — offering rewards for good performance, using managerial authority to command people, and Penalizing failure to comply.

But creative work is different. You’re probably aware that creative people have a reputation for being free spirits who hate being told what to do. So it won’t surprise you to hear that wielding the big stick will have a negative impact on their work.

But did you know that you can do just as much harm with the carrot?

What Makes Creative People Different?
We all recognize the stereotype of the creative person — brilliant, temperamental, introverted, alternately consumed with pride then racked with self-doubt. Difficult. Eccentric. Possibly mad. Psychologists have devoted enormous efforts to trying to analyze, define and measure the ‘creative personality’ — but it may interest you to know that they have not had much success. Where they have succeeded however, is in demonstrating the impact of different types of motivation on the creative process. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile has conducted extensive research into the effect of motivation on creative performance, particularly in organizational settings. In an article titled ‘How to Kill Creativity’, she lays out the basic problem:

In today’s knowledge economy, creativity is more important than ever. But many companies unwittingly employ managerial practices that kill it. How? By crushing their employees’ intrinsic motivation — the strong internal desire to do something based on interests and passions Managers don’t kill creativity on purpose. Yet in the pursuit of productivity, efficiency, and control — all worthy business imperatives — they undermine creativity. It doesn’t have to be that way … business imperatives can comfortably coexist with creativity. But managers will have to change their thinking first. (Theresa Amabile, ‘How to Kill Creativity’, Harvard Business Review, September-October 1998).

Amabile’s research has demonstrated that intrinsic motivation is strongly linked to creative performance. In one experiment she worked with two groups of children. The first group were given paper and paint and told to paint a picture. The second group were told that if they painted a really good picture they would be rewarded with a sweet. When the resulting pictures were evaluated, the first group was judged to have produced consistently better pictures than the second group. Amabile’s explanation is that the first group was focused on painting for its own sake (intrinsic motivation) whereas the second group was distracted by the thought of the reward (extrinsic motivation) and so failed to give the painting sufficient attention to produce something really good.

In another study, described by former advertising creative director Gordon Torr in his book Managing Creative People, Amabile and her colleagues invited some art experts to assess the work of 29 professional artists. Unknown to the experts was the fact that each artist had been asked to submit 10 commissioned works and 10 non-commissioned works. Overall, the experts rated the commissioned works as less creative than the others — the only exception being commissions that “enable the artist to do something interesting or exciting”, i.e. in which there was a strong component of intrinsic motivation in addition to the extrinsic motivation that came from the commission.

Amabile’s research has led her to formulate “the intrinsic motivation principle of creativity”: People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself — not by external pressures. (Amabile, ‘How to Kill Creativity’) These external pressures — i.e. extrinsic motivations — even include ‘positive’ incentives such as money, since as Amabile points out, “a cash reward can’t magically prompt people to find their work interesting if in their hearts they feel it is dull”.

Bad News for Managers
You can’t improve creative performance by giving people orders, showering them with praise or paying them more money. Expecting people to do outstanding creative work ‘because they are paid to do it’ may sound perfectly reasonable — but it doesn’t work. That isn’t to say that creative types are not interested in money and other rewards — sadly, it’s not that simple. As we’ll see in chapter 6, rewards are very important to creative people. Like the creative process itself, creative motivations are complex. To get the best out of creative people you need to understand something of the nature of creativity, the effect of rewards on creative performance, the individual personalities you’re dealing with, and the way they interact as a group.

If your job involves getting top performance out of workers engaged on creative projects, you’re in a paradoxical position: on the one hand, your success depends on getting them fired up to do their best; but on the other, the traditional management ‘levers’ — money, status and privilege — may actually do more harm than good.

Good News for Managers
Because creative people are not motivated primarily by money, it’s possible to get outstanding performance from them without a limitless budget. And because there are no simple solutions to motivating creative people, it presents you with a very interesting challenge. If you like the idea of an interesting challenge, it suggests that you too are a creative person. So the idea of finding creative ways to inspire and engage your team will probably appeal to you. The rest of this e-book aims to stimulate your managerial creativity.