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Big Ideas

Why You Can’t Buy Creativity

What motivates us to invent incredible products, create great art, and build revolutionary companies? Clue: The answer isn't money.

“The work had better be good, I’m paying them enough.” Over the years I’ve heard this statement – or versions of it – from many different managers charged with getting creative work out of their teams.

From a conventional management perspective, it probably sounds like common sense. But to anyone who understands the nature of creativity and what motivates creative people, it’s a recipe for disaster.Rewarding people for hard work is a great thing to do, but it’s no guarantee of loyalty – and certainly no guarantee of creativity. And using rewards as an incentive – or even a threat – has been proven not to work when it comes to complex, challenging, creative work.

There is a large body of research evidence – from the work of Harvard Business Professor Theresa Amabile and others – that relying on extrinsic motivations (a.k.a. rewards and punishments) has a negative impact on creativity. While it may seem obvious that the stick has a negative impact on creativity, it’s counterintuitive that the carrot has the same effect.

But when you’re focused on a reward, you’re not focused on the work itself. And as any creative will tell you, doing outstanding creative work – whether solving a technical problem or creating a work of art – requires 100% focus on the task in hand, to the point of obsession. You have to love what you do.

Of course companies need to pay people well. If they don’t, compensation becomes a bone of contention, and a distraction from their work. But if you really want outstanding creative performance, you need people to focus on intrinsic motivations – factors inherent in the work itself. Things like challenge, interest, learning, meaning, freedom, and creative flow. They are what really motivates creative people – and the research demonstrates a strong link between levels of intrinsic motivation and creativity.

If you really want outstanding creative performance, you need people to focus on intrinsic motivations – factors inherent in the work itself.

In The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida discusses the results of an Information Week survey of 20,000 IT workers, who were asked “What matters most to you about your job?”. Florida points out that not only did money (an extrinsic motivation) rank only fourth, behind three different types of intrinsic motivation, but that “nine of the ten highly valued job factors are intrinsic”. And remember, it was a survey of IT workers, who might be expected to take a more hard-nosed approach to motivation than more artistic types.So the nature of creativity and the inclinations of creative workers presents a challenge, both for managers and the workers themselves.

You Can’t Buy Creativity – You Have to Inspire It

If you’re a leader or manager, how do you attract top creative talent and get the best from them?

To some extent it’s an organizational issue – allowing people to work in smaller units with greater autonomy is more conducive to creativity than in large corporate departments with centralized control.

But it’s also about the relationships between leaders and teams, and among peers – how the challenge is framed, what managers say to their teams, and how team members support, encourage, and challenge each other.

Money buys you people’s time. It should also guarantee you basic professional competence. But you don’t get outstanding creativity by simply offering more money. You get mercenaries.

If you want real creativity – the magic ingredient X that sets the product apart – you need to inspire it, by showing them what makes the work fascinating, challenging, meaningful, and fun. And you need to give them freedom to do it their way, rather than micro-managing every step.

How to Keep Your Creative Spark Alight

If you’re a creative, you probably experience a tension between following your own creative inclinations vs giving the market (your boss, clients, or customers) what it wants. Spend too much time on your own pet projects and you risk disappointing the VIPs in your working life. But if you spend too much time on well-paid work that doesn’t inspire you, your creativity will fade away.

So it’s vital to strike a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations in the work you take on. Sometimes you need to take on a less glamorous project or job to pay the bills – if so, make time for more interesting creative pursuits, in the evenings and weekends if need be. This will keep your creative spark alive and make you less resentful of the grunt work.

And challenge yourself to take a creative approach to any job you take on, no matter how unpromising the brief. It could be as mundane as packaging elastic bands, but if you keep coming up with original and valuable solutions, you’ll earn a reputation for priceless creativity.

What Motivates You and Your Team?

Think about the best piece of creative work you ever did – what motivated you to do it?

Any tips on motivating and inspiring creative employees?

Comments (79)
  • Jon Garcia

    Great article! Besides the usually of chains and whips to drive creativity, I like to make sure that the team I work with makes time for themselves and together on projects outside of the regular client-paid work. Diversity in what you create and your genuine interest in those projects allows you to be more prepared creatively for the less inspiring jobs.

  • Binita

    I have always worked to commission so have had serious deadlines. What is interesting is I have to try to back off thinking about that and then let myself mentally free – you know – do a lot of staring into space without worrying about the deadline. Somehow an idea always comes and with time I have learnt to trust in that fact. 

    I seem to work well within a structured context. Letting employees play and have some space would be my top tip. 

    I feel continually motivated to create. There is a need in me to make big things and projects but the end result making a difference to people is what really gets me excited to create. When I have created a glass artwork for a hospital and the staff and patients really benefit and express their delight – that’s the cherry on the cake for me. 

  • Rweatherly43

    What a terrific piece. My best work was the result of having the time and opportunity to back away from the project and contemplate the benefits and features of the product or service I was writing on.

    I produced corporate videos for use at trade shows, as well as, training and safety programs. Writing and producing for trade shows allowed me to explore all to the possibilities a product or service had. Sure, there were deadlines but not so tight as to cause problems.

    Producing for training and safety offered rewards because I knew I had a hand in saving lives or helping people avoid injury, not to mention making the business more profitable.

    My job entailed travel across our beautiful country across mountains, prairies and deserts in all kinds of weather. The open spaces enriched my creativity more than any financial reward could have.

    I’m on my own now and intrinsic motivation is everything. Your points are spot on.

  • vinaeco

    Hi, great read

     I find that creativity is fostered in people ( in terms of management style) through a combination of the following techniques1. re-enforcing their ownership of the solution2. making the dialogue in collaboration solution focused, not problem focused (i.e. if you want to get my input bring me your solution (to the challenge) and we will discuss that3. simple language changes like problem > opportunity or issue to challenge seems to help phrase the context of their work (I come into work each day to focus on dealing with challenges in implementing solutions to the opportunities we have)4. challenging their thinking but importantly (and publicly) accepting their solution5. enabling them to set their timeframes to complete and giving them visibility to the larger contraints we have in making their call on that (sometimes half the challenge is working out not only how to do it, but also what to do given the timeframe available)

  • Kristin Eide

    Great post. This topic really hit home for me after reading. “Drive” by Daniel Pink. 

  • Frances Scovil

    Great article.  This dovetails nicely with a new model for teams I’ve recently learned about called Method Teaming. MT’s philosophy is that a) each of our minds has a certain pattern of thinking that is hard-wired (i.e. do you naturally tune into people, the future, etc.?) and b) we each respond to a certain set of motivators.  As you state in your article, creative types respond more to intrinsic motivatores such as the process of creating than say sales people who are more motivated by external rewards, i.e. carrots/bonuses/commissions.  Your point about autonomy is right on target not only for creative types, but for natural leaders as well. 

    MT proposes that it is the combination of the thought patterns and the motivators that create what they call an “intellect” (they name 4 primary intellects.)  They go a bit further to say that any business undertaking takes a team of intellects working TOGETHER.  The trick as managers is to harness these differences to good effect and ensure that a) we correctly identify the intellects we have on our team so that each team member is spending their time on talent-aligned work (i.e. stuff that motivates and fulfills them – what a concept!) b) we help team members from different intellects understand what the others bring (again, your comment about relationships – there’s actually an MT intellect who’s really good at that) and c) to your point, we structure the work and the rewards (intrinsic and extrinsic) in a way that plays to each person’s motivations.

    I look forward to reading more…

  • essay writing service

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  • Miles Newlyn

    I’m coin operated; the more you put in, the more comes out,

  • venece

    Excellent article! The part that resonated most with me:
    “… if you spend too much time on
    well-paid work that doesn’t inspire you, you’re creativity will fade
    away… make time for more interesting creative pursuits…”

    This reminds me of the recent 99% article by Todd Henry, “Don’t Just Create ‘On Demand’, Create for You”. Most, if not all, of us have to “do” something to support ourselves but when that means of support (i.e. a “creative-on-demand” job) becomes a source of contention and frustration in our lives we have to step back and find the things we like and what makes us happy. Otherwise, we become utterly useless. Keep yourself inspired by doing your own little projects and the necessary grunt work won’t be so bad. And who knows, those projects of your own may turn into a new source of income that could replace your grunt work some day.

    As for employers, I think the best advice I’d offer is give creatives the freedom to be themselves (especially in corporate environments). I’m not just speaking of creative freedom for that new sales poster you need by 5pm, I’m talking about the actual person they are. Let’s admit it, we creatives are “different”, quirky at times but “freedom to flow” makes a world of difference. You can’t put a price tag on freedom.

  • Ryan Ewanchuk

    Great article! This came at the right time for me.

    I really liked “Sometimes you need to take on a less glamorous project or job to pay the bills – if so, make time for more interesting creative pursuits, in the evenings and weekends if need be.” I have been working on some projects that have left me creatively restrained. I always have something else on the side for fun, but it is nice to hear that I am not alone. 

    Thanks for another great article – I love the site.

  • TubbyMike

    IT people are not all in it for the money. Sure, a minimum level of pay is a hygiene need, but once that has been achieved, most of the people I know want to find innovative solutions to non-trivial problems and get satisfaction out of finding clever ways to achieve things. IT is neither an art nor a science; it’s a craft in the old fashioned sense of the word. Combining knowledge with experience can open you up to produce truly innovative solutions and given those opportunities, I’ve seen IT people come up with some truly beautiful solutions to complex problems.

    As you say, there are times of drudgery in all work, but given the chance to work on novel problems I would say is an internal motivator for those that work in IT that trumps more money most of the time. Of course, paying anyone a decent wage helps.

    Just my 2 cents.

  • Arkadiusz Dymalski

    The need for such articles just shows that reading ‘The Mythical Man-Month’ should be obligatory. It explains the ‘artistic’ part of developer’s work just on the first pages. Failing to understand that kind of workflow leads to inadequate management attempts.

  • Claire Millington

    Paragraphs please: every time you don’t put in a carriage return, I *will* shoot a kitten. 

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yep, Drive is a great book on the subject.

  • Mark McGuinness


  • Mark McGuinness

    Thanks Frances, I’d not come across MT. I’m all for recognising psychological diversity (as long as people don’t get pigeon-holed).

    My favourite tool for this is the Enneagram, will check out the link to MT. 

  • Mark McGuinness

    Ah yes, writing poems doesn’t always* save lives. 🙂

    Seriously – you’re right that intrinsic motivations are also critical for jobs like health and safety, medicine, therapy, care work, teaching etc.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Mustn’t for get those chains and whips! 😉

  • Mark McGuinness

    “making the dialogue in collaboration solution focused” – This can be so hard to do, and yet so effective…

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, Todd and I generally sing from the same hymn sheet, that piece of his definitely resonated for me.

  • Mark McGuinness

    And it’s nice to know that those fun side projects are part of your job! 🙂

  • Mark McGuinness

    “IT is neither an art nor a science; it’s a craft in the old fashioned sense of the word.”

    That’s a great way of putting it. And of course there was/is a lot more art in the old crafts than is generally acknowledged.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Great description. I can find 4 powerful motivators in it – 3 intrinsic and 1 extrinsic. 😉

  • Mark McGuinness

    Confession time: it should be obligatory for me too. I’ve skimmed bits of it, but never read it properly…

  • Michael Roller

    Loved the term “mercenary.” I’ve used that before and think it’s a really great way to describe the scenario where creatives are being paid and not inspired.

    Great discussion too! I plan to look into method teams and some of the other things mentioned.

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