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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)
  • Geoff Talbot

    Thanks Mark,

    As a film-maker who works with actors and who acts himself, I see “questions” as been a key tool in inspiring creativity.

    A question rightly used, draws out the imagination, it engages the creative and this is exciting. An answer, a command or an instruction tends to shut down the person. This has the obvious effect of disengaging the imagination.

    Trust and faith in the our collaborators are also important commodities and when we choose to posture ourselves in this way, people feel safe to take risks.

    Maybe the first thing we need to think about is how will we respond when a mistake happens?

    Because this is the first place where creative freedom will be impinged.

    Geoff Talbot
    Blogging and commenting in Seven Sentences

  • Emeri Gent [Em]

    “You can’t buy creativity” is the same expression as “Money can’t buy you love”.  Loving what you do is as important to fill oneself with a conviction of love.  One can’t give out when there is nothing to give and I am of the persuasion that love and creativity are deeply linked on one side of the coin.  This coin as I will explain below is the one where “Love can buy you creativity”.

    The other side of the coin is how we reframe “grunt work”.  When I read Nelson Mandela’s book “Long Walk to Freedom” – Mandela makes a great effort to articulate how those little chores in life informed his greater self of being, whether that be gardening chores or making the bed.  Toyota’s original success incorporates values such as 5S.  So that means (IMHO) that action and creativity are deeply linked on the other side of the coin.

    Again, I recognize that I am only saying that which is the hymn sheet again, but it helps to write these things out, so that the mind is always tended with the farming of creative sowing.  Yet there is a currency to creativity, one albeit that you can’t buy, but unlike physical money that cannot buy love, metaphorical money is the measure that buys innovation.   Creativity for me is a form of metaphorical money – use it or lose it but most of all bank on it by earning it with love and action.

    [Em]

  • Theo

    An outstanding article, thumbs up!

  • mauricio

    This post is interesting. Thanks for sharing this..i was really inspired from you.

  • Ajeva

    The title of your post made me laugh… it’s like trying to buy a set of brains or a clone.  I think that creativity is the key to innovation and lucky are those who have hired someone with the gift.  I have to agree with you that rewards or even a higher pay rate is not a guarantee that your people can produce top-notch work that’s fresh and unique.  I guess, by sharing with your team your love and vision for your business, and making them feel a part of the vision-mission statement will help push their imagination beyond the limits… But then, a simple word of gratitude can work wonders.

  • Tony I AM A TEXAN

    money still motivates me in my field of work. great article though

  • Plastical

    IMHO the main driver is how much you are willing to invest in people (as an entrepreneur) vs. how much fun you want to have by doing what you do. I posted something about this topic today: New challenges for a consulting agency http://blog.plastical.com/2011

  • Arkadiusz Dymalski

    Really? Than I’ve to say that you were able to catch it’s spirit quite well in your article. So I’ll be waiting for your posts after you’ll read it again.

  • Michael McDaniel

    Great post! This has been on my mind for the past 4 years and your post sums up what I have been thinking perfectly. It is about creating meaning! I have found small teams who feel like the rebels or underdogs will outperform the biggest, most well paid groups/firms when they believe in their work. Sounds intangible, but I firmly believe managing creatives is similar to managing and motivating athletes. 

  • Melissa

    My department let me redesign a failing student-newsletter into a (still in production today) newspaper for the college. I sold ads, gathered content, created design boards, handled suppliers and logistics – even created a cartoon. That was over 3 years ago and I have not once had a project that made me feel that successful. It was an amazing experience, made me feel like I could make a difference and save a failing venture.

  • Kathleen Bradshaw

    Yes!

  • Marena

    Food for thought.

  • Ali

    Fantastic

  • Julian Leon

    But if you spend too much time on well-paid work that doesn’t inspire you, you’re creativity will fade away.

    the second phrase in this sentence has a typo. It should read “your creativity” not “you’re”

  • MatthewWillox

    You know what destroys creativity. TIMESHEETS. 

    Be as creative as you can, and impress the client, and and and and, have it all done by 5 o’clock because we don’t want to go overbudget.

    Timesheets work if you’re making widgets.

  • Gideon Rosenblatt

    There’s a great book by Daniel Pink called “Drive” that dives into many of these ideas. It’s a fast, easy read. 
    http://www.danpink.com/drive

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, having worked with professional athletes as well as creatives, I’d agree there are plenty of similarities between them in terms of what motivates them.

  • Mark McGuinness

    “But then, a simple word of gratitude can work wonders.”

    Indeed it can. And it won’t cost the earth. But it’s amazing how many people don’t realise the effect it could have…

  • Mark Tereau

    I’d like to read the motivation e-book, but something is wrong with the link. Every time I go to the page with the link to download the book and click it, my browser (Firefox) says it’s transferring data. Then all I get it a white screen with a black rectangle on the bottom left side. I’ve tried about 5 or 6 times. And Explorer 9 is junk. It won’t work on several websites.

  • Scoffer

    You can’t buy it because it is a service which is hard to measure in an objective manner, and only after the fact.

    One might just as well say that you can’t buy good advice or a world title.

    No lawyer wins every case, and nobody hits a home run every time they come to the plate.

    However, you can hire someone with the right qualifications and a good track record, which will increase you odds.

  • jkglei

    Fixed. Thanks!

  • Efforteer

    It’s not a process anyone can control.  So why even discuss it?

  • Josieg

    Nice piece. It seems self-evident, yet I’ve met countless intelligent business leaders who genuinely struggle to understand how creativity works, and the settings required to encourage it. The need to control trumps trust too many times…

  • Glennc

    Nice work Mark! The business world has historically under valued the worth of creative talent and the end product. Creatives contribute to this model by producing work at a very low price. Because we artist love what we do, we are willing to do the work for less to get the job to pay the bills. This is the cycle that needs to stop. Compare the creative field to let’s say an auto mechanic. Labor charges at a typical garage are between $50-$75 an hour. About the same for a good freelance designer. The difference is, when was the last time you asked your mechanic to revise the repair 4 or 5 times and expect to pay the same 4 hour labor charge? Or how about this one. You hired a painting contractor to paint your house with green paint. They quote you $3,000. They finish the job and hand you the bill. You say, I don’t like that color after all, I want to change it to blue. Of course you don’t expect to be billed for this change right?
    I think you understand what I am saying. I don’t know how this perception all started in the creative world, but all of us have contributed to this lack of business acumen at one point or another. Perhaps an art union is needed to establish a standard, and demand the pay scale the industry deserves. Creatives produce something out of nothing. That’s our talent and our gift. Not too many people can do what we do. Our creative product makes corporations enormous profits and ROI. It’s time we are rewarded for our contribution as well. Otherwise, we will continue to be like a cheap whore.

  • Wan

    How true. But in the thick of the processs, with pressing datelines etc..that’s when this article can be quite challenging to put into practice. May we all continue to be inspired!

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