Creatives: business must-haves but hard to manage

3 minute read

Everyone wants creative people but do businesses really know what creative is? And how do you manage real creatives?

Adrian Furnham

Creative people

It seems to be an unstated, but widely held, assumption that all businesses need creative people. Some assume that creativity is both necessary and sufficient for business success. Creativity, whatever it may be, is clearly a very desirable characteristic and worth developing a reputation about.

The way people most often use the words ‘to be creative’ is both different from, and certainly more desirable than being innovative. Innovation is about doing things radically differently. It seems implicitly assumed that creativity is special, innovativeness ordinary; that creativity is a rare gift; innovativeness can be learnt.

It is certainly true one of the pathways to success in organisations is indeed through innovation. Some have rejoiced in the innovative product route. Others have developed innovative technology. Some have tried to be innovative in the way in which they have a relationship with their customers.

But other organisations have been extremely successful without any particular innovation. Some have simply explored the rigidity of their competitors, others have turned around a slowly declining business. Some have found success through the exceptional service route.

But still the received wisdom is that we all need highly creative people. And the search is on to find, recruit, manage and retain them. But is the gain worth the pain? If you can find them can you effectively manage them?

Curiously, empirical research into creativity remains something of a backwater. Essentially there have been four rather different approaches: those who study the creative process; those who are fascinated by the creative person; still others who are interested in the creative product; and more recently those interested in the creative situation. The problem for the social scientist is finding an agreed, real-world criteria for creativity, so that the issue can be properly investigated.

It may be based on product criteria (patents awarded, number and type of publications), or professional recognition criteria on social recognition all of which are open to fashion, political correctness and the like.

There is both good and bad news when looking at the scattered scientific literature on creativity. The first is that it is true that both ‘creatives’ and psychotic mental patients share the ability to produce more unusual associations between words and ideas compared to that long but undistinguished group called normals. In the jargon this means creatives and certain mad people have common information processing patterns which could be seen as deficits. 

They seem unable to inhibit irrelevant information from entering consciousness. They find whether they like it or not unrelated ideas become interconnected...  and this is often bizarrely a very creative process. They also both have high resting levels of activation and tend to be oversensitive to stimuli. Hence, they may demand a special environment in which they can feel comfortable.

The extant research on creativity and madness suggests persons genetically related to psychotics are often unusually and statistically improbably creative. Creative persons often suffer bouts of serious breakdown and psychopathology. And psychotics and creative achievers have strikingly similar ways of thinking.

But, of course, madness is neither necessary nor sufficient for creativity. Most mad people (psychotics) are far from creative. And many highly creative people are more prone to neurosis rather than psychosis. Certainly, many creative writers have been prone to depression; but few (with some notable exceptions) have ever been hospitalised.

A study comparing equivalent groups of creative and non-creative ‘normal’ people brought to light the problems with managing creatives. The creatives were marginally more extraverted but much less conscientious. They were all less efficient, dependable, organised, responsible and thorough. In short, they were lazy and self-indulgent...  but they were creative by all accounts.

However, the creatives certainly were artistic, curious and imaginative. They were marked for the unconventionality, introspective and unusual thought processes. But they were also distinctly neurotic. They tended to be self-pitying with brittle ego defences; they tended to be tense and prone to depression. People noted they were anxious and touchy. They certainly are impulsive and moody. Many seem overly concerned with their levels of adequacy. It maybe that neurosis is associated with creativity in ‘normal’ populations and psychosis in abnormal populations. And once again it must be emphasised that not all neurotics are creative...  one does need raw talent.

Now you know why advertising agencies have account managers. These are relatively normal people who intercede between the client and the creative. Put the latter two together and you may expect sparks and a quick end to the business.

Don’t be fooled at the interview. The creative person is not the marginally flamboyant figure in coloured bow tie. The charming person with a steady history both personal and professional is unlikely to be the real creative.

By definition the real creative is difficult to manage. They are cold, manipulative and uncaring and they do not easily work in teams. Frequently absent they often let you down. But some are clearly worth the investment and pain...but which? All however are difficult.  After all they score on both neuroticism and psychoticism. How do you manage the anti-social, ego centric and unreliable? The answer is with difficulty. But if you really care about creativity you may have to.

Published 24 October 2018. Adrian Furnham is a psychology professor and regular contributor to ThePeopleSpace

Both ‘creatives’ and psychotic mental patients share the ability to produce more unusual associations between words and ideas compared to that long but undistinguished group called normals

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