Between scheduling meetings across time zones and supporting colleagues as they navigate the complexities introduced by Covid (yes, still), it can be a feat to get everyone to hop on a call, let alone remain present. And what about fueling that elusive thing, creativity, when burnout is on your team’s doorstep? Deadlines need to be met, clients need to be pitched, deliverables need to be sent.
So, what’s the best route to elevate a creative team’s role within a company, and encourage divergent thinking without derailing business objectives or eroding team morale? The approach is diverse, but direct. To keep creative teams motivated, be the leader you’d want: someone humble with clear communication who fosters authentic buy-in and inclusivity. Basically, be real, but don’t be a jerk.
More on how to motivate your creative teams to do their best work in stressful times:
Nurture positive inner work life
As a leader, it’s key to both absorb pressures from stakeholders, board members, or c-suite colleagues and advocate for your creative team. Be sure that all messaging of need-to-know information is actionable and productive. A board member didn’t like the latest social media post for a client? Keep that to yourself, but do extract their actionable feedback and offer it constructively.
Similarly, it’s important to contain pressure you might be receiving, whether it be from the c-suite or a difficult client. While easy to do, try to avoid allowing it to cloud communication, clear goal setting, or other productive input for your creative team. When leadership leans on creative teams with high pressure, short deadlines, and a lack of understanding (or at the least, appreciation), this might breed motivation, but not the kind that’s going to inform talent retention, or frankly, great work. Without authentic buy-in from the creative team, these leadership mechanisms will repeatedly fall flat.
And research backs this up. For creative teams to be authentically motivated, they first need to feel secure and encouraged while nurturing “a positive inner work life,” according to an article in the Harvard Business Review by leading researchers, Teresa Amabile, Baker Foundation Professor at Harvard Business School, and Steven Kramer, independent researcher who has served as a postdoctoral research associate at Vanderbilt University, psychology professor at Brandeis University, and a researcher at Epidemiological Resources in Massachusetts.
As part of their research, Amabile and Kramer reviewed 12,000 diary entries completed by 26 different project teams belonging to seven companies to identify workplace attributes that can make up a positive inner work life: intrinsic motivation, positive perceptions of their colleagues and employer, and happy emotions. In addition to these components, they also established the importance of what they named the “progress principle,” which names progress in meaningful work as the top factor when it comes to heightening motivation, emotions and perceptions.
Progress in meaningful work, they say, cultivates positive inner work life. Through the diary entries of study participants, Amabile and Kramer discovered that workers who had a “best day” could account for progress made on a project. The alternative? Setbacks, which led to workers’ “worst days.”
Set small goals for big wins
According to the progress principle and inner work life theory, Amabile and Kramer suggest that workers will be most inclined to achieve a positive inner work life partly with the clarity (and achievement) of small goals, which feed into a large KPI.
“Across all types of events our participants reported, a notable proportion (28%) of incidents that had a minor impact on the project had a major impact on people’s feelings about it,” Amabile and Kramer write in the Harvard Business Review. “Because inner work life has such a potent effect on creativity and productivity, and because small but consistent steps forward, shared by many people, can accumulate into excellent execution, progress events that often go unnoticed are critical to the overall performance of organizations.”
Small goals occur more frequently, Amabile and Kramer assert, and as such, are breadcrumbs to bigger wins. “Even small wins can boost inner work life tremendously,” write Amabile and Kramer. “Many of the progress events our research participants reported represented only minor steps forward. Yet they often evoked outsize positive reactions.”
Forward motion is essential to building ongoing creativity and positive inner work life, they say.
But it matters how these small goals are accomplished, clarified a study in a 2023 issue of Journal of Creative Behavior.
Here, researchers noted that while there has been robust research on the impact of goal setting on productivity, less has been conducted on the impact of goal type on creativity. For the study, researchers analyzed whether outcome or process goals are most successful in maintaining creativity among teams. Outcome goals are intent on reaching a destination no matter the path while progress goals are mainly focused on the steps taken to achieve a goal. The experiment tracked creativity among 560 university students as they participated in community service projects — and the type of goal that led to higher creativity levels.
The findings: Creative performance was at its highest when the students were given clear outcome goals — versus a vague destination. On the flip side, general outcome goals, or none at all, led to low creative productivity. Share direct goals and KPIs, then let the creatives do what they do best: out-of-the-box thinking.
Be direct, specific and humble
To usher in all of this positive inner work life and buy-in, leaders are best suited to be direct and specific. Don’t beat around the bush, but don’t patronize your team, either.
Enter the groundbreaking book and all-encompassing leadership technique, Radical Candor by Kim Scott. Founded on the principle, “Care personally, challenge directly,” Radical Candor provides a blueprint to dispel toxic workplace cultures and provide tactical tools to people managers. Scott explains in a deep dive on the approach in her blog that naming the approach “radical candor” emphasizes the empathy, compassion and kind straightforwardness that can get lost in corporate environments.
As the workplace continues to evolve, leaders must listen rather than lecture. What this means: Set up feedback cycles to understand how management is perceived among employees. According to research in a 2020 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, leaders who are humble have the highest positive impact on the creative teams they manage.
It makes sense. To invigorate creativity among your team, consider the environment most conducive to collaboration and creativity: clear outcome goals, positive inner work life, self-awareness and non-judgmental feedback.