Carrots and Sticks (Why They Don’t Work in a Creative Business)

In Brief: Traditional management tactics of reward and punishment fail where the business is selling creativity – businesses like this need management to encourage people’s inner motivation.

Enormous amounts of time and money are expended to motivate employees to be creative. Sadly, much of it wasted because traditional management thinking is obsessed with external rewards in the form of carrots and sticks. This external (or extrinsic) motivational approach leads to carrots in the form of higher wages and bonus payments. The sticks are demotion, performance management and even dismissal.

But there’s a problem. External motivation works well for people who are naturally driven by wealth, or are in a repetitive, process-driven job. People drawn to creative fields are often driven by a purpose higher than money – things like challenge, learning and peer recognition.

I work with some of the world’s best companies in TV, film, games and advertising. They produce creativity to order – week in, week out. So, how do they do it? And, what can they teach the rest of the business world?

My research with creative organisations shows encouraging people’s inner motivation is far more successful in delivering sustained creativity. Intrinsic motivation comes from inside. It’s a person’s abiding love for certain activities and challenges: coding a website, designing a brand, developing an idea for an online drama. This form of motivational management applies to creativity and innovation in “non-creative” industries as well. So the person might equally be searching for a new way to organise business information or manage customer relationships.

Let’s be clear. Nobody wants to be starving artist. But above a certain level of remuneration, when reasonable market rates have been met, or slightly exceeded – or when personal finance has been “taken off the table” as an issue – more cash doesn’t equal more creativity.

In summary, the sorts of people who end up in complex or creative jobs are often most creative when they are intrinsically motivated—in other words, when the work and the work are stimulating.Here’s five tips to manage for intrinsic motivation – and hence creativity:

  1. Match People and Task: Select the right people to do the right work – all the way from hiring to team formation.
  2. Create Challenging Teams: Good ideas get better through rigorous exposure to different backgrounds and skill sets.
  3. Offer Freedom within a Framework: Tell people which mountain to climb, but not how to put on their boots and put one foot in front of the other.
  4. Give Generous Support: Offer great support in terms of time allocated and investment – too stingy on either is a recipe for disaster.
  5. Show Gratitude: Let staff know senior management place great value on what they are doing by showing your face from time to time – and saying thank you.

Copyright © 2012 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved

10 thoughts on “Carrots and Sticks (Why They Don’t Work in a Creative Business)

  1. Greg, I couldn’t agree more. As you say the challenge is, if neither carrot nor stick work… what does. It becomes even more important to harness windows of opportunity to truly motivate creative staff over the long-term. When the going gets tough for an individual stick with them, and they will do the same for the business. Just as a disgruntled customer, if won round, can become your best advocate, so too can a member of staff. For creative staff it is the bigger picture that matters.. how do you respond when they are suffering a bereavement, their long-term relationship is in tatters. As is investment in their development and support in seeking industry recognition, awards etc. But here’s a thought….I would suggest there is another group here that respond in a similar way and that is the more experience, older employees….

    • That’s a really interesting thought Catherine, thanks for the reply. I agree the idea of having a wider meaning and purpose for work as a key to motivation is by no means confined to creative roles – I’ve just found it (and this is born out by research) to be very prevalent in this space – but it should be the same in so-called “non-creative” jobs and organisations.

  2. Excellent post Greg! this is very much our approach at Westgate. It is always good to be reminded of clever ways to motivate staff as they are our most important and treasured asset.

  3. This is an interesting perspective Greg and there is a great deal of research to back up the idea of creatives responding to intrinsic motivation.

    An important caveat is to note that not all staff in “creative businesses” are creatives (or creative). For example most ad agencies have fewer creatives than account handlers. Account handlers may be motivated by bonuses and in my experience they are. The internal political implications and practicalities of offering bonuses to account handlers but not to the creatives is a very interesting challenge.

  4. I firmly believe that carrots and sticks are poor short-term solutions to long-term issues, no matter what job or field anyone is employed. I have not worked in a creative field, so to speak, but the people who are the most happy i.e. motivated, are the ones who have a passion for what they are doing. Getting paid is a bonus. If you are successful with your number one item, select the right people, it is amazing how the other items will fall into place.

  5. I find it pretty strange that people would work any other way! When you’re working with new teams it’s good to find out what people like to do and shape their input into a project or ambition around that as best you can. Few jobs will ever be perfect all the time – but if you understand what motivates your people – and take the time to ask them – you can assign tasks based around their particular likes. The work is invariably better – partly because they can see they have your permission to work to their strengths.

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