Keep those creative types a long way from the office

First published on 4 April 2011 –

This article is from The Sunday Times last week (27 March)

It is by Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London.

Keep those creative types a long way from the office

“Despite all the hype around the importance of creative characters, their presence is not always healthy for businesses.

There is a creativity industry as active, proselytising and confident as the stress industry. The latter wants to persuade us that nearly everyone is stressed at work.

This stress is the fault of employers; you need to be compensated for it; and there are many (expensive) courses you can attend that will help. It is in their interests, of course, to exaggerate the incidence and consequences of stress to keep their business going.

The creative industry has similar mantras. The first is that we are all creative, or at least potentially creative. Once we are liberated, set free, set on fire, unblocked — or something similar — we can all discover our inner Michaelangelo. But, of course, you need to buy a book, hear a lecture or attend a course to work out how to do it.

The second mantra is that all of us, everywhere, need creative individuals to thrive — not only in advertising and the arts but absolutely everywhere, from the local council housing department to the supermarket warehouse and your holiday flight.

The word creative is not always used in a positive way. Creative accountancy appears to be blurring the line between tax avoidance and evasion. Getting creative with the revenue generation stream could mean acting in an underhand way to maximise profits.

What the creative industry peddles is a positive view of creativity as fun and crucially important. It holds up wholesome examples of people who are seen as the epitome of creatives: wonderfully talented, demure geniuses who have saved mankind.

The psychological literature on creative types tells a rather different story. Certainly creatives — at least in the arts — have a vivid imagination and curiosity. They are divergent thinkers.

But what about creativity and personality? There is no clear relationship between introversion-extraversion and creativity. Some creatives are sociable partygoers; others are inhibited, reclusive introverts. The painter and the writer are more likely to be the latter. Musicians are more likely to be the former — they usually work in groups.

And what about other factors? Are creatives more likely to be worriers, socially anxious and prone to depression? Again, it takes all sorts. There is a worrying, but fortunately weak, link between creativity and suicide, with some very well-known cases — Alexander McQueen being a recent example.

The two clear and consistent attributes of the highly creative are tough-mindedness and unreliability. Creatives tend to be low on agreeableness and conscientiousness.

Agreeable people are kind and forgiving, empathic and warm, trusting and generous. Creativity test scores are nearly always strongly negatively correlated with agreeableness. Creatives are selfish and tough-minded, egocentric and rude. They speak their minds whatever the consequences. In short, they are damn disagreeable, not easy to work with, not much fun to be around.

Even worse, they often have a very low score on the work ethic. They don’t pitch up and pitch in as others do. They are frequently disorganised and disrespectful of those in authority. You can’t depend on them doing what they have promised. They may well be creative geniuses but getting them to deliver on time as specified is a near impossibility.

Unfortunately, some are touched by an even more dangerous affliction: narcissistic personality disorder. They are the entitled who need admiration, respect and obedience from everybody, all the time. Their needs have to be paramount, fulfilled completely, immediately. Criticism at any time by anyone is to be outlawed and punished.

So the psychometric literature paints a less flattering picture of creativity. Creative people are egocentric, not very likeable and difficult to work with. Yes, of course, there are exceptions, but this is what the research says, at least for creativity in the arts — the picture is somewhat different in the sciences.

But is creativity not essential to business survival? We need not only to adapt and change but lead the way. Creatives lead, others follow. Creatives find the breakthrough, spot gaps, but, most of all, come up with inventions.

There is, however, all the difference in the world between creatives and innovators. One has the idea; the other puts it into practice. One produces the blueprint; the other takes it to market. One sits in the attic, the shed or the studio; the other in the boardroom or the sales office.

So does your company need dozens of really creative people? Probably not. Are you willing to put up with the consequences of trying to manage them?

The best policy, then, is to hire creative consultants on an occasional basis. Employ innovators. Equally important, hire those who can spot creative ideas. Buy the product and not the producer.”

What, or should I say how, do you think?

About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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5 Responses to Keep those creative types a long way from the office

  1. An interesting but polarising article. There is more popular bullshit around the notion of ‘creativity’ that is healthy. But the author seems to have had a bruising time with people labelled ‘creative’ it seems. Is this really from experience or is is he just buying the stereotype?
    I think the latter – his opinion really doesn’t seem fully-formed. There are nasty disagreeable egotists in every sphere of life – just look into any board room or town council for that matter – its just human nature and nothing to do with so-called creativity.
    There’s creative thinking and then there’s creative execution – and you don’t always get them from the same source. Creative consultants have their place ( i wont hide the fact that I’ve earned money from being one on occasion) but they stop short of don’t delivering the ‘full monty’. If you find the rare souls who deliver both thinking and execution then treat them with respect because I don’t think they’re tough-minded or thick-skinned at all. I think they’re quite insecure and need signals of approval.

    • Hugh Salmon says:

      Thanks, George.
      Sorry for the late reply. I must say I thought it was rather a generalised view – although a lot of account guys think that the most talented creatives are the easiest to work with. It is very difficult when you don’t think the work is very good – or that you could have done better yourself!
      Anyway, thanks for reading the post and visiting the site. You are always welcome. I post my blogs first as ‘A Different Hat’ on and then copy them over to here.
      All the best,

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