Managing creative people, creatively.

My cat doesn’t know much about art, but she knows what she likes. My husband would tell you that I know a little about art but I have no idea what I like. I can say with absolute certainty that, when it comes to the art of film, I don’t like what he likes. One can only take so much Star Wars before wondering how an army of technologically advanced super soldiers with spaceships lose a battle to an army of primitive three foot teddy bears with spears. One thing we all know is that, when it comes to art, it’s a very subjective topic. One persons trash is another persons treasure.


While we can all enjoy art it’s something not everyone can successfully create. People with imagination and creativity, and who can take that to a grand scale, are much sought after in certain industries. Movie studios, theatres, video game studios, are all types of business which require such people working for them to be successful. And in these industries creative people are very much sought after. The issues of dealing with the HR requirements of employees in creative roles can’t be handled in a single blog entry. A book, nay, an entire shelf of books, with an accompanying bookcase containing yet more books would be required. But it might be somewhat instructive for newcomers to HR to point out one of the interesting aspects of human resources when it comes to people in creative roles.

What do I mean by “creative roles” in this blog entry? The simple answer is roles where the output from the employee comes in the form of creative literary, dramatic, audio or visual media which can be considered in some way artistic and where they have license to produce their output as they see fit, within parameters given. In other words, art. So you might be talking about someone commissioned to make music for a video game, someone hired to do cover art for a book, or someone employed to create a costume for a character in a play or a movie. Some HR people, even seasoned professionals, can make mistakes when dealing with this particular type of worker.

The project manager (for example, a movie director) will have an idea of what they want, and will ask the employee to create that for them. But unless the request is extremely basic it is impossible for the employee to know exactly what the director is imagining, and it is impossible for the director to precisely explain what it is he is wants. Ergo, there will be a debate of sorts between them as material is produced, rejected or refined, and then resubmitted. As HR, you can end up getting called upon to referee this debate if it gets out of hand.

And get out of hand such debates do. Artistic people are hired for their artistry and talent, but most of all their imagination and creativity, which is something that is innate and can’t be taught or trained. It’s possible to foster and develop a creative employee to achieve their highest potential, but the initial spark, passion, and imagination has to be within them naturally. This creativity and imagination can mean they break the constraints of their initial instructions and deliver things outside the parameters of their initial remit, but their creativity and imagination is also the very reason they are valuable to a project. For art to work it needs a soul, and the artists task is to give the end product that soul.

Thus when their work is called into question or rejected they can very easily feel a sense of personal rejection as a result. From a work perspective the product might not be right or what was requested, but on a personal level it is very different from a welding mishap or missed deadline, as artistic people can feel they’re putting a part of themselves into whatever project it is they’re working on. This problem can be compounded by the fact that the project managers in such industries are often very creative people themselves, and when someone else’s work conflicts with their original vision they may themselves feel somewhat rejected. In addition there is the problem of there being no real way to appropriately quantify the quality of artistic output, so standard methods of performance management are often not appropriate.


In a perfect world such disagreements are handled professionally to the ultimate improvement of the project being worked on. But the world isn’t always perfect. Handling these sorts of issues, and coaching your managers to handle them, is a key part of dealing with this category of employee. How do we do this effectively without bruising egos or killing the artists enthusiasm for the project? If a director approaches HR and says that they find an artists work is not to their liking, how do you deal with this? And if an artist comes and complains that the director will not accept anything they produce how, do you deal with this?

Firstly it is important to properly communicate issues in a way that respects the artists work. So for example, if someone’s work doesn’t quite fit the requirements outlined, that doesn’t mean their work doesn’t have merit or isn’t valuable. It is a stepping stone towards getting what you need. If possible have the manager compliment what works, and explain what doesn’t work and why, but still compliment the merits of it. A good way to handle this may be to have the director explain where the artists creation would work, and then explain why that situation contrasts with the one the director is trying to create.

Of course, the case may be that the artist in this scenario is working furiously, producing all manner of wonderful creations, but the director is a perfectionist who keeps on sending the poor artisan back to the drawing board. This sort of situation can be difficult to handle. When it comes to the leads of creative projects there can be a tendency towards perfectionism and many are auteurs. Directors of creative projects are often acutely aware that their name is going to be tied to the final outcome of a project in a big way. For many, the last thing they want to hear is that they need to relinquish some control and allow others to have some level of influence over their project.

This is where your coaching skills are going to come to the fore. Depending on your relationship with the director it may be time to sit down, maybe with a cuppa off site, and try and get him to talk about what’s going on. What are his issues? Is the work not up to scratch or is he expecting too much? Try and get him to think about how he would feel if he was in the artists shoes and see if that impacts his actions going forward. An alternative approach, particularly if you don’t have a close working relationship with the director, is to get both parties in a room together and try to facilitate a discussion between them, though you’d have to make yourself very familiar with the project material and ultimate creative goal before doing this, and make your own judgement call on what’s going on – and this calls for skills outside those usually required for HR work.

If you can think creatively yourself you might be able to come up with ways of dealing with such situations in a way that solves the issues without needing a HR referee. Depending on the type of project being undertaken there may be ways of using an employees rejected material in a way that benefits them. A concept artist working on a movie production, for example, might be permitted to have the intellectual property on rejected works for their own use (perhaps in a portfolio or art book they self-publish), which would not make them feel like their efforts were squandered even in instances where they were not used by the company.


Another way to try and avoid these types of disagreements is to ensure that managers and artists have a constant dialogue. Though the level of interaction between managers and artists is generally determined by the type of manager and the level of control they would like to have over the project. If a project seems to be meandering it might be useful to try to increase the level of feedback flowing between the mangers and any artistic creators who appear to have lost focus. Care must be taken here though, as to micromanage an artistic project is to douse the flames of creativity and a sure way discourage the artist from putting effort in to making something amazing. That being said, without a constant dialogue how can we ensure everyone is on the same page?

One common theme to this entry you may have noticed is that traditional reward structures focusing principally on material benefits are eschewed in favour of a more holistic reward structure, which encompasses not only tangible benefits but also personal recognition for their work and a belief that their artistry is valued. This is because, for the best creative talent, the psychological contract between employer and employee is subtly different. The company isn’t just hiring them for their labour or expertise, but for their personal talents as well. You tend to get the best from creative people by giving the work they do artistic recognition and trusting them to use their own imagination and natural ability to guide them, as opposed to prodding them forward with pressure or constructive criticism.

To put it another way, the thing that is very important to bear in mind whenever you deal with employees in these roles is that, for many of them, the more material rewards of work (i.e. their paycheck) can be of less interest to them than the personal satisfaction of having turned out something that others find appealing, interesting, or moving. Obviously, they’ll still need the money. One can’t raise a family, run a car, go on holiday, or hire a bouncy castle on compliments alone. But if you neglect to properly appraise and appreciate the work such people do then you run the risk of finding them difficult to retain. If your company relies on creativity to do business, understanding, attracting and retaining people who can turn imagination into reality is a crucial part of allowing your business to thrive.


Thanks to Svetlana Petrova & Zarathustra the Cat/ for the awesome pictures. If you would like to see more of their work it can be found here


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