• Caleb Clark

It’s Easier to Demotivate than Motivate Creative People

In almost every discussion of how to motivate individuals, it’s inevitable that the discussion will turn to some form of reference to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — a reference the pattern of human motivation that we generally go through. For example, if someone’s basic needs aren’t being met, like their rent, we don’t motivate them by recognizing them with a fifty dollar gift card to Applebee’s. A gift card isn't going to do much to effect their underlying immediate need.

Unless you know the person really well, it can be hard to determine where they sit on the hierarchy and how to effectively motivate them. You have to get to know someone a bit to understand what’s the best way of motivating them. As their lives change, so does what will potentially motivate them. You might have a great worker one day, who seems to get motivated purely for doing challenging work, then one day they kind of shut down. We might think that they are getting bored, or don’t feel challenged any more. We may worry that they are now looking for a job.

Unless we ask or unless they tell us, we won’t have any idea on how to address the situation. Did their spouse get sick, and they are worried about how their going to pay for healthcare? Are they upset they can’t take off of work to be with family for an important life event?

This is where it can be really hard for you as a manager to understand what may motivate someone at any given time. Motivation is individualistic, situational and self determined. You can help make their path easier to fulfill a current need, but they have to do the extra work so that their needs are actually met.

It’s actually easier to demotivate people then to motivate them.

Are you a bad boss? Are you contributing to making someone feel worse when they make a mistake? Do you blame people for the smallest detail? Do you make promises you don’t keep? Are you opaque about business decisions that effect others? Do you pay people poorly and treat them like they should be glad to just have a job in this economy?

Yes, you can sure demotivate people — and perhaps never win them back, all over some really simple stupid stuff that you said or someone else said or did that effected or discounted a part of their life.

Show me the money

Before we get into specific ways we can make an individual's environment better, let’s address some bad creative-land practices so we can understand how we can practically apply Maslow's pyramid.

Let's start with the basics of money. We can argue over how much of a motivation factor money can be in the long run, but the fact is creative organizations don’t always do the right thing when it comes to paying people.

I’ll give you an example. There are certain unnamed creative agencies that are built on the model that people will work for them for less then nothing — all for a chance of getting to do cool work for cool clients. Management knows that the young’ins aren’t going to stay with them beyond a few years. They know that once they’ve built up a portfolio, they’ll jump ship for a better paying job. It’s a bit quid pro quo in thinking right?

They know that they can refill the tanks with eager young talent who are knocking on the door just to have a similar opportunity. Many companies operate this way, the only way of getting more money or a promotion is to leave for new pasture. The creative industry has worked with way for many years.

Now your company may not be able to afford the turn-over or lose your key people like these creative shops. Having agility means running a tight ship now-a-days, that means we have to step up and pay people for what they are worth, because if you lose them, you might be screwed. If you have gotten to a point where people have to come and ask you for a raise, you might already be in a situation where you’ve lost them. They might be working on some great stuff that your agency is doing and creatively they might be very happy, but if they do not feel you are paying them enough even on a regional level you might have already lost them.

That's not to say their isn't one major caveat — what’s always going to trump money in the long-run is your environment. Some people will forgo the extra bucks if they like working for you, they like coming to work, and they can afford to work with you.

We can start this be building a balanced environment that people want to work in that at least passively starts to support each level on the pyramid.

At the end of the day, people want to be part of something larger, they want to be challenged and they want to make stuff. These are simple things that you should be doing everyday, in addition to doing things that make people’s lives a bit more comfortable.

Don’t be afraid of asking people either. Ask people what motivates them, ask individually, ask your team and task your management team. Then work on ways of amplifying those core motivation factors that are expressed. Then ask yourself, how can I remove demotivating factors? How do you get rid of the things that prevent people from being motivated? How do you actualize this way of thinking and ingrain it into your business culture?

Here’s a few ideas that look to cover some of the minimum stuff we should all be addressing. However, I’m giving you all homework — think of ways how you can make your environment better at all levels.

People need space

Open plans are the norm in creative land, but it’s not very conducive to thinking. If you walk around an open plan space, what do you see? A lot of people with headsets on. If you have an open plan, you need to create spaces where people can gather, put the work on the wall, socialize and have some quiet time. People need personal space, communal space and private space.

They need caffeine

Make sure you get the good stuff, we hipsters know our cold brews. But seriously, little things like snacks, water and coffee that are in the office can go along way. Studies have shown that people are most productive when they take small breaks every hour. If people have access to stuff in the office, and a place in the office to get away from their cell-mates, then this allows people a much needed mental and visual break, without having to leave the office. More importantly create little ways to break up the day that provide opportunities for socialization. At the same time, don't mess with the little shit. If you provide free coffee and get the good stuff this small perk becomes important. If you take it away to save a few pennies, you can really piss people off communally not just individually.

Get out of the office - and not always on your employee's time

People work very hard in creative land, they work a lot of hours. While they appreciate getting out of the office for paid beers to socialize, sometimes asking them to give up additional time at night can be a lot. Whenever you can, do things right after work, announce things in advance, and get people out of the office during regular hours. Go on field trips, take in an art exhibit, go visit a place where you can learn a bit about one of your clients. Go out for pizza, don’t always bring it in. Bring in outside experts and guests, encourage (and require) everyone to attend. Give people a chance to recharge and provide new outside perspectives.

Ask people what they want to do

Your people are sometimes your best go-to for ways of making your place, a better place to work. Ask, but also be prepared to receive. Don't shit on their ideas. Find ways of making your place a better place to work together as a group.

Encourage ways of creation in your agency that don’t always involve clients

I’m not talking about making people work on your pet projects, let them come up with side-projects of their own that you can support. When people aren’t motivated by the work, they crave other outlets to express themselves. If you don’t provide that outlet, they are going to look elsewhere to fill that need. The more someone goes someplace else to find that outlet, the more distant they will become in your environment.

Encourage the team to make a difference by promoting community.

Community service is a great way of getting the team to feel connected, and that they are making a real difference. It also shows that your agency cares, not just about making money, but about people, and making a difference in the world or in the community can show that.

Working on your agency environment is a start, but in motivating teams, we need to look a little deeper into what influence we may be able to muster as a leader or project manager.

There are four types of motivation factors, that contribute to an individuals motivation.

  • Intrinsic motivation – motivated by the work itself

  • Extrinsic motivation – rewards for doing the work

  • Personal motivation – individual values

  • Peer motivation– group influences

  • Intrinsic Motivational factors

Intrinsic Motivational Factors


We work in creative land because we want to be challenged to solve problems. As creative folks, we are motivated by doing something cool, new and seemingly impossible. We need work that feeds us these challenges. We aren’t people a tune to working in an assembly line.


Yes, we get bored easily. If you are always giving the cool projects to the A team, and the dregs to the C and the B team, people lose interest. One way of avoiding this is to have a culture where everyone feels and is able to contribute on any project at any level. Show what you are doing on the wall, do a show and tell with another team present. Show people what each team is working on so they can be inspired. Give all agency people the chance to work on the cool stuff too.


In creative land, the speed in which technology changes is frightening — fueling the requirement for constant learning. However, it is also a pretty big need for some people at the individual level. Being challenged and having interest builds new learning. As creative folks, doing something new, or being the first (or perhaps second) person to do or try something for our clients excites us. We get stoked when we can apply new learning.


Everyone wants their lives to mean something. People have a choice, they can work for you or not. If their lives don’t have meaning, they’ll find it somewhere else and you can kiss their ass goodbye.


Let’s say you were a medical communications company, you provided educational materials to doctors and health care providers. Doesn’t sound very exciting from a creative perspective, does it? But there is potentially great purpose in what you do. If your agency doesn’t provide the best possible marketing materials, so that doctors pass over a new drug or medical device there doesn’t seem much personal ramification. However, that's the wrong way of thinking about what you do. Think about it. Your agency saves lives. When your agency does it's job and you help get a new drug into market, you help to provide new ways for doctors to potentially save a persons life. This is your purpose, to do work that has the real potential to make a difference in someone’s life.

So how can we help manage this motivation? It seems silly, but it kind of starts with your brief, setting up the team for a real challenge to tackle, to inspire the group to make a real effort. We can get the team motivated by ensuring that they are really playing a part and bringing everything to the table they can. Intrinsic motivation means that you are aiming to support a culture of innovation. We do this by coaching and challenging people, we need not only to be clear about we want them to do, but leave it up to them to do it.

Extrinsic Motivational Factors


Yep, we covered that one. Pay people their worth. Don't promise something that you will never deliver.

Awards and Recognition

Everyone needs a bit of recognition for their efforts. It doesn’t always have to be in the form of a Gold Lion at Cannes. I little personal comment or showing of appreciation can go along way for someone in a public (or private) setting. And for Pete’s sake, a normal, thank you in front of your peers means more than being called achiever of the week and being handed another iTunes gift card.

We all need a bit of an ego boost sometimes, just remember that if the team did a great job, then share the team effort, don't single on person out and make them the only hero.

However, I do believe that internal competition and winning some really cool ritual reward can be a good team motivator. Building team motivation around a secondary goal can be an effective team motivator, as long as its taken and done with levity. If you have more than one group that was really close to winning an internal competition and the ten foot fish trophy, its important that the final celebration focuses in on everyone's efforts.

Nothing is more demotivating then not winning and seeing the winning team get a sizeable check, while there were others who worked equally as hard for the effort and just happened to come in second.

Praise and Appreciation

I think this is the most important thing you need to remember as a boss. Saying thank you in public by the big boss is one thing, but saying thank you and giving positive feedback by someone in private by their closest supervisor means a lot more. This is a simple thing to do that can easily be forgotten when we are very busy. People want to hear they are doing a good job, and they want to hear it from people they have respect for. When people work hard for you, they work hard for you for a reason, and the right thing to do is to say thank you every now and then.


The biggest help that you can give people is a chance to do something. We all want to work for companies that do great work, we all want to work on the best clients or go on a shoot or be invited to someplace or do something we normally wouldn’t be able to do. We all know that “opportunities” can be rare, and this is why people work hard, to be given the chance to do something special.

The Stick

So far we’ve talked about positive ways of motivating people, the carrot part. Every now and then, we may feel the need to whack some one over the head. You can think about the stick all you want, but you should never resort to being a toxic jerk.

That doesn’t mean you can’t confront bad behavior. If it’s not the kind of behavior that requires you grabbing the HR person, then it is appropriate to challenge a person's bad behavior. We are not looking to escalate a bad situation by being evil and overly confrontational. No, we are looking to defuse and correct. The thing is you can’t let people get away with bad behavior, especially in group settings. If you need to escalate the situation to include consequences, then its time to sit with HR and discuss it. The last thing that you need to do as a manager is to ignore the behavior or look like you are supporting it.

Extrinsic motivating factors as we can see have to be done right. Do it the wrong way and they can easily demotivate others. Giving someone an opportunity, when you overlooked someone else first, has consequences. Praising the wrong people in public can kill team motivation.

Personal Motivational Factors

One of things we’ve talked about through out this site is that different people have different values and specific factors that will motivate them best. Like I mentioned earlier, you need to get to know people — really get to know them, not stick them in a box, or over analyze what DISC profile they are. You might need to actually sit and have a real discussion with someone to get to the heart of what they need, and work together on a plan for getting them there together.

Peer Motivational Factors

When I was growing up in suburbia, parents had a different perspective on kid oversight. My mother would throw us out of the house, and basically tell us don’t come back till suppertime. There were no arranged play dates, groups of kids were always free roaming, playing in the street and running through people’s lawns. Within four blocks, there were always large groups of kids playing together. For the most part we self-organized into teams, to play baseball, manhunt and catch the flag. Kids of all ages, and diversity would be around and played together. For the most part, things always seemed to work out on the street, even when disagreements over randomly made new rules, or who was on who’s team, the group always seemed inclusive.

That's not to say that looking back on it as an adult, on occasion, it seemed at times like the neighborhood was always one conch shell away from re-enacting the “The Lord of the Flies.”

Adult peer groups have very similar strange dynamics, especially when working in teams. For right or wrong, peer pressure can be used for both good and evil. When you have a great group and people respect each other, it can be rewarding, interesting and exciting. If the group is ready to have a meeting, they can get the lagers to come along or modify the way they work to make accommodations. They can encourage each other, support each other and learn from each other. However, they can just as easily make others targets.

You can tell when a team is working well with each other, they fall into routines, build their own rituals and socialize together. As leaders we can support them by promoting ways in which they can tighten their commitment with each other, the good behaviors. However, it is a balance. There are only so many times the group can put up with people not pulling their weight. Good groups can easily splinter for some of the dumbest reasons, and one of the biggest dumb reason is when their is a perception that one key member isn't pulling their weight.

We can even apply what the agency does to promote values and ways of working by doing similar things in our smaller groups. In an open environment we can provide them a team space, we can get them to start off a meeting by someone sharing a story, and we can let our teams work together in ad-hoc ways. If can support them if tensions get high, we can help mediate and step in to adjust the group.

The downside of a team environment, is that individual performance can be hard to evaluate and judge. In reality, a project’s success is the result of a team effort. Not everyone will contribute equally, for each person will bring to the table their own set of individual motivational factors that may run against each other. While peer groups have a way of aligning goals, this is not the same as aligning individual motivation. Team driven outcomes do not mean an individual's goals are addressed.

One of the things we often forget as leaders is that we need to do more than just lead. By recognizing what we can do to help them on the battle field, we can become the support system our team and individual team members need to succeed.

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