It’s Easier to Demotivate than Motivate Creative People

When we discuss how to motivate individuals, it is inevitable that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — a psychology theory for human motivation will get mentioned. Maslow's hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid with the largest, most fundamental needs at the bottom and the need for self-actualization (the motive to realize one's full (and dare say creative) potential) is at the top. For example, if an employee's basic needs aren’t being met (like they are having problems paying the rent), we won’t motivate this person by recognizing them with a certificate of achievement and a fifty dollar gift card to Applebee’s. The gift card isn't going to do much to satisfy their basic underlying need (to pay the rent).  

Unless you know a person really well, it may be hard to determine where they sit on the hierarchy (what need they may best need met) and how to effectively motivate them. You need to get to know someone to understand what’s the best way of motivating them. And as their life changes, so does what will potentially motivate them. You may have a happy designer one day, who seems to be motivated by doing challenging work and then the next day you may find them shutting down and upset. Is it the quality of the project or not being recognized for their hard work? Or, is it because the long hours are causing problems with their home life?

Unless we ask them or they open up to us, our understanding on how to address the situation is limited. This is where it may be hard to understand what motivates an individual at any given time. Motivation is individualistic, situational and self determined. To help a team member and to make their path to fulfill a current need, you have to discover, define and understand what solution or strategy will motivate them in real time. 

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

Do a self-assessessment. What is the quality of your feedback and employee communication? Are you contributing to making someone feel better or worse when they are off their game? Do you blame people for the smallest detail or gain understanding? Do you make promises you don’t keep or do you follow up with realistic change? Are you opaque about business decisions that effect others or clear and transparent? Do you pay people poorly and treat them like they should be glad to just have a job or do you treat them as a valued peer?

Motivational issues can't be ignored. If they go un-addressed (even for a short time), people can feel increased internal conflict on how to address their personal needs to the point of losing them as a valued employee. This can happen over seemingly simple situations. Using words or language that  discount a part of their life only work to making people feel anxious and tense, increasing the desire to fulfill that need. And if their current job is a barrier to fulfilling that need, they will seek to remove that barrier.

Show me the money

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

Let's start with the basics of how money motivates an individual. Money helps us achieve our basic needs; I can pay my rent, I can stay healthy, I can afford to work at this job. Money is a basic motivational factor. However, creative organizations may not always (or be able to) do the right thing when it comes to paying people. 

Let's take an example, companies built on a model where people work for them just to get a chance to do cool work for cool clients. These companies feel that portfolio building is more important as a motivational factor then paying employees a living wage. These companies know that they can refill their tanks with eager new talent once an existing employee's motivation shifts from portfolio building to simply being unable to pay for their basic needs. I think we all know a few companies that still operate this way. You pay your dues so to speak, build a portfolio, and hopefully leave for more money or a promotion. 

However, not all companies operate this way. In good economic times, talent can be scarce and/or a firm may not be able to afford this type of employee turn-over. Firms need to pay people what they are worth. If you don't keep up with a proper wage and an employee gets to a point where they have to ask for a raise, you might find yourself in a situation where you may have already lost them as an employee. For this employee, it could be an esteem issue. People want to know they are valued and self-respected, and a proper wage for their work is often all a person has to feel acknowledged. 

That's not to say you might have some "starving artists" working in your company, people who work more for their need to be creative and to work on projects that inspire them creatively. Winning awards or getting accolades from their peers are strong reassurances. A raise may not mean much to them. However, these are the same folks that will walk out the door hella fast if the work they are doing becomes boring or they feel they can no longer contribute.

If you don't have the best creative clients, that doesn't mean you won't have quality folks that will work still for you. And not-all individuals are motivated by working on highly-creative work. They do, however, want to feel that they are fulfilling their full potential. For some folks, its about learning, for others its about teaching or solving problems. It can also be expressed in ways that are not work related. It could be athletically or as a parent, or the best soccer coach for their kid. It can also be an outside of work creative outlet. 

As a person fulfills one need level, from foundational to the next, how you engage them and motivate them shifts. The higher up the pyramid some one is in their personal development, the more specific the motivation solutions become.

Money is a relative motivational factor. It helps to meet basic needs. A good and healthy work environment, where we can make friends and feel like we belong, is a relative factor. 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. We want to be recognized and feel good about ourselves. And when we feel good about ourselves and our world we have a strong base where we can be who we want to be and fulfill our potential.

So please, don’t be afraid of sitting down with folks. Ask people what motivates them as an individual. Combine this learning with a collective understanding of what potential group needs you may have. Then work on ways of amplifying those core motivation factors and how you can remove demotivating factors? How do you get rid of things that prevent people from being motivated? How do you actualize this way of thinking and ingrain it into your culture?

Here are a few ideas that look to cover the basics. Think of ways how you can tailor your environment to your team.

People need space

Open plans seem to be the norm, but it’s not very conducive to thinking (or a feeling of social belonging). If you walk around an open plan space, what do you see? You probably see a lot of people with headsets and heads down. If you do have an open plan, 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 to create healthy working relationships.

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 this creates little ways to break up the day that provide opportunities for socialization. If you provide free coffee or a perk, don't be half assed about it. Nothing says more to employees then poorly executed perks. Perks show that we value you (and respect you). Crappy "perks" work against you.

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. This not only builds on social belonging, but provides ways for people to express themselves. People are more than their work-life.

Ask people what they want to do

Your people are your best go-to for ways of making your place — a better place to work. As a leader, 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 and do so 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, I'm talking about letting them come up with side-projects of their own that you can support. When people aren’t motivated by client work, they crave other outlets to express themselves. If you don’t provide that outlet, they are going to look elsewhere to fulfill that need. The more someone goes someplace else to find that outlet, the more distant they will become as an employee.

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 deeper into what influence we can 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 and solve problems. As creative folks, we are motivated by doing something cool, new and seemingly impossible. We need work that feeds us these types of challenges. We aren’t a people attune to working on an assembly line.


Yes, we all get bored easily. If you give all the cool projects to the A team, and the dregs to the C and the B team, people lose interest (and get pissed off). One way of avoiding this is to have a culture where everyone feels that they are able to contribute on any project at any level. Show what you are doing on the wall or have project show and tell with other teams present. Show people what each team is working on so they can be inspired. Give all agency folks the chance to work on the cool stuff too every once and a while.


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 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.