Thomas Joos I help people grow their ability & courage to lead creative teams.

The Pursuit of High-Performing Creative Teams

When I talk to other Creative Leaders about the pursuit of high-performing creative teams, the following question often pops up: how do you motivate your team?

The goal behind this question is always the same: we want our teams to deliver great work on time and budget. And we want them to keep coming back every day, with a big smile and ready to rock. So how do you motivate people?

Here’s what I’ve learned after years of cultivating high-performance creative collaboration.

Understanding Motivation

Let’s begin with the basic psychology of motivation. Where does it actually come from?

It all starts with the 2 kinds of management approaches one can apply. Both depend on behavioral assumptions and specific motivation dynamics. And the funny thing is that we all know and apply them without realizing it.

 — Supervising

On the one hand we have a supervising approach, assuming people don’t want or need responsibility and are motivated by reward (or punishment) to perform and achieve results. Supervising relies on extrinsic motivators such as pay raise, bonus checks or the threat of job loss. These motivators are often referred to as Carrots & Sticks.

 — Participating

On the other hand we have a participative approach, assuming that employees enjoy working with greater responsibility and are self-motivated. Participation relies on intrinsic motivators such as purpose (the motive to be involved), autonomy (freedom) and mastery (the urge to get better). These motivators drive us to participate in (sometimes really crazy) challenges.

In most professional environments efficiency, optimisation and automation are important. Moving forward requires a narrow focus, to the point tasks and clearly communicated goals. This is where Carrots & Sticks have a huge positive influence, which is why almost every company runs on a supervision approach.

What’s interesting though is what happens when tasks involve cognitive skills like learning, decision-making or creative thinking. According to behavioral scientist & author Daniel Pink, global incentive experiments show that supervising motivators actually result in lower creative performance!

What this means is that a supervising approach actually destroys the creative potential of your team. This explains why so many Creative Leaders are interested in motivation techniques. They feel that their teams are not running high on creative energy and they are looking for ways to turn it around.

Embracing Participation

The answer lies in participating motivators. People who are self-motivated are engaged in something because they want to. These are the people who thrive at cognitive tasks. Because it’s important, fun or challenging. For themselves. 

The challenge for Creative Leaders is to embrace a participation style where purpose, autonomy and mastery drives your team. I’ve been applying this approach for years and want to help you get started too. Here are my most recommended tips and tricks.

1. Have informal 1 on 1 conversations every week

One of the most important self-motivators is purpose. A sense of deep meaning which stimulates you to be involved. Your job as a Creative Leader is to figure out what excites your team members and how this can be aligned at work.

Having a weekly 1 on 1 conversation is a great way to do this. Grab a coffee together and take interest in their work experience. Ask how things are going, what they enjoyed most and what bothered them. Every 1 on 1 is a great chance to learn more about what matters to people individually. Feeling appreciated and understood is key for every successful participation.

After a few weeks you will start to see patterns in their feedback and create a better understanding of their motivations and interests. This will prove to be extremely valuable once you have more formal discussions about their role, performance, achievements or professional ambitions in general.

2. Define priorities together

One of the great participating motivators comes from autonomy: the freedom to self-direct. Simply put: performance goes up when people are allowed to decide which creative tasks they want to tackle.

This is exactly why supervised priorities (here’s your task for today) often kill creative performance. A better approach is to define important priorities together and enable people to work on the things that matter to them.

You can do this through a workshop format called the starfish retrospective. This particular technique helps people to reflect on a variety of things they want to focus on, based on 5 simple questions:

  • What should we start doing?
  • What should we stop doing?
  • What should we keep doing?
  • What should we do more?
  • What should we do less?

I ran this workshop at least 4 times a year and asked everybody to come up with 3 short answers to each question. We used simple post-it notes and a whiteboard to make the output tangible.

What’s nice about this workshop is that people can express their ambitions or concerns without feeling uncomfortable. There is no right or wrong, good or bad. They don’t have to worry about other people’s feelings. It creates a safe environment to share your honest opinions on how to improve as a team.

3. Let go of people who don’t care

If there is one thing that upsets engaged people it’s working with someone who doesn’t share the same sense of commitment. It kills the entire team spirit and brings out the worst in people.

Now this will happen to your team too someday. It’s inevitable, so you better deal with it as soon as possible. Use your 1 on 1 sessions to figure out who’s in and who’s not. Don’t be blinded by skills or expertise, if someone simply doesn’t care as much as the rest, they will never succesfully particpate.

I’ve encountered this scenario a few times and letting those people go always felt like a relief. It might lead to practical frustration, but people will take care of them and move on. What they don’t accept however, is that you keep offering a spot in the team to someone who doesn’t value it as much as they do.

4. Learning Days

In a previous article I already mentioned the importance of personal development. The urge to master is a powerful motivator and key for a participative approach.

Internal Learning Days are a great way to fuel your team with creative energy. During these days we came up with break-through solutions for problems we were dealing with for a long time.

It’s a bit like an internal hackaton or bootcamp. Give your team one or two days to learn something and present the outcome to the team at the end. Let everybody decide for themselves what topic to work on. As long as it’s related to the team in some way, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Here’s an excellent guideline to help you set this up. I’ve used it myself many times.

5. Celebrate & share learnings

Working in a creative environment means that you are constantly exploring, experimenting and learning. Why keep your insights all to yourself if everybody else likes to learn and improve?

Monthly lunch sessions or after-work drinks are the perfect format to do something about that. Just ask people to share something they learned that might be valuable to others as well. I often invited external people too.

Sharing is caring, no?

Understanding how motivation works is key for every Creative Leader who wants to increase team performance. Supervising motivators work great for specific tasks, but not if you want to stimulate more cognitive work like exploration and creative thinking.

This is where participating motivators come in and they are a bit more complex than Carrots & Sticks. These tips and tricks will help you grow a self-motivating culture built on autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Go get them,