How To Eliminate 90% of the Tension Between Creatives and Managers


Many of the e-mails and questions we get at Accidental Creative revolve around one question. Actually, it’s one question asked from two different perspectives:

How can I get them to understand me?

The them in the question is either “my manager” or “my creative team” depending on who is asking the question. There is a lot of time spent lobbing shots across the organizational bow, from both sides, but there is often a significant dearth of real communication.

So with that in mind, I want to share a simple way to eliminate 90% of this organizational tension. It begins by understanding the values and concerns of the other party. While this is a bit of an over-simplification, please understand that there’s no formula for this. We’re simply trying to improve communication, which will in turn improve our collective work. Cool?

What all managers want to know: Will you do what I ask?

Most managers simply want to know that – in the end – creatives will do what they ask. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they want their way all the time, it simply means that they want to know that, when push comes to shove, it’s understood who’s ultimately in charge. But often there is such heated debate (over even the most inconsequential topics!) that the manager starts to feel like the organization is in misalignment. This feels like a threat to the manager, which leads to escalation of the conflict or passive-aggressive behavior.

Rather than starting a conversation about work by attempting to assert your opinion, you can countermand this issue by starting any feedback session with “So…I want you to know that I’ll go whichever direction you decide, and I’m cool with that. I’d like to show you why I think this direction is best.” [Insert brilliant work.] By beginning a conversation with a statement that re-affirms the manager’s authority, you are eliminating any concerns that there will need to be a power struggle. (You’re also making your manager much more considerate of your view, because they realize how much is riding on their making the correct decision.)

What all creatives want to know: Will you listen to me?

OK, managers. Creatives spend 99% of what they do in process mode, meaning that they are iterating, developing and refining their work. Unfortunately, much of this work is critiqued solely according to the final 1%, or the finished product. As a result, a creative who has spent hours, days or weeks working on something will often hear “can you make X a little bigger?” or “can you de-emphasize Y?” While these may be perfectly appropriate questions, it can also make the creative feel incredibly de-valued and like a cog in a creative-cranking machine.

At the heart of it, creatives want to know that their process is valued as much as their product. Rather than simply lobbing observations about the finished product, try asking some questions about process. If you want X to be a little bigger, why not ask “I see what you’re doing here. Explain to me why you chose to make X as small as you did?” Then you can proceed to have a valuable conversation about the thought process of the work rather than just about the end results of that process.

Do these methods take time? Yes. Are they less convenient? YES! But do they begin to facilitate healthier conversations about the work? ABSOLUTELY!

If you are truly interested in seeing your team thrive, I’d challenge you to begin each interaction with the question “what is the other person most concerned about right now?” It will make a world of difference in your collaboration.

QUESTION: Have you seen these tensions play out in your team or with clients? How have you handled them?

Todd Henry

Todd Henry

Positioning himself as an “arms dealer for the creative revolution”, Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of five books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, Herding Tigers, The Motivation Code) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work.

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