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

by | Collaboration

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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  1. Barry Westman

    What an amazing perspective, and a real look at the heart of the issue! Thanks!

  2. Larry Lundstrom

    Great post. I have served in both roles… both are very challenging even for a fellow creative. Funny how that works. I think respect is a huge deal and investing time in getting to know who you are working with is even more valuable. Artist will not always see eye-to-eye but mutual respect can be developed.

    I have found, we all just want to be valued. You are right on, ‘appreciate the process’. There are a million different ways to design an end-product so there are a million different opinions at play. I have found that letting a creative direct the project and providing as much insight to the ultimate decision make and target audience is extremely helpful.

    What tends to kill collaboration and communication is time-crunch, and this is usually when personalities flair. It’s fun and stressful but respect can still be maintained in the worst of deadlines.

    • Todd Henry

      Larry, I agree that time, constraints, resources, etc., are like kerosene on the fire. They don’t start the fire – {cue angry Billy Joel intro music} which is typically the existing relational tension – but they enflame the situation really quickly.

  3. Robert Parker

    As a creative, I have no problem with a manager giving me a goal. I have a big problem being given a method or a technique as a mandate, especially when I know more about methods/techniques than they do, and *especially* when I know that the method they demand will not give them the goal they demand. That’s a “lose-lose”: I give them everything they want, their goal doesn’t get achieved, and *I* get all the blame.

    • Todd Henry

      Agreed, Robert. I think this is the real challenge. I once heard Jason Fried say “everything is easy when it’s not your job” in response to “wouldn’t it be easy just to move this over there and call it finished?” Prescription vs. description is a huge tension that creative managers must live in and deal with well.

  4. Lori Biddle

    I oversee 3 full time staff and 150 volunteers in the areas of worship, artists, set designers, actors and the technical departments. I agree totally with this article – I try very hard to use questions instead of making immediate decisions. But, it is tempting to just push ahead and bark out orders in order to move quickly – but, speed is not the ultimate goal – a healthy, respected team is! Thanks for writing!

    • Todd Henry

      Lori, I think this applies to any context, whether in leading a staff or leading volunteers. The added complexity is that in leading volunteers there’s not the same level of “safety net” for bad behavior, because people can not volunteer or choose to spend their time elsewhere. Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. cassidycurtis

    All good advice, although the 90% figure seems a bit exaggerated to me. There are plenty of other sources of tension between managers and artists… budgets, schedules, and other factors beyond the control of either party can loom high on that list.

    • Todd Henry

      This is true – the 90% may be hyperbole – but in my experience that’s close to the amount of tension that results from communication issues, even if they’re driven by constraints such as budget, schedule, client expectations, etc.

  6. Melissa Monette

    Just last week Todd…just last week ! After 20 years as a designer (and former art director who has returned to designing again) I was shocked at how annoyed I had become by a trivial revision session last week- all comments were just as you explained here -to me just an exercise on their part in control- I now have a better understanding of the buttons I was putting out there….I am not my work! <3 Thanks Todd

    • Todd Henry

      Melissa, could you just use fewer ellipses, and maybe shorten some of your sentences? And could I have your revised comment by noon? It doesn’t have to be great, just good enough – OK?

      I kid, I kid. :) Thanks for your comment and glad the post was helpful!

  7. Trudy

    Very good post. I like that you presented both concerns. When people listen instead of playing war in a creative office, more work and more meaningful work can be accomplished.

    • Todd Henry

      Totally agree that the biggest problem is often the lack of willingness to see things from the other’s perspective.

  8. Susie Notley Bautista

    As a creative, though, I’d prefer to get involved with goal setting & have a chance to give my input. I “buy in” to the goal when I’m involved. I don’t care about acknowledgment of the process?

    • Todd Henry

      Agree, Susie. Problem is that this isn’t an option in many organizations, and really can’t be because of the pace and the nature of the client interactions. But in an ideal world, where there’s ample opportunity, yes – that would be great.

      • Susie Notley Bautista

        Yes, an ideal world would be great :-) I did realize something today, I am focused on the process to get to the end point. My manager gets frustrated, because he only sees endpoint. It would be nice to get him to relax/calm down, so he could see we are on the same page. I’ll have to be more re-assuring in the future.

  9. Wes Roberts

    Todd…you have hit the dead center of the bull’s eye of the target of any intergenerational enterprise.  I find that how one asks a questions…and then waits for an answer…like, listening is crucial, without agenda…amazing what can take place.  Understanding process is more critical than end product…and we’re all in process, if honest with ourselves.  :-) Then when the product does show up…celebrate…together.  I, at 70yo, am learning so much from the creatives I mentor…gratefully.

    Just this week, when one of the brilliant souls I mentor was unpacking a wild and wonderful new series of ideas he and some friends have been cooking up he asked, “OK…there’s our sketch of what we’ve been pondering…now what are your three best questions you can ask me to help take us into our future with all this?”  What an invitation!!!  And, they have something going that, sincerely, could change a large part of our world.

    Eager for the book launch!  Though we be strangers to each other, I celebrate this magnificent achievement for you…thus, celebrating you living into and accomplishing your own dreams.

    This olde man is ready to sit in the early morning cool here in Colorado, having some fresh coffee and devouring it.  Come join me some time.

  10. Kadira Jennings

    I love your last question – what is the other person most concerned about right now – This is such a valuable question that we can apply it to all our interactions really because we then allow ourselves to step into their shoes. A great way to encourage good communication. Thank you for an insightful post.

  11. MadDog Creative

    I love this post. We’re all on the same team; we just have different roles. Open lines of communication make all the difference in the world. As a manager, I also found it important to revisit roles and responsibilities on a project bases. When everyone fully understands their roles and how their roles fit into the big picture, it helps acheive buy in and make the discussions discussed in this post go more smoothly.


  1. Gedy Rivera | Web & Graphic Designer in Kansas City, MO » Recommended Reading: Creative Direction - [...] How to eliminate 90% of the tension between creatives and managers? By Todd Henry Tweet [...]

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