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Managing 'difficult' talent

Why are creative people so sensitive about their work?

In her response to my last blog, film producer Rebecca Long said:

“I have found that in the creative industries we are all so passionate about what we do, and ideas and projects seem to be so much more personal and emotional than in most people’s work, and as a result you find that creative people can be very sensitive. If you then throw into the mix extreme pressures such as time and money and managing a lot of people, this makes for a boiling pot of difficulties…”


Rebecca speaks from experience. She is right to identify the passion which creative people feel about their work and the personal nature of that work as key elements in this mix.

But some highly creative people may have additional challenges to deal with. Modern studies and analysis of the letters and diaries of highly creative people throughout history have shown that creative people may be as much as four times more likely to suffer from mood disorders, of varying levels of severity, than non-creatives – including bipolar and unipolar depression.

Some well-known examples are Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, Berlioz, Mahler and Tchaikovsky, F Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Wolf, Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko…. the list goes on.

Why should there be this link between high levels of creativity and a particular psychological profile?

There are various hypotheses which seem to me to ring true. Depression is intimately linked to feelings of low self-worth, which may result from dysfunctional childhood relationships. So

• depressive people have experienced suffering and want to make sense of things through their work or change them.“They learn in suffering what they teach in song” (Shelley on poets);

• provided that the depression is not completely disabling, intense concentration and absorption in a complex task may permit an escape from depressive thoughts, and the act of creation, in producing a tangible product of intrinsic value, can help to dull those thoughts;

• depressives also have an acute fear of failure (because it will further damage their self-esteem), which can motivate them to strive harder, perhaps even to overwork in a manic phase. This means, however, that actual failure can completely paralyse them. They may therefore be very vulnerable and lacking in resilience;

• in the case of sufferers from bipolar depression, the increase in speed of thinking and the sheer volume of thought during the manic state may produce unique ideas and inspirations – so may be a catalyst for creativity.

The creative is in a double bind. Their work is meaningful and resonant with others because they have experienced powerful feelings and put so much of themselves into it.

But they are also posing publicly a self which is particularly vulnerable to criticism. And because of that vulnerability and lack of resilience, they may hear any criticism as a highly personal attack on their self worth, and may refuse to accept the points being made, fight back or even descend into creative paralysis.

So what can you do if you are leading or managing someone with this profile?

To get the best from insecure creatives, the leader needs to parent them, to try and tune in to their vulnerabilities, provide large amounts of support and encouragement, and show how much he or she values the contribution which each individual makes.

When the team members are secure in the belief that they are valued and appreciated, it will be much easier to persuade them to accept constructive criticism.

The same applies to “difficult” talent, whose big egos often conceal deep insecurities, and who try to get rid of their bad feelings about themselves by projecting them on others – eg by demanding that particular crew members be fired. The enormous ego of the narcissist is a protection for acute vulnerability.

And what if you recognise yourself from this description? If the problem is really severe, and prevents you from working effectively, then don’t be afraid to seek help from a qualified professional.

If it’s not that severe, but you’d like to increase your resilience in the face of setbacks or criticism, there are lots of techniques you can try, and I’ll talk about them more in a future blog.

The author: Janet Evans is a business psychologist, executive coach and consultant on leadership and strategic planning, with an MSC in Organisational Psychology and a Diploma in Coaching and Mentoring. She works mainly in the creative media industries and the public sector, having been a senior leader in Whitehall for many years. She runs her own consultancy, Adsum Consulting Limited, and can be contacted on janet@adsumconsulting.co.uk

Posted 15 June 2011 by Janet Evans

How to manage a creative team

How do I get the best from a creative team who’ve come together for the first time for this project and don’t know what my vision is, me, or each other? How can I communicate what I want and get them engaged in delivering it? How do I establish myself as leader?

I get asked these questions time and time again by producers and directors. Over the last two years I have been working as an executive coach with people in the creative media industries, most recently on CCTV, the Skillset-funded leadership programme for executives and senior producers from across the TV industry.

I suppose I must have had approaching 100 discussions with creative people in the last three years and it is very striking the degree to which those discussions have focused on a few significant themes. And it’s not surprising that ‘how to get the best from a creative team’ is one of those themes.

It is clearly very challenging to get a disparate group of people together and try to produce something engaging and original to a timescale which is too tight and a budget which is too small. But this is how these industries operate. So why does it go wrong and what is my prescription for making it work?

First, understand yourself. It is not empty stereotyping to suggest that there is a typical “creative personality”. Creative people are highly intuitive. They have ready access to their own unconscious processing and can see links and associations the rest of us can’t see. They can bring order out of chaos. They have rich and detailed internal visions of their projects and how they should be realised.

If creatives are to see their visions made real, they must be able to communicate them to other people, above all the production team, but they often fail to do this effectively.

Their vision is so clear to them that they think they have explained it when they’ve given the barest of outlines and that it has somehow been transferred to the minds of the hearers as if by telepathy. They even get bored while explaining it because it is so familiar to them.

So, it is crucial to communicate the vision fully. You can’t describe what you want too many times or with too much precision. Show examples of similar effects, reference other people’s work. You’ve been thinking about this for months if not years. It will take a while for the others to catch up, but if you invest in this up front, it will pay enormous dividends down the track. Not only will they know what you want but they’ll be able to feed ideas in and the final product will be better.

Secondly, understand your team. They also have a lot invested in this project – they are human beings and human beings are driven by emotion.

New teams go through four phases: “forming” (getting together in the first place); “storming”, while people struggle with each other for position and to get what they need emotionally from the project, “norming” (as they settle down into particular ways of behaving which are accepted by the team); and “performing”, ie getting on effectively with the job.

They will get to the “performing” stage more quickly and without major mishap if:

- you have succeeded in communicating your vision and they have been allowed to feed into it so that they feel ownership of it too

- they are clear about their roles and how they relate to each other

- you know them as individuals, are sensitive to what they want from the project, and they know you value their contribution. Creative people are very susceptible to feeling under-valued (but that’s a topic for another blog….)

These things seem obvious but they often get neglected. Projects start before they are in place and then things go wrong – relationships deteriorate, people have rows or leave, and time and money are wasted. Spend enough time at the beginning of the project on getting these things right. Talk to everyone individually and as a group. Mobilise their creativity. Get them engaged in a joint enterprise which matters as much to them as it does to you.

The author: Janet Evans is an executive coach and consultant on strategic planning and leadership, with an MSC in Organisational Psychology and a Diploma in Coaching and Mentoring. She works mainly in the creative media industries and the public sector, having been a senior leader in Whitehall for many years. She runs her own consultancy, Adsum Consulting Limited, and can be contacted on janet@adsumconsulting.co.uk

Posted 01 June 2011 by Janet Evans
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