Tales From The Trenches: How to kill creativity

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(this is where the image should be, but blogger.com is hungover today, apparently. Way to go, blogger. Thanks a lot.)

I just received this story via email and thought I would share it with you. Yes, it's emotional, and yes you can take some of the writer's opinions with a certain amount of reservation, but it is nevertheless real, heartfelt, and pretty common across most industries - which makes it relevant to this blog. Scroll down to the bottom of this post for a few comments by yours truly.

How to destroy creative talent.

I've just witnessed a horrifying example of how some of our seniors managed to take down one of our most promising creatives.

The whole thing started when the planner complained about one of our designers surfing the internet. He kept complaining loudly until he got the attention of our creative director.

"Shouldn't he be designing the x-book instead? Doesn't he have other things to do than to surf the web."

(CD) "What? Is he surfing again? Of course he has other stuff to do. What the hell is he doing? This guy is nothing but trouble."

"Yes he is."

(Suddenly they are aware that I am listening. That's kind of normal 'cause my desk is right between theirs.)

(CD) "Is it possible to disable someone's internet connection?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, is it possible to make it impossible for someone to have internet access?"

"Who someone?"

"Well, you know."

"Ah, yeah, we'll ask the tech guy (who happens to be an account as well)."

The next day, the tech guy comes in, and immediately the three of them team up around the CD's desk.

(CD) "Can you disable X's internet connection?"

(TG) "Yeah, sure. Why?"

(Pla) "He's surfing again."


(TG) "I can do this and then do that. But shouldn't I notify him first?"

(CD) "No, not at all."

(TG) "But he'll ask his colleague Y to fix the thing."

(CD) "Then we'll tell Y not to fix it. Oh, and by the way, do it this evening, while he's away from work."

(TG) "Consider it done."

This conversation made my blood boil. First of all none of these people cared to ask the designer about this face to face.

I went down and I did (more than once). The answer was pretty simple. The guy told me he cannot use his design applications while he's writing PDF-files or uploading images. It takes a hell lot of time and it bores him to death. So while his machine is busy he's visiting wikipedia, design websites and blogs.

While asking around I noticed that all creatives do surf once and a while when their computers keep them from working. Most of them surf private anyway.

Secondly, the Tech Guy as well as the Planner are constantly visiting sports and gunclub websites themselves, exchanging silly e-mails and playing games. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as it doesn't affect their work (and believe me, it DOES!). So who the hell are they to cut the wings of one of our best designers?

But the most frustrating thing was that I knew that the CD and the Planner were waiting for quite some time for an opportunity to nail this guy.

Here's what happened a couple of months earlier: this young designer "dared" to contest the CD's view, not in a rude, but in a polite, but decisive way.

Instead of telling him to tone down or even bullying him, the CD went straight to the boss, complaining about this designer's misbehaviour. Mainly the CD complained about his sloppy look, him taking his shoes off at work and just being too different to get a grip on. But he couldn't complain about the guy's work.

The same evening our designer had to come "upstairs" where he was told that he would be fired. Luckily for him (well, sort of) he started questioning the boss and the CD about why they wanted to fire him. In doing so he managed to counter every single argument. The boss started to like him and decided to give him a second chance. Our CD was outrageously frustrated.

Getting the picture?

Back to our internet story again. When I tell our designer what's about to happen he's pretty pissed off and so am I. We both have the feeling that this is not the right way to treat your employees.

Be straight with them, be honest. But stop scheming in the board room because people notice. And how on earth can these people claim any authority while they are too cowardly to confront people with their so-called mistakes?

Live update. My boss came peeping over my shoulder (I'm writing this while I am having my lunch break), and I feel like I've been ran over by a truck.

Frankly, I don't give a damn, 'cause I've made up my mind. People who treat their employees in such a degrading are not worth any of my time and effort. There not worth working for at all.

So here's the deal: I'll quit. Not only because of what happened to our designer, but because I don't want to work in a company that sells so-called communication-advice and creativity while restraining all creativity and neglecting to communicate with their employees and customers in a proper way.

(Oh, by the way, as a copywriter my work isn't valued as it should either. In our company people think everyone can write professionally so they rewrite and edit my copy whenever they want, however they want without asking. And if things turn out bad, they blame it on me without even asking me. So there you have it, definitely no place to stay.)

And believe me, I don't believe in fairy tales anymore although I am still very fond of them. But I still believe that honesty is the best policy. There's still a huge difference between telling something in a strategic way and telling a lie. In our company they think they're doing the first, while actually doing the second. During my time at university, I got stuffed with post-modern literature, so I know what it means to present things from different angles without telling a lie.

Yeah, it sucks to work in a place that a) doesn't value your contributions, b) has allowed petty politics to poison the culture, c) micromanages its people to death, and d) just doesn't get it. The creative who sent me this email is obviously not happy where he is... and should probably look for greener pastures. (They're out there.)

There are several things here that I need to highlight:

1) Honesty is always the best policy. As a matter of fact, it is the only policy.

2) Whenever possible, act like an adult: If one of your employees is doing something you don't like, let them know. Give them a chance to make the changes you would like to see before ratting them out to the principal.

3)Your people are your most important assets. If their job is to be creative, let them be creative. (Managing creatives and accountants are very different tasks. Be aware of that.)

4) Micromanagers need not apply.

5) Can't we all just get along?

This reminds me of the design engineering department at a company I once worked for that had meetings every Friday morning, to go over everyone's project status, discuss new ideas, new designs, etc. The department's manager usually brought in doughnuts, coffee, and made the meeting relatively informal. I sat in on these meetings on several occasions and found them to be productive and insightful. Not only that, but they usually went into brainstorming mode towards the end of the hour,which gave designers a chance to get feedback on design ideas and engineering problems they were trying to solve. My take: Every other department in the company should have tried to incorporate some of these meetings' elements in their own weekly schedules. Unfortunately, the meetings came to an abrupt end when an influential VP (who disliked the engineering manager) repetedly complained to the CEO that Design Engineering spent their Friday mornings having "parties" and not doing any work.

The result: Five months later, most of the Design Engineering department walked out and moved on.

Here's another example (from the same company): Two creatives shared an office. Both spent about an equal amount of time reading business and design magazines - something which helps creative types - kind of like reading blogs. Call it research. Call it inspiration. Call it staying current. Call it conceptual optimization. The fact is that reading trade pubs does help creatives do a better job... at their job. It isn't goofing off or lounging around, especially if they're taking notes or highlighting portions of the articles. At any rate, one read them at his desk. The other read them on the couch. (Ironically, she was the one who produced the best work and met her deadlines. The read-at-desk guy wasn't very good at his job and generally pretty clueless.) Guess who was "called in" about her "lounging" habits. Guess who was told not to read trade pubs at work anymore. She took a position with another company very soon after that meeting.

Note to employers everywhere: If you are lucky enough to have talented, hard-working people on your staff, don't worry about whether or not they read marketing and design blogs when they should be looking busy. Don't come down on them if you see them reading trade pubs instead of typing away at their keyboard. Don't sweat it if you hear laughter coming out of the conference room they are using for a team meeting. As long as their work is fantastic, as long as deadlines are met, give them their space. Let them decompress during the day. Let them find their own path to engagement. Let them find in their daily work the inspiration they need to continue to bring fresh ideas and flawless execution to the table. Let them create and design their own place within your organization.

Guide them, help them, and whatever you do, don't interfere.

The "nose to the grindstone," "look busy," "work and no play" might work if you're on an assembly line, assembling widgets, but it doesn't work at all for anyone whose job description involves creativity or coming up with brilliant ideas.

Making employees feel unappreciated and ganged-up on doesn't make anyone work better, smarter, or harder. It just makes them look for the door.

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