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Managing Ego in the Creative World – No Tantrums Required

“They’re really tough to work with, they have a huge ego.” How often have you heard this in the workplace? Ego tends to get a bit of a bad rap. Ego is that energy that we use to put ourselves out into the world and just like with super villains’ superpowers, it can be used for good or not so good.

Does this mean that highly creative people must have big ego? Not necessarily, someone with a smaller ego could be very talented, but you might not hear about their work quite as much because they are not as invested in having their work widely known. It’s quite the opposite with someone with a large ego. You will hear a lot about them and their work.

What most people to refer to as “ego” however, usually tends to be spoiled behavior, a propensity toward conflict, and an overwhelming desire for recognition, so let’s address how leaders can best manage those dynamics within a creative team.

No Assholes, Please

COVID-19 took a toll on the creative industry: shutting down film sets, restricting in-person activities and shifting many of us to remote work, but a little silver lining is emerging: leaders have become keenly aware of the emotional lives and well-being of their team members. And in perhaps an even greater post-pandemic, paradigm shift, they’re developing a growing intolerance for spoiled and abusive behavior that had previously been quietly ignored or allowed to fester.

As we are prioritizing people, especially people’s mental health and creating work environments that best support them, we have much less tolerance for bullshit and bullying.

Director Olivia Wilde has a “no assholes” policy on her film sets, and I love sharing this quote with my clients from world-renowned Chef Tetsuda Wakuda:

“In my kitchen, first thing people say is very quiet very calm… no point scream …no no don’t need this … already people working long hours, we don’t need to waste energy. In the end you got to be happy to be there”

This shift in attitude with regards to bullying and abusive behavior in the creative world started with the onset of the #metoo movement, but has gained momentum and now extends to the maltreatment of anyone in a supporting position.

Many of us have experienced this type of bullying and abuse firsthand and well, it’s no fun. Sure, it can be a character-building experience, but it’s harmful and toxic to the intended target and to the workplace. No one feels inspired to contribute creatively when they’re unsure if a tirade will soon be headed their way. That’s not to diminish the value of figuring out that best alternative in competing visions, but that process doesn’t demand distracting drama.

Eliminate Bad Behavior

What this section is not about is tolerating any type of toxic behavior. We agree. Abuse, bullying, personal attacks, there’s just no room for that in a workplace and if does occur, it’s a quick call to whomever is handling your people department to assist you in addressing quickly and clearly.

But how do I know when behavior is toxic and when behavior is merely an artist looking to achieve a certain result? I think we all can tell when people are being abusive, but it may be helpful as a leader to know that sometimes “theatricality” stems from an attachment to a high standard, which doesn’t excuse the behavior but rather points to its source.

I recall one client whose team was quietly rebelling against them because of their tyrannical rants about the team’s lack of support of their vision. I brought into focus for that person that their attachment to their vision was putting their career in jeopardy and reminded them that they operated in a collaborative world where the people who supported them also wanted to feel as if they had contributed their vision to the ultimate outcome.

Give Credit Where Credit is Due

A big part of working with ego is to know when to give acknowledgement, credit, and recognition. Everyone likes it—it’s just that some people crave it more than others. As a leader of a creative team, it’s your job to give your team what they need in a way that works for everyone.

Some of you may be thinking, “But it’s not my job to coddle anyone” and you are correct. However, to lead in a field where people routinely take risks by reaching deep inside themselves to pull out art, poetry, or a vision that’s deeply personal, you would be well served by acknowledging the vulnerability in that and support that person. Consider how often creatives refer to their work as “my baby” or “my child” and remember, no one likes to be told that their child is ugly!

So offer consistent, strategic, and instructive feedback and it will go a long way in making sure everyone knows that you appreciate their contribution. And sometimes it is important to do that in a public manner, so that the entire team knows of the contribution.

When it does come to getting credit, you might wish to share with your team the two quotes that follow, from two opposite sides of the political spectrum:

Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.
– John F. Kennedy

There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit.
– Ronald Reagan

Bottom line: if you are the leader of a creative collaborative team, be truthful and plentiful with your praise of the team and its collective effort. If your emphasis is on the success of the team as opposed to one individual, it tends to apply a salve to the competition and divisiveness that can infect group effort.

Hey, I Have an Idea!

As I mentioned above, you are in a field where your team-members are consistently risking themselves by sharing their creative ideas, not always an easy thing to do. It takes a good deal of ego strength to bring those ideas forward even if they might be inspired, inventive, silly, useless, and of course, sometimes, straight-up bad. Regardless, you want to keep that idea stream running, so dumping all over someone’s idea is never a good approach. How best to deal with those ideas and stay focused on what’s important?

My suggestion is similar to the approach I recommend when coaching individuals on personal productivity: Collect it all (as in write it all down), but don’t necessarily commit to it all. One of the great powerful tools in personal productivity is the “Someday/Maybe” list. It’s a list of all the things I might want to do at some point, but right now I just don’t have the resources available to me such as time, budget, and energy. At some later point, I might have those resources, so I keep a list of my Someday/Maybes to review once a week to see if my world has changed such that I want to make any item on that list an active project.

This can be the same approach with creative ideas your team generates. “I love that idea and that you came up with it, it’s just not right for this application. Would you do us a favor and hold on to it so that when a different situation shows up, we might evaluate it again?”

What will support this approach is if you are also crystal clear on your decision-making process with your team. I wrote an article a while ago about decision-making which you can read here, but the bottom line is that if you let your team know specifically how you make decisions, you can avoid any ambiguity about how their contributions fit into that process.

The same can be said for having clarity around roles (another article I’ve written here) because if the team knows specifically who is empowered to make decisions on creative input they won’t waste their time being invested in influencing a decision that is not theirs to make.

All of the above may not remove the disappointment your team members may experience from not getting their ideas implemented but if you’re applying criteria consistently, consciously, and clearly, you’ll go a long way toward keeping those egos from reacting in ways that won’t serve the team.

Key Takeaways:

  • Create a fun, inclusive, and positive creative culture.
  • Respect and value creative input.
  • Be clear as to what you plan to do with it.
  • Give positive feedback to the team whenever possible and appropriate.

As usual, I would love to hear your thoughts on this or other articles of mine. Please write to me at hello@waynepepper.com

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