Creative Genius Employees Are a Leader’s Worst Nightmare But Drive Amazing Business Results

In the war for talent, adding creatives to your teams can provide you with a competitive advantage. Creatives can be game changers. They are organizational linchpins, unicorns and the purple squirrels of not just your business but possibly the entire industry. They have special skills and abilities that make them unique. And maybe just maybe you’ve taken the plunge and added a creative to your team, leadership or organization. Well, as excited as I am that you’ve made the decision to add a creative to your team, I am here to tell you it won’t be easy.

Landing a creative can have a long term positive impact on your business. But your work as a leader doesn’t end once their contract is signed. Managing a creative might be the most challenging part of your job. It’s also one of the most rewarding, but it takes some planning, adjustment and flexibility because that creative isn’t like anyone you or your team has worked with before.

How to Better Lead Creative Genius Team Members and Employees

Creatives see the world differently. They are original, often highly emotional. They’re dreamers who are often labeled as troublemakers, eccentrics and procrastinators because they don’t always work traditionally. Creatives can be weird. We have a quirkiness about us which personally I think is a good thing. I, myself have struggled with working on teams as a creative as well as with leading them. I’ve never really fit into an organizational culture. I and we don’t think or do like anyone else which often casts us as outsiders. This means that acclimating to an organizational culture, understanding boundaries or expectations might be a challenge for your newly hired purple unicorn-squirrel.

Creative employees and hires don’t always play by the rules — which can lead to you, the team leader, being frustrated.

In the 1960s, psychologist and creativity researcher Frank X. Barron set about finding out what creative genius really was. Barron conducted a series of experiments on some of his generation’s most renowned thinkers in an attempt to isolate the unique spark of creative genius. Barron wrote that the creative genius was “both more primitive and more cultured, more destructive and more constructive, occasionally crazier and yet adamantly saner, than the average person.” In short, your creatives are going to be the hardest employees to retain, lead, develop and engage because their genius makes them different than everyone else.

Business leaders who focus on metrics and business management can find it challenging to engage, develop and understand their left brained, creative team members. But it’s these creative geniuses that drive original ideas and present different and unorthodox options that give you and your team a competitive advantage. As a creative, sometimes there are things that I just know and see; it’s hard to paint the path, picture and landscape for those around me. I just know what I see, which is why you, as leaders, need to work to understand the creatives in your workplace. They often don’t really understand they are different — at least, I never really did. And now that I know, I’m still trying to figure out what that means.

Seven Ways to Work with Linchpins and the Creative Employee

1) Assess Your Talent. Whether it’s through Strengths Finder, DISC or another personality assessment, it’s important for you as well as your team members to understand their individual talents, strengths and those of their team members and peers. It is equally important for you as a leader, to use these tools to understand the bigger picture of your team. Where do potential gaps lie? What’s the likelihood that team conflicts and tension will erupt?

2) Know Your Team. It’s not enough to know your team on a professional level. It’s important to get to know what makes individual team members tick, and what their personal and professional interests are, in order to understand your team members’ interests, dreams and goals, and how that fits into the larger organization. Get to know your team on a personal level. You don’t have to invite them over to dinner, but you do want to understand what matters to them. It helps to build a foundation of trust. It also helps you to understand how their personal motivations and interests impact their professional ones. 

3) Personalize Everything.When I say different, I don’t mean different as in bad. Different as in good. All employees, need a personalized experience, whether it’s relationships, training, development or a work environment that is unique to them. Creatives are motivated differently than other team members and leaders need to approach how they engage, build and develop them differently through personalization. Research says we are saner than our non-creative counterparts. Maybe working with creatives will make your workplace less dysfunctional. 

4) Help Them Find Their Joy. Happiness isn’t always dictated by the job you have or the amount of money you make. Their personal and professional joy impacts a much larger space. They overlap one another, which is why you need to understand that creatives are emotional individuals who need inspiration, joy and bechallenged in order to find happiness. This joy isn’t constant. It ebbs and flows like the ocean meaning that your mission will ebb and flow. It’s through the support you provide that trust and appreciation is demonstrated. Discover what their unique intrinsic and extrinsic motivators are.

5) Set Expectations and Have Ongoing Communication. A consistent communication process is key. This means hosting monthly or weekly team meetings as well as making time to meet individually with your team members. Let them set the agenda. It helps establish trust and gives your creatives the guidance, direction and support they’re looking for. They need structure, which is why as a leader you might need to adjust your own habits and tendencies in order to help them be their best in your workplace. 

6) Create Structure and a Flow. A common misconception concerning creative employees is that they lack structure and organization. That is a myth. Creatives are some of the most organized and structured people I know. What constitutes and looks like organization and structure to them, however, is often very different. As a leader it’s up to you to set the tone, expectations and to help creative a flow and structure with your creative. Create a safe place for them to ask questions, seek feedback and develop a list of expectations. Because they don’t adhere to traditional work norms, they might need more guidance, boundaries and clarification. A structured environment might seem counterintuitive because creatives are creative. But creatives  often do their best work when they understand the rules, expectations and requirements, because they can use the boundaries you’ve set to help drive creativity and inspiration. It’s within confines, restriction and structure that creatives can do their best work. Sometimes too much freedom can cause analysis paralysis or send your creative off in a direction that isn’t even left field, it’s an entirely different solar system.

7) Embrace Failure. Creatives are willing to take risks, try new ideas, fail and learn from them, which means that as a leader you need to be prepared for your creative failing. This isn’t a bad thing. We learn a lot from failure. But you will need to be there to support them, defend them and help them pick up the pieces to try again, re-evaluate and continue. Be prepared for failure and to defend it because it is likely that embracing it is counter-intuitive in your workplace, among your leadership or in your company culture.

Most importantly, talk to your creative and prepare to take extra time to build the relationship and understand their specific needs. A standard ninety days or six months for your creative genius new hires might not be enough. You might need to check in with them twice a week instead of once or meet in person instead of over the phone. Be up front and direct with these individuals so they can understand what’s at stake. These game changers or creative thinkers and doers are in high demand but what they need is support, trust and guidance. You need to have an effective onboarding, training and assimilation program to help them feel at home with your company and your team so they can spread their wings and flourish. Otherwise, they will be exploring other options with your competitors or another organization that is willing to invest the time and effort to let them be their quirky self somewhere else.

This is part of an ongoing series about creative genius at work. Look for more from this series on leadership, engagement and hiring creatives at your business. 

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Learn more about Jessica Miller-Merrell, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource, and the host of the Workology Podcast. More of her blogs can be found here.

Reader Interactions


  1. Julie says

    I just wanted to let you know that your article explains that creative geniuses are left brain which is not correct. They are right brain dominant – the creative, abstract hemeshire.

  2. Charlotte Johnson says

    I have been told that USA, Germany, Russia, China, Canada and others were interested in my creative genius; however, I am disabled from a bad car wreck. I was told that both sides of my brain works so fast that it makes a blur. I think so fast from one hemisphere to the other it is like my whole brain is thinking at the same time. I can invent something in my mind remembering each step to make it. Therefore, I know things will work before I try it. I have invented several inventions and slogans and just given them away. What I want to know is how can I start earning money for my many many ideas. If you can help Please contact me. Thank you.

  3. satish says

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  4. satish says

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