When your ideas keep getting trampled out of existence, it’s too easy to lay down your creative life.
“It’s funny,” said my friend, a CMO in a major professional services firm, who didn’t actually find his predicament funny at all. “Every day when I walk into that office, I feel a bit less like me than I did the day before.”
I spend my working life protecting and inspiring the creative potential in business. So I often get asked what people experience when all their ideas start coming to nothing. “I’d imagine that they start screaming at the Board for an explanation”, someone might say. Or: “It must end up being the night of the long knives”. Because we all like a good story, we convince ourselves that some dramatic denouement or Big Bang must lie in store when people find their creativity crushed.
But work isn’t a soap opera (although I’ve met my fair share of hammy actors over the years). The truth is that, for most people, getting ground down is a long and grueling process. Indeed, creative people – and, by ‘creative’, I mean anyone who is capable of having ideas that can drive a business forward – often experience the slow thwarting of their potential as a process that is similar to grieving.
End to end, it can take months, sometimes years, but the emotional journey tends to follow the same trajectory. Perhaps you recognise a stage or two from your own career.
Stage 1: Denial
Yes, this is where it starts. Confronted with the vertigo-inducing reality of a business that doesn’t seem ready for change, the creative person convinces themselves that the road to glory is more ideas, better ideas, bigger ideas. In denial of the fact that the Boardroom is a room of doom in which original thinking almost always meets a messy fate, they get busy ‘getting creative’. Vision days, brainstorms and agency pitches are commonplace in this phase. But, because the root cause of the problem hasn’t been addressed, the time and money spent ends up being wasted. Bigger ideas just result in bigger pools of blood on the Boardroom floor. This leads to…
Stage 2: Anger
The creative person starts to feel like they are the only sane person in the asylum. A bitter narrative starts to get written: “this business doesn’t understand me, or my ideas, or what good looks like”. During this phase, the creative person will often try to find other ‘sane people’ who sympathise with this narrative, and with whom they can moan.
As I’ve stated elsewhere, one fundamental problem with mental narratives is that we tend to fit data to them – our brains prefer easy stories to messy facts.
The ‘anger narrative’ starts to colour every interaction that individual has with the company, good or bad.
Stage 3: Bargaining
But hope isn’t dead just yet. Battling anger, the creative person will then move into a phase of bargaining. The belief (which is actually correct) is that ‘there is a better future – I just need to find a way to get there’. But the accompanying behaviour tends to be problematic. Burnt by the outcomes of the denial phase and coloured by anger, the creative person will often try to bargain with others, but pick inconsequential or downright counterproductive battles to do so. Or they’ll try and bargain with themselves by seeking comfort in odd places. A classic example here is a leader vocally championing the energy and enthusiasm of a junior team when the senior or midweight team, on whom business success really depends, is letting the leader down.
Stage 4: Depression
Collapsing into depression, the creative person will then submit altogether to the narrative that was set in the anger phase, going into a period of withdrawal. This is an isolating time, in which a sense of loneliness is common.
But the real travesty here is the loss of self-confidence that often accompanies that withdrawal.
Creative people are sensitive; they are inclined to feel that their ideas failing to create an impact is indicative of a failure on their part. (It can be, but usually not in the way that they think – and, critically, the problems can be addressed.)
Stage 5: Acceptance
Ultimately, a state of acceptance is achieved. The creative person’s withdrawal becomes absolute, their loss of self-confidence devastating. At this point, they will make a binary choice: leave, or stick with it, however reluctantly, for personal reasons. Incidentally, “things around here will never change” is one of the most depressing things that the Corporate Punk team hears in our work – largely because it’s a total falsehood, and a damaging one at that.
So that’s a pretty grim scenario, isn’t it?
But it’s one that I’ve seen play out time and again – and which I’ve experienced more than once in my own career. Four years ago, the insight that I’d become someone I didn’t recognise, and that I was grieving for my creative potential, caused me to leave a successful consulting business in which I was a partner. One year later, I started Corporate Punk.
This company is a rebellion against the accidental or wilful mangling of creative people, processes, ideas and businesses – and all the unnecessary suffering that comes with it.
So what can creative people going through this sort of experience do to help themselves and others?
Firstly, whatever situation you are in, know that a fix is possible. I always say that optimism is the most underrated emotion in business – and this is not intended to be glib. A fundamental belief that things can get better is a prerequisite to them actually getting better. Without it, the positive energy required for change can’t flow. Grief is negative energy, and serves no purpose.
Secondly, interrogate where the grieving feelings are coming from. However the situation might appear, the feelings are only coming from one place: you. One fundamental issue with the anger narrative is that it seeks to place all the blame on others. This blinds people to the way that they contribute to their own issues. In turn, this makes finding fixes difficult – you’re too bogged down identifying where to place blame to have the intellectual and emotional bandwidth to fix the problem.
Thirdly, note that finding fixes needs you to get the facts. Yet another problem with the anger narrative is that it can stop any meaningful interrogation of what’s actually taking place. At its most extreme, this can mean that entire conversations get bypassed (have you ever been in a meeting where someone has said “don’t show that idea to Bob – he won’t like it”? Exactly). This robs everyone of facts, and the opportunity to discuss issues in an open and constructive way.
Next, think about the help and support you might need, internally and externally. None of us is an island, and we all could use an objective perspective from time to time. Incidentally, if you’ve sought help previously and it hasn’t worked, this might well be because what you were bringing to the table was a symptom not a root cause of the problem you were experiencing. “Bob didn’t like my presentation” does not automatically mean that presentation training is needed. It might need you to dive deeply into Bob’s agenda versus your own, and develop tools that will help you reconcile the two.
To help identify the real problem, then, you might revisit your approach to diagnosis.
A great way of doing this is to ask the ‘five whys’. Simply take the situation (say, the failed presentation to Bob), and write down why it failed. Then write down the ‘why’ behind that reason. After five ‘whys’, you’ll have got to the real cause of the problem – and you can start putting it right.
As you start the process of fixing the issue, be brutal with yourself: don’t egg on negativity in other people, and don’t let them egg it on in you. Negative groupthink has a habit of isolating the individuals and teams taking part in it, which further compromises their ability to add value. Be strong: yes, it’s tough, and yes, you’re tired of all the nonsense, but wasting your energy on negativity is only going to blind you to the creative solutions that you are more than capable of finding. You’re a creative person – a person of ideas, whose original thinking is valuable and unique – so go apply these talents to the problems your business. Remember that leaders don’t moan; they find what is broken, and then get to work fixing it.