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The Most Valuable Lesson I Learned About Leading a Creative Team

business of interior design business tips for interior designers leadership leading interior designers Aug 10, 2021

Plus, 5 Management Tips to Help Engage Your Employees Creativity

When I first became a director of marketing, I had managed several people over the years. Throughout, I continued to struggle with giving a project or assignment to someone, and when it came back, it was all wrong. Ugh. I couldn’t understand why the projects weren’t what I wanted. For years, I thought it was the employee’s fault, until one day, as I was sitting at my desk with my head in my hands, it dawned on me to look at the work from a different perspective.

I started by recounting my conversation with the employee. Taking special consideration in remembering what I said to that employee when I gave them the assignment. And then I relooked at the project she had given me. An imaginary lighting bulb flashed on, and I realized the employee did nothing wrong. In reality, she did exactly what I asked of her. I was the one with the problem. I was hindering her creativity. This changed my whole perspective on managing creative people.

Leading a creative team can be exceptionally hard. Creative types often see the world a bit skewed in the most remarkable ways. Creatives can envision a beauty that most people can’t even imagine until it is real. Terrific interior designers are no different. When a manager gives instructions, especially non-specific directions, the results may be skewed from the expectation, but it doesn’t mean it is wrong. How people interrupt our meaning has a lot to do with how work is completed.

Related Article "10 Ways an Interior Designer can Improve their Leadership Skills"

The first thing you should never forget is that engaged employees sincerely want to do a great job. When they take in the information you give them, they interrupt and then act. If the employee isn’t doing it as quickly then you needed, then you very well may not have stressed the deadline. If you ask a junior designer to research acoustic wall treatment options and the employee leaves out two obvious suggestions, then it may be what they interrupted from you. Employees can’t read your mind. As you work together longer, you may anticipate each other’s actions or desires, but employees still can’t read your mind.

As the leader, it is your job to give clear instructions and give them the resources and systems to be successful and creative. But, how do you do that?

Set Clear Expectations

To begin, you never micromanage your employees. Micromanagement is the worse thing you can do for a creative type. Setting expectations is not micromanagement. It is laying out what you expect of your employee. For instance, you may expect the entire team to attend internal status meetings for a specific project. Be sure that each employee understands this expectation and communicates updates when they cannot attend.

Another expectation is for each person to read and be familiar with the programming document for each project they are accountable for. When you give an assignment to an employee, you expect them to use the information from the programming document to help complete the task. If the employee is fully aware of the project parameters and objectives, that will help align their creativity with the project’s goals.

Some managers like a project status review every week, whereas some managers don’t need the status review meetings. Neither is particularly wrong; however, it is vital to be clear about your expectations.

One thing I recommend is to brainstorm your expectations by evaluating past interactions with your employees. Look at the situation clearly without your bias. If the tables were reversed and you were the employee, what would you have done differently? This will help you identify what your expectations are and help you devise a plan to communicate accordingly.

When people have clear direction and expectations, it gives them the freedom to be creative within the parameters. This is a very liberating feeling for those that are exceptionally creative.

Understand your Employee’s Communication Style

This is a big one. We all communicate differently. To be a great leader, you must understand each employee’s communication style and use that information to improve communications.

If you have ever been around someone straightforward, you may have recognized their frustration with you when you go into a long detailed story. Whereas someone who likes to give a more detailed account of an event may be frustrated with someone who just wants the facts.

As the manager, you may prefer one communication style, and your employee prefers a different one. The fact is that you need to adapt. You are the leader, and by not adapting, you are disengaging the employee. This can be frustrating for many managers. In your mind, you may be thinking that the employee should adapt, but what you may not recognize is that as you adapt, so will they. We all learn to communicate with those around us. We also learn through examples. Communication isn’t one-size-fits-all.

Remember, communication isn’t just verbal. It also encompasses written communications and even body language. A short text response with punctuation evidently means I am mad, according to my teenage son. I thought I was just being grammatically correct. Now, I have learned to add an emoji, so he knows I am just busy and not up for a detailed text conversation.

Years ago, I had a manager attack me for my heavy breathing. (I say attack because she was literally screaming at me.) Apparently, she was terribly upset with my sighing when she approached my desk with a comment or question. If she had asked, she would have found out that sigh was me switching gears. I don’t mean any disrespect and actually don’t even know I am doing it. When I first started my career, I had a manager tell me to take a deep breath before speaking. It would help me clear my mind and focus on the person’s words. It was great advice because I had a bad habit of speaking over people. Fast forward 20 years and that deep breath was considered rude to my manager, and her reaction led me to leave the company.

Miscommunication is often due to our assumptions. She assumed I was mad and annoyed with her for bothering me. Little did she know that my sigh was me focusing on her.

If you aren’t sure about a person’s communication style, just ask. It is a simple discussion – how would you describe your communication style? How do you prefer to communicate on various items? Or, in my sigh example, just politely ask if they are busy and have a few minutes to chat. If my manager had asked about the sigh, I would have gladly explained that it isn’t voluntary and had little to do with the interruption itself. Too often, we aren’t directly in asking simple questions for fear of being nosey. However, the answers may prevent miscommunications, which is more critical than being viewed as nosey.

Encourage Employees When Providing Constructive Feedback

Recall earlier when I said the work wasn’t done the way I wanted. My first reaction was to redo the work to my specification. That is by far the worse thing I could do for several reasons. Think about how you feel when a client dramatically dismisses your design by going around you and choosing a different item that doesn’t even match or function the way it should. That feeling stinks. Doing your employee’s work over leaves them wondering what they did wrong and feeling a range of negative emotions. Creative employees can be discouraged by harsh actions, whether verbal or implied through actions.

It is important to give constructive feedback. If we never give guidance or feedback, then an employee has no idea how to improve. Begin by praising the hard work and pointing out what you like about the project. Follow up with ways to improve the project. Make suggestions that will help the employee complete this project and be more prepared for future projects.

Check out: "The Biggest Secret to Employee Engagement is Consistent Feedback"

Don’t be quick to negatively dismiss the work because it didn’t meet your expectations. This creates resentment. Instead, open your mind to seeing a new view of the project. We must engage our employees and encourage their work. Ask good questions on why they chose the design or materials? Listen to their thought process and try to understand what the person is telling you. Although it may not be what you were thinking, it may, in fact, be a better design approach.

Identify & Improve your Business Processes

Earlier, we talked about expectations. Expectations need to be reinforced with the business processes. One expectation you may have is for employees to bring solutions and ideas based on a project’s programming documents. If that document isn’t easily accessible to every employee, how would they have the opportunity to read and respond?

Building processes throughout your firm will help employees meet your expectation.

Check out: “How to Improve Efficiency in your Interior Design Firm through Business Processes

If you build a system that supports the employees, you will improve your employees’ abilities to meet expectations. Business processes can go beyond just helping employees; they also provide guidance across the studio, improves efficiencies at each step, and minimizes bottlenecks. Your processes are essential to ensure expectations are met and that every project meets the firm’s quality standards.

Create a Safe Environment for Creativity

Taking risks is a big part of creativity. When we take risks, it often leads to amazingly creative design. Unfortunately, those risks can also mean mistakes. Honestly, these mistakes are our best learning tool.

Creative employees need a safe environment to be creative and to make those inevitable mistakes. As a leader, you can create an environment that rewards risk-taking. Start with sharing your own stories where you tried something risky, and it worked out. Many people are motivated by hearing success stories. This can be shared one-on-one with an employee.

During team meetings, use the question “explain something risky you did in design that turned out better than expected.” Go around the room and have each person shares a story. This encourages everyone to support one another and shows that risks are part of great design.

Employees often feel engaged when they are part of the solution. Try involving your employees in brainstorms. Not everyone needs to be involved in every brainstorming, but bringing others into the conversation may lead to creative ideas. Encourage ideas without negative feedback. I am incredibly practical, so it can inhibit my brainstorming ability which is horrible for creative moments. Try to set aside your practical business side by encouraging visibility to those who take a risk or make a great suggestion.

Over time, your employees will start to feel safe as they let their creativity flow.

Managing people is incredibly hard. I often compare it to parenting as you never quite know if your actions will positively impact the long term. Just like parenting, when we fail one day, we get back up and try better the next day. Following these tips will help you become a more supportive manager, and in return, your firm and its clients will benefit from more engaged and creative employees.

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