When a Highly Creative Worker Tends Toward Neuroticism

By understanding these employees, managers can better channel their gifts and energy

By Susan Milligan Jul 9, 2015
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It’s likely that many companies want to hire highly creative people. They tend to be productive, energetic, imaginative and pioneering.

But many studies have linked the highly creative personality with neuroticism, which begs the question: Does any organization really want to take on a neurotic employee?

Sure, say some management and personality experts. It’s just a matter of knowing how to channel a so-called neurotic’s energies.

A study by researchers in Singapore and Taiwan found that people defined as “intrinsically neurotic” tended to come up with more creative solutions to problems after they recalled a worrisome event. And a second study, out of the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, found that so-called neurotics work well from home, despite some employers’ preconceptions that such workers would simply be too anxious to function alone.

But they work well from home because “they’re very self-motivated,” said Greg Barnett, vice president of research and development of PI Worldwide, a consulting group that assesses workforce behavior and skills. Such employees, he said, don’t need the boss hovering behind them to ensure they finish their work.

The clinical description of neuroticism, as defined by the American Psychological Association, is someone who experiences “subjective distress” but does not display grossly irrational thinking or have any brain abnormalities. But the word “neurotic” has a negative connotation, noted Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London and CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems. (The term notably has been dropped from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.) Chamorro-Premuzic prefers the terms “emotionally sensitive” or “emotionally reactive.”

Such employees, Barnett said, are hard on themselves, tend to take things personally, withdraw when things get intense and can have trouble dealing with other workers—especially those who don’t share their same perception of stress. They also, said Chamorro-Premuzic, tend to be melancholy and overreactive to negative feedback.

On the upside, Barnett said, emotionally sensitive employees are generally very creative and “have a lot of internal motivation to remove the stress and anxiety. The reality is they can never actually remove [the stress], but they keep trying”—meaning they keep working at something to perfect it.

Unlike other employees, highly creative people who are also emotionally sensitive tend to blame themselves if a project goes poorly, said Molly Owens, CEO of Truity, a California-based provider of online personality and career assessments. “They’re thinking, ‘I’m going to get fired if I don’t finish this project.’ That pushes them to finish the work,” she said. As painful as that may be for the individual, it can produce amazing results, she noted. Great artists such as Vincent van Gogh, for example, were propelled by the worry that their lives would not mean anything, Owens observed.

The trick, said management consultant Scott Abbott, a partner at the Indianapolis-based firm Covinia, is to see so-called neurotic workers as a part of the workplace mix. “The big issue is to channel that energy and put that creativity to work.”

Chamorro-Premuzic suggested the following:

  • Avoid putting such workers in high-pressure or high-stress situations, since “they work better if they have a relaxed, longer deadline.”
  • Recognize that highly creative individuals can’t abide boredom, and have a much higher tolerance for ambiguity.
  • Treat them well, leave them alone and make them feel important. Highly creative people like to experiment, and they may fail, but ultimately, they will produce great work if they are not overpressured, he said. Imagine managing erratic, unpredictable “Mad Men” advertising creative Don Draper. The firm where he worked gave him space to create, so he never left for a bigger competitor, Chamorro-Premuzic noted.
  • Recognize that highly creative people aren’t typically motivated by money. They’re motivated by producing creative work and avoiding poor feedback.

Highly creative people who tend toward neuroticism usually aren’t well-suited to leading other employees, experts agree. “They tend to not make the greatest managers because they get overly concerned with their own challenges,” Barnett said. At their worst, neurotic managers “let their stress trickle down to their employees,” Owens added.

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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