Toxic Collaborators

by Billy Pittard on July 9, 2010

Creativity is a lot like gardening. Put the right elements into the right conditions and you should get healthy growth. Some components enhance or accelerate growth, but others retard growth or possibly even kill the plant. With creative collaboration, the main components are the people and their behaviors, and like the gardening example, some people and their behaviors stimulate creativity, but some are toxic. Effective creative collaboration is always about getting people in the right state of mind, so nurturing healthy growth and avoiding toxicity among the participants is key to making it work.

The participants of a creative collaboration include the creative team itself, the client (whether external or internal), and the executive and administrative infrastructure directly or indirectly involved in the project. Creative process is vulnerable to toxicity from any of those areas. Toxicity may be a disruption of a creative state-of-mind or a disruption of resources. Regardless of how or where the toxicity comes from, the result is diminished value of the final product, and diminished creative ability for future efforts.

Considering that manpower is the biggest cost of most creative projects, toxic collaborators are very costly in terms of lost value and lost efficiency. Oddly enough, some of the biggest perpetrators of creative toxicity are those who seem to be most concerned with costs.

It happens to all creative people sooner or later. We find ourselves working with certain individuals who are literally toxic to our creative efforts. We find our energy drained by dealing with all sorts of issues that have little or nothing to do with creating great work. Toxic collaborators suck the life out of the project. It can come from any direction: up, down, or sideways, but most frequently it comes from above. So what do you do?

It’s tempting to villainize the toxic collaborator (TC), but don’t let that consume your thoughts and energy. That kind of thinking will definitely diminish your creative effectiveness. I recommend that you take the attitude that you will be able to overcome any toxicity from any collaborator. To do otherwise is to give up too easily. If you assume you can overcome, you switch from being a victim to being a problem-solver. Problem-solver mode is a much healthier, happier place to be. You remain in control of yourself. This not to say that all toxic collaborators can be overcome, but optimism is a good first step toward overcoming the problem.

In some cases the TC may be your boss, your boss’s boss, or a client. In these cases, it’s imperative to try to understand the TC’s point-of-view. Assume that there must be some degree of validity to their perspective and actions. The ability to dig in and understand how another person sees things is an extremely valuable skill – especially when that point-of-view is quite different from your own. Just by trying, you may gain valuable new insights into the project or possibly the dynamics of human nature. Never lose hope that you will be able to understand the other person’s point-of-view, even if it turns out to be an ugly one.

There is also the possibility that you may learn that the TC is a person you need to get away from. If the TC is a client, the best solution may be to “fire” the client. If the TC is your boss, you may want to start looking for another job. For creative professionals, rarely is it worth the pain, suffering, and diminished creative performance caused by working in a toxic relationship.

If you think you might be a toxic collaborator yourself, consider the negative effects of your conduct. Ask yourself, “Is your conduct helping others be more creative, or is it holding them back?” If your success depends on the quality of the creative work, diminished productivity and a lower level of creative excellence is having a very real negative effect on your bottom line. You may not see it or be able to measure it, but it’s there. Also consider that it’s a small world and word gets around. The best creative people avoid working with anyone who has a reputation as a TC. Toxic behavior limits your future prospects for doing great work. It’s a reputation that can ruin a career or a business.

Seventeen examples of toxic collaborators

1. The Unprepared. Rather than do the work necessary to provide good direction, this person wings it, causing false starts and wasted effort. Typical thing this person might say: “I don’t know why. I just don’t like it. I’ll know the right solution when I see it.”

2. The King or Queen. Organizations frequently outgrow the abilities of the person responsible for starting the organization. If that person has a healthy ego, he or she will have no problem deferring judgment to others in the organization with more qualified expertise, but it’s common that the original leader cannot let go of their authority. As a result, the original leader becomes a limiting factor to the organization rather than a facilitator. This stymies the contributions and initiatives of the other people in the organization. The leader’s actions come more from a need to be King or Queen, than what is best for the goals at hand. This is toxic not only to the work, but to the organization. Typical thing this person might say: “Let’s have a meeting.”

3. The Dabbler. Dabbles in the work, but at such a distance that he or she doesn’t really understand the work well enough to make a positive contribution. Instead, he or she simply mucks up the process. Typical thing this person might say: “I want to review this before it goes out. I’ll be on vacation for the next three weeks.”

4. The Unbeliever. Seems to think that creativity has little or no value. Tends to come from people whose training and work is systematic such as accounting. Typical thing this person might say: “Exactly how will this contribute to the bottom line?”

5. The Screamer. This person thinks it’s okay to yell at people and use a lot of derogatory language. Typical thing this person might say: “You ____ing idiot!”

6. The Credit Taker. More concerned with personal accolades than doing the best work. Typical thing this person might say: “My Art Director finally listened to what I was saying.”

7. The Insecure. This person desperately wants to do great work and be respected for it. The problem is that his or her anxiety and insecurities drive everyone crazy. The work becomes more about their insecurities than the assignment. Typical thing this person might say: a lot of name-dropping of leaders in the field (people they’ve never met), and sometimes a lot of jargon as well.

8. The Naysayer. Puts a lot of energy into why things can’t be done rather than figuring how to get things done. Typical thing this person might say: “That won’t work.”

9. The Lying, Cheating, Thief. Creativity is fragile process. Dishonesty has a toxic effect on the process. “Hello,” he lied.

10.The Loudest Voice in the Room. Creative people are generally somewhat quiet and reserved. Loud people who don’t edit their thoughts before speaking subvert the creative dynamic. Great creative ideas can be inadvertently shot down by comments from this loudmouth.

11.The Lawyer. Corporate lawyers sometimes misinterpret their role in protecting brands and copyrights, and as a result, actively prevent appropriate creative use of these valuable assets. Brands and copyrighted materials should not be treated as static assets, but as dynamic tools for achieving business goals. Typical thing this person might say: “You’re not allowed to use our logo like that.”

12.The Unqualified Evaluator Who Denies His or Her Lack of Qualification. Like the King or Queen mentioned above, occasionally managers find themselves in positions of authority over creative work for which they are unqualified to evaluate. A manager with a healthy ego will have no problem deferring judgment to those who are more qualified, but others may exercise authority just because they can. The results are likely to be toxic.

13.The Micro-Manager. This person actively blocks creativity by trying to control every aspect of the work. Micro-managing may actually work for routine processes like manufacturing, but it’s toxic to creative work. Creativity is largely a mental process that requires study, reflection, and trial and error. It’s impractical to micro-manage those processes in another person. Goals and deadlines can and should be set, but leave the creative process up to the individual assigned to do the work. Typical thing this person might say: “I want to see and approve everything you are doing, and how you are doing it.”

14.The Second Guesser. This person has no confidence or guts to try anything new, and will always opt for the safest, most familiar solutions – which by definition is not creative. Typical thing this person might say: “This looks a little too out there to me. Let’s tone it down a bit.”

15.The Legacy Maker. This person has a need to always change the work, so that he or she can justify his or her involvement – regardless of whether the input affects the work positively. Typical thing this person might say: “If we change this, it might work.”

16.The Relative. In this situation, a creative team has been given an assignment, which they are proceeding with, when the boss or client surprises them with competing proposals from a family member. It happens more often than you might think. The assigned team is both disempowered and put in the very awkward position of possibly insulting the boss or the client with comments about their relative’s work. Typical thing this person might say: “My daughter is taking art classes at her high school and she had some ideas…”

17.The Charlatan. The Charlatan is a shameless user of people. Think of the wealthy bored housewife type who has a project, but no respect or empathy for the creative “help” hired to do the work. Typical thing this person might say: “I hate this. Let’s start all over.”

Help is available

Chances are you may have been subject to or the cause of one or more of these real-world situations. When you’re in the middle of this kind of situation, it can be difficult to maintain objectivity, but that’s your best strategy for success. A reliable way to get that objectivity is to ask for help from an outside expert. That’s one of my specialties – so call me.

Illegitimi non carborundum

If you’re a creative professional who feels victimized by toxic collaborators, let me help you change your approach so that you regain control of your situation, your state of mind, and your work. Life is too short to live and work that way.

If you’re a manager or a business owner who is concerned that you may be guilty of toxic collaboration, treatment is critical for the profitability of your business. If you happen to be one of the very few people from my past who has perpetrated any of these deeds upon me, I will charge you only a small premium for the extra insight I’ve already gained from studying your toxic behaviors. ;-)

Let me know about toxic collaborators you’ve encountered. Please share your comments on my blog, or contact me directly.

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