Traits to Look for When Hiring for Creativity

Creativity in business drives innovation, sharpens your competitive edge, and much, much more.  Understanding this, you’ll naturally be inclined to hire some creatives to bolster your team’s success—but what traits should you look for in an applicant when selecting for creativity?  Contemporary literature has identified several such characteristics, so let’s explore the creative personality.

Alexis Ragan gives us a good introductory thought before we begin listing traits: “Creativity stands out, it doesn’t have a certain definition, and it just exists as is.”  Analyzing creative peoples’ behaviors and personalities helps us get a better idea of what creativity really is. This can be extremely useful with a somewhat abstract concept like creativity.

High Energy, High Focus

Ragan’s first characteristic is “Energetic.”  She writes that creative people “radiate a great deal of energy… [that] isn’t aimlessly expended.”  In other words, the energy of a creative is different from hyperactivity, in that it’s not a distraction or a sort of overload—it’s a motivator.

Kendra Cherry’s analysis of the creative character is rooted in this type of trait linkage, with her “10 Signs of a Creative Mind” populated by conjoined ideas.  Her first ‘sign’ incorporates Ragan’s qualification of creative energy as non-distractive: “Energetic and Focused.”

“They can spend hours working on a single task that holds their attention, yet seem to remain enthusiastic all the while,” writes Cherry, adding that this focus doesn’t apply only to creative or artistic activities either.

Dream Big, Dream Often

In the same thought, Cherry also describes the creative’s tendency to let their minds wander at rest, keeping themselves open to all manner of possibilities and ideas.  This dovetails with Ragan’s final point: creatives are dreamers.  “They dream in the day, in their minds constantly, in the evening, in the night and all over again the next day,” she writes.

Immediately, as a business owner or hiring manager, this might sound like sizable disadvantage—but remember, even while you don’t want employees ‘dreaming the day away,’ you want and need employees to develop unconventional and worthwhile ideas.  This how creatives can do that, and once they develop an idea worth pursuing, “[creative people] go for it full-heartedly, even if it did start out as a dream.”

Going with the Flow, Reading the Room

Then, there are flexibility and sensitivity.  “People with a strong sense of flexibility also feel more comfortable adapting to change,” whether that change is to an idea, a project, a new office initiative, or working with a new set of team members. 

Sensitivity is a gateway to empathy and approachability.  It can “increase their awareness of the issues around them, which sometimes can cause them to care even more about solving them.”  This is another attribute that, like heightened energy, could be problematic—but is in fact a boon to employers.

The sensitive creative may have stronger and more readily triggered emotions, yes; they’re also more attuned to the feelings of those around them, and “have an easier time building strong and trusting relationships.”  Even better, this sensitivity to others’ needs often extends beyond their coworkers to the customer.  “They want to ensure that the product solves customers’ needs effectively and creates a positive experience,” writes the Indeed editorial staff.

Creativity Critiqued

So far, we’ve generated a good short list of the characteristics of creativity.  But let’s be honest—not all hiring managers and decision-makers see creativity so positively.’s Jessica Stillman has a few cautionary thoughts based on a Norwegian college study that ring close to the ‘traditional’ apprehensions around creativity.

Essentially, Stillman gives us seven traits: three ‘positive’, two ‘neutral’ and two ‘negative.’  In the positive group she lists Associative Orientation, which includes a playful attitude, a “wealth of ideas,” and “sliding transitions between fact and fiction;” Motivation, under which is listed “stamina to tackle difficult issues;” and Flexibility.

More neutrally, we have “Need for originality”, or a “rebellious attitude because of a need to do things no one else does,” and Ambition, which would sound more positive if it weren’t for the qualifier that the person needs to “attract attention and recognition.”

Finally, in the less-desirable traits, Stillman includes “low emotional stability” and “low sociability.”  These bear some fairly uncharitable descriptions—the first includes “a tendency to experience negative emotions, greater fluctuations in moods and emotional state, failing self-confidence,” and the second “a tendency not to be very considerate, are obstinate and find faults and flaws in ideas and people.”

Consensus Contradicts the Critics

Now, while there might be a bit of excessive glowing in the initial lists we looked at, Stillman’s stamp of approval on BI Norwegian Business School’s determinations does seem to be something of an old-world, presumptive, needlessly harsh evaluation.  Let’s take a critical look at those last two points for a moment.

On the claim of low emotional stability: creatives “experience negative emotions?” Are we missing the word ‘more’ at the end of this sentence? That would at least make it less bizarre, if no less dubious. With the exception of greater fluctuations in mood—which makes sense for people whose emotions are less restricted and more in touch with the emotions of the people around them—we can comfortably throw “low emotional stability” out.

The same goes for low sociability.  We have direct counterindication on the “tendency to not be very considerate” and the idea that creatives “are obstinate,” in Cherry and other authors. It’s also probably worth mentioning that obstinance is frequently described as heroic persistence in entrepreneurs. Stillman gives no reason as to why a creative sticking to her guns on an idea is ‘worse’ than someone else.

To the final point that creatives “find faults and flaws in ideas and people,” a few responses:

  1. Maybe; divergent thinking reveals potential improvements that could be made, which can revolutionize a product or business.
  2. Whether or not this is true, there’s no evidence here that these flaws are thrown in the faces of coworkers, or otherwise used to create a problem.
  3. Is this implying that non-creative people do not find flaws in ideas and people?  Can any of us honestly say we’ve never had a personal flaw called out loudly and publicly, by a decidedly non-creative person?  And is there not something somewhat inherently bizarre about study author Øyvind L. Martinsen (and Stillman, in quoting him) that one of the flaws he finds in creative people is that they find flaws in people?
  4. On some fundamental level, if the desire is to limit wishy-washy ideation and weak-hearted creative wailing, wouldn’t one want ideas and people to be aggressively interrogated?  Isn’t this the creative deploying their skills for business results—using their open, flexible mind to ensure that only the best ideas move forward?
  5. Finally, expanding further on the previous point, the conflation of ideas and people is misleading. Finding a flaw in a person in the wrong way can be hurtful. Ideas don’t have feelings. They don’t have sensitivities, personalities, or rights. Finding flaws in an idea is a morally neutral behavior, always.

Being creative isn’t some type of ideal, or version of perfection.  It is, however, a set of traits that each business should see the value in cultivating.  It leads to empathy, divergent thought, flexibility, focus, and so much more.  While holdouts like Stillman might still insist on some hedging before the hire, rest easy knowing that the research is in: the characteristics of creativity are vital to your organization’s success.