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Research Shows That Creative Workers Are Motivated by Money and Social Guarantees More Than Artistry

Creative workers prioritize material needs over freedom of self-expression


In Brief

The situation: Culture, art and other creative fields are primarily a space for intangible values, not material products. This makes creative work unique—it is organized in its own way and comes with its own set of motivations.

In fact: Creators are also part of the job sector. Their work is increasingly oriented around commercial activities and in the pursuit of economic goals. As such, the organization of artists’ professional work and the motivations behind it are by no means unique. Rather, they straddle the line between ‘aesthetic’ and ‘market’ concerns.

In Detail

Sociologists Evgenia Balabanova of HSE University and Kristina Popkova of Online Market Intelligence (OMI) have researched how ‘aesthetic’ and ‘market’ factors influence the motivation to work in the creative sphere. Do these disparate factors conflict with or complement each other? Which factors motivate creativity and which lead to burnout? Do they require the freedom inherent to creativity, or are material concerns still the primary motivator? The sociologists answered these questions in research published in the journal Monitoring of Public Opinion: Economic and Social Change.

What’s it all about?

The researchers describe creative work as ‘a type of labour aimed at creating a unique artistic product.’ This definition closely aligns with the work of the late American sociologist Everett Hughes.

Creative workers are defined as ‘anyone who creates or interprets works of art and thereby participates in their recreation.’ This definition matches UNESCO recommendations from 1980 and a range of other Russian and international legal acts.

Such definitions are important, as there is neither a unified approach to defining the creative industries, nor a general acceptance of their uniqueness. In the words of the researchers, ‘This is being called into question in research literature. On one hand, it is accepted that creative workers have a professional identity. On the other, there is more and more dispute over their monopoly on creativity in the workplace, given that creative skills are now in-demand in a wide range of industries.’ 


Some consider art to be a unique field that must be managed and developed in its own way. Others believe that culture ‘is no longer a measure of values’, but rather an industry and a production process with a standard set of rules.

Evgenia Balabanova and Kristina Popkova take a third approach using the concept of institutional logic. This approach combines the study of external factors and the internal subtleties of creative professions to uncover working creatives’ real motivations.

How Was It Studied?

The researchers used data from 2019–2020 obtained in two stages: the ‘quality’ stage (in-depth interviews) and the ‘quantity’ stage (a large-scale online survey.) A total of 23 people working in the theatre and architecture-and-design industries in Moscow and Novosibirsk were interviewed, including actors, directors, artistic directors, architects and designers. The online survey was taken by 302 people working in the fields of theatre, architecture, design, film, television, publishing, music and art. The majority (59%) were residents of regional centres, with 41% from Moscow and St. Petersburg. 

The interviews allowed the researchers to learn more about the labour and management systems in art groups, as well as outline the issues creative workers face and the working conditions they consider essential. The mass survey allowed the researchers to arrange these factors in order of their influence on motivation.

What Did They Learn?

According to 76% of respondents, the most important working condition for creative professionals is the freedom to set their own goals. ‘Even when doing work for hire in organizations, creatives prioritize freedom of content over freedom of method or schedule’ the researchers note.

The second most important condition is the presence of like-minded people, as stated by 63% of respondents. This was valued much more than being able to set your own hours or not feel under scrutiny by your managers.

Freedom to set your own working hours was a firm requirement among only 23% of respondents, with even fewer (19%) requiring freedom from strict management.

‘What conditions are absolutely necessary for you in order to do creative work in the workplace? You can choose multiple answers’, %

The main problem, as cited by 19% of respondents, is a lack of resources to realize ideas. A similar number of people (17%) mentioned high competition for employment or finding clients.

The third most common issue was the need to compromise one’s own vision to meet consumers’ demands. At the same time, there were fewer complaints about creative restrictions imposed by clients, whether in the form of complaints, criticism, or insufficient funding.

‘This shows that most creative workers view a market-oriented approach as a natural system, without feeling strong pressure or conflict between aesthetic and economic concerns,’ the researchers explain.

The interviews revealed that in the creative world, there is a strong dependence on the subjective opinions of managers who ‘rule’ over employee selection and the assessment of their abilities and output. The surveys also revealed a ‘pay’ correlation: 32% of respondents said that their personal relations with their management influenced their pay.

A majority of 66–67% believe that their earnings are tied to the volume and end result of their work. Similar numbers of people considered their pay to be fair (65%) and sufficient (63%). At the same time, almost one in five respondents described their pay to be unfair and insufficient.

On a scale of one to five, 15% of people rated their pay satisfaction at ‘three’, while 34% rated it at ‘one’ or ‘two’. While not an insignificant amount, these figures are not out of line for Russia as a whole.

Overall, inadequate pay is the leading cause of job dissatisfaction among Russians. Among creative workers, social benefits come first, with 44% of respondents citing unhappiness with the employee benefits at their place of work. 

Dissatisfaction in their prospects for career growth was mentioned by 32% of respondents, while 27% were unhappy with the commercial returns of their projects, and the same amount were unhappy with the stability and reliability of their place of work. One in four people were dissatisfied with the lack of opportunities to influence others.

Only a small minority mentioned difficulties with colleagues and managers—4% said they were unhappy in this regard, while 85% reported having no issues. An employee’s team—more specifically, the collective work done by the team—is a factor that increases professional satisfaction. 

While artists may be seen as solitary by nature, data analysis shows that satisfaction is higher ‘when payment is based on the results of teamwork’, and lower if payment is based on personal achievements or personal relationships with management.

The correlation between salary and personal relationships with management can lead to non-standard employee practices such as working at weekends, working overtime, and taking on extra responsibilities. This is one form of so-called ‘extra-role’ behaviour, which reflects a strong motivation for work—72% of creative workers are prepared to take on extra workloads.

Another form is ‘employee input’—involvement in uncovering problems in a company and taking action to change existing practices. When there is a dependence on management that makes subjective criticism risky, serious reasons, ‘resources and self-assurance’ are needed. According to the survey, this is the case for less than half of people: 42% reported mentioning criticisms to management, and less than 50% mentioned arguing their position and defending their opinion.


Creative work often leads to excessive workloads that can be difficult to deal with. Almost one in five workers (23%) reported feeling physically and mentally exhausted at the end of the working day, and almost 30% are planning to change their workplace or become self-employed. A further 32% may be close to doing the same thing, having given a middling response of ‘three’ on a five-point scale.

When presented with the statement: ‘When I wake up in the morning, I want to go to work,’ 52% of respondents agreed and 25% disagreed—which means that one in four people shows signs of burnout.

The primary motivator behind plans to leave a job or project is not burnout, but rather ‘salary’ factors such as an imbalance between payment and the final product, and the ‘dissolution of individual input’ in the company’s overall performance. Other prominent factors include bad relations with clients, although criticism from clients has the opposite effect.

The researchers explain that criticism actually reduces burnout and the desire to leave the job, as ‘criticism is a natural and integral part of the creative process.’

Material concerns also influence employee involvement in professional activities. Such involvement is encouraged by perceived fairness in payment, and is reduced by conflicts with colleagues and—unexpectedly—the availability of professional training opportunities within a company.

‘Creative workers respond badly to “formal” training events, which are seen as producing extra workload without aiding in the development of genuinely useful skills and qualities,’ the researchers suggest.

Overall, the researchers conclude that the traditional image of creative work does not match reality, and it is not motivated by commonly accepted associations of creativity. ‘Work satisfaction, involvement, burnout, and the desire to change job were primarily influenced by material factors and perceptions of fairness. Self-fulfilment and autonomy were prominent in the interviews, but remained insignificant in the large-scale survey.’

Why Does It Matter?

The research marks the first Russian investigation into this topic. There is no ‘theoretical analysis with an empirical grounding’ in Russian research literature—the methods used are largely qualitative, and tend to examine not creative workers, but the consumers of their products.

The researchers from HSE University and OMI took the opposite approach: they combined various methodologies and directly examined the nature of artistic work to gain a more accurate understanding of it. It is significant to learn that artistic work is mainly motivated by the same factors as any other kind of work: comfortable conditions, social guarantees, and fair compensation based on effort and results.

Authors of the research:
Evgenia Balabanova, Professor of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Deputy Director of the Centre for Social Organization Research of Labour and Business at HSE University
Kristina Popkova, Project Manager at Online Market Intelligence (OMI)
Author: Svetlana Saltanova, August 13, 2021