Being Influenced and Leveraging Influence

The myth of the lonesome creative genius has long been debunked. More and more, it is becoming clear that creativity and innovation are the products of social interaction in many ways. People are inherently social beings: we learn by observing and taking in things that we see, hear, read and feel around us. Upon closer inspection, even groundbreaking innovations and outbursts of creativity publicly attributed to a single individual turn out to be the product of a long journey of contemplation, experience and above all, knowledge amassed as a result of interaction with the world.

This article is part of the THNK VIEWS series. We bridge theory and practice on organizing imagination and innovation by extracting key implications and offering new insights to innovation practitioners. This article builds on Decentring the Creative Self: How Others Make Creativity Possible in Creative Professional Fields by Vlad Glaveanu and Todd Lubart.

According to Vlad Glaveanu and Todd Lubart, we have elevated “the individual creator, without regard for the social context in which creativity occurs.” In their paper, they examine the nature of such influences, looking at how the wide circle of family and friends, peers and students, clients and funders, critics and society-at-large form and influence creative professionals. They find that others play a key formative, regulatory, motivational, and informational role in nurturing creativity:

  • Family members, friends, and peers play a formative role in the development of creative individuals, and can be a trusted source to offer feedback and motivation.
  • Clients, funders, critics, and gatekeepers play a regulatory role, offering constrained creative freedom by setting boundaries, rules, and guiding creative expressions. They are also used to share, propose, and test ideas.
  • The general public and society-at-large influence creativity by shaping thinking processes; societal conventions are often internalized with profound influence on creative output.

While it is of importance to recognize the influence of “the other” in creative processes, we should also turn our attention to one less obvious aspect of this outside influence: each and every person comes with personal interest or particular group of interests (e.g., organizational interest or culturally shaped motivations), with potentially harmful effects to your creativity.


Consider family members. How many parents support a child’s decision to leave school or college to become a musician, painter or writer? Even after that, many parents will advise their children to pursue safe professions and careers. This is only natural: family and friends have a vested interest in your well being and might influence you against taking innovative, creative risk.  And their own views on what makes for a well-lived life might hamper your creative potential or direct it towards other paths.

Friends and peers

What about peers? Their own ambitions and envy might obstruct their ability to be of value to your creativity. Some might support what you say, wanting to take part in any potential success, while others might want to out-compete you. On a company level, this seems obvious: similar companies are not likely to share knowledge and information. But on an individual level, especially in the case of friendship, the lines tend to be much more blurred. Key is thus to create boundaries. Former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was famous for his “brain trust”, a close circle of trusted advisors to aid his decision-making. He did not just allow anyone to become part of this brain trust, selecting only highly trusted friends mostly from outside the political world, and therefore without self-interest.

Ever wonder how Toy Story came about? The idea of a brain trust caught on in creative industries as well, with many film studios now having their own creative brain trust. These trusts are highly exclusive; Pixar only allows five to seven people within the organization to join and give feedback on creative works. This way, they ensure that all those present have aligned interests in reaching a common goal and ensure that all each individual comes with a certain set of skills, background to have something to add.

Critics and gatekeepers

Critics can be paramount in either making or breaking you, but not in ways that you may think. Before you consider their advice from critics and outside reviewers, think about whether they are interested in telling a truthful story, want to gain access to a good story, or secure their own reputation – all of which may taint their appraisal or objections to your work. Perhaps they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Moreover, instead of trying to secure their endorsement, criticism is much more effective to improving your idea, product, or service.  As Steven Johnson puts it, “Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.”


In a similar vein, funders can be great attributes to the creative process, providing you with a sense of direction and setting boundaries. However, funders mainly want to secure a return on investment. Though this may appear to be aligned with your success, it need not be the case. Think about the way venture capitalists (VCs) manage their portfolios: one out of ten investments will become successful enough to generate the required high returns for the entire portfolio. The rest are quickly pruned. For this reason, investors prefer their portfolio companies to commit to their chosen business model instead of embarking on continuous experiment, adjustment, moving from failure to failure and never giving up. So the VC might influence you to stick to your direction and “put all the eggs in one basket.” They will cull you when this direction proves unsuccessful. You might have preferred keeping more options open, growing more slowly, with continuous experiment and constant changes in your product or business along the way.  It would have improved your performance on the long-term.

What is the key take-away? If we accept that creativity is greatly shaped by social interaction and environment, we need to also accept that some people may influence you for the worst. Hence, before accepting outside advice and feedback, first consider their vested interest. Conversely, also consider your own interests when influencing the creativity of others. Creativity and innovation is inherently risky business: there is no guarantee of success, ever, and often goes against the established grain. If anything, when considering outside input, be mindful of the vested interests of those around you, before you accept their words of advice —no matter how well-intended and good-natured their words are. Only then can you leverage advice and social influence to your true advantage.

By Menno van Dijk, Laurie Kemp

About the authors

Menno Van Dijk, Co-founder and Managing Director at THNK. School of Creative Leadership. Menno is a Former McKinsey Director, working in strategy, organizational design and operational improvement in Media, High Tech and Energy. Functional focus: growth, innovation, digital. Was leading McKinsey’s European Media practice for 7 years. Created NM Incite, McKinsey’s first ever co-branded JV with a third party, Nielsen. NM Incite helps businesses harness the full potential of social media intelligence to drive business performance and is active in 22 countries. Work experience in most European countries, US, Australia, South Africa, China and India. Has lived in Netherlands, Australia and South Africa.

Currently finalizing a MSc Environment and Resource Management (Energy Studies), Laurie Kemp attained a BA in Liberal Arts and Sciences at Amsterdam University College (AUC) in 2013. The broad nature of the program allowed her to delve into Social Systems from various perspectives: focusing on Law, Political Science and Economics. An avid idealist and globetrotter, Laurie is passionate about social and green innovation and bottom-up initiatives seeking to empower individuals and drive positive social change.

THNK‘s mission is twofold: we accelerate the development of creative leaders from across corporate, private, public, and social sectors and from all over the world. Together, we create innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing and inspiring challenges. Dubbed by Stanford University as “the future of higher education”, we stand for creativity, business model innovation, and entrepreneurship for social impact. While a ‘B-school’ professionalizes management and a ‘D-school’ does the same for product design, THNK is a ‘C-school’ that applies creativity for positive change at scale.

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