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Motivating Creative People – Peer Pressures

Photo by My Buffalo

The basic thing in my mind was that for all our success The Beatles were always a great little band. Nothing more, nothing less.
Paul McCartney

Creativity happens between people not, just between the ears. Whatever drives us as individuals, something magical and unpredictable happens when talented creative people get together. They spark off each other — and sparks come from friction.

Few people can have known the highs and lows of creative collaboration so intimately as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. They achieved fame as a unit, sporting identical suits and haircuts, and performing, in McCartney’s words, as “a great little band”. For a few years, their friendship and the euphoria of success were enough to paper over individual differences. But as time and fame took their toll, tensions mounted and tempers flared. The inevitable breakup was evidently a relief in some respects, is the individual members were free to pursue their own interests — but the consensus is that they never reach the same heights in their solo careers as they did in the years when they were known as The Beatles.

‘Peer pressure’ is normally a pejorative term, but I’m using the phrase ‘peer pressures’ here to signify the many different ways — positive and negative — that we influence each other. From this perspective, individual motivations are less important than interactions within a group, which I’m calling interpersonal motivations. I first came across this way of looking at human beings 10 years ago when I was working as part of a systemic family therapy team. As a psychotherapist I had been used to working with individuals and thinking in terms of their personal motivations for doing what they did. But the family therapists encourage me to look at the whole system of interactions between a couple or within a family, to ‘stay on the surface’ and notice how people are constantly influencing and responding to each other.

A more recent example of this way of looking at human beings is Mark Earls’ provocative book Herd:

Most of our behaviour is … the result of the influence of other people because we are a super social species. A herd animal, if you like.

More than most, artists and other creative types love to think of ourselves as unique individuals — but here are a few examples of peer pressures that affect our behaviour when engaged in creative work:


The first song John Lennon played on the guitar was Fats Domino’s ‘Ain’t That a Shame’. Little Richard was Paul McCartney’s hero. The Beatles started out as a skiffle group. Like all artists, they learned through imitation. Even at the height of their fame, they were still eager to learn from other musicians and traditions, including Western orchestral and traditional Indian music.

Mark Earls describes copying as a fundamental building block of human behaviour, a simple act that can result in complex and beautiful results. Like the Mexican wave, which is not planned or orchestrated, but simply results from standing up and waving your arms on cue from the people next to you. If you’re still not convinced that creatives are a bunch of copycats, ask yourself why so many of us are found in cafes wearing black T-shirts, typing on MacBooks and/or scribbling in Moleskine notebooks. When I visited the new Saatchi Gallery recently it was no surprise to see a higher than average incidence of beretss wake and goatees among the visitors.


Rebels need someone to rebel against. Earls points out that even when we swim against the tide and do the opposite of what others expect/want, we are still doing it because of other people. When The Beatles started out, rock ‘n’ roll was still seen in some quarters as a threat to society. From the outset they aligned themselves with rock ‘n’ roll rebels, and after the initial wave of Beatlemania they were increasingly happy to play the role of contrarians, with outspoken comments about drugs, religion and war. But they couldn’t have been so outrageous without people to outrage — and they were borne along by a wave of mass social change.


Necessity may be the mother of invention but sibling rivalry plays its part. Elvis, The Rolling Stones and The Beach boys were just some of the highest-profile competitors to The Beatles. And that’s before you consider the competition within the group, particularly the rivalry between Lennon and McCartney, as they spurred each other on to greater feats of songwriting and performance. The relationship famously turned nasty, but before that happened the creative tension between the two resulted in masterpieces that they could never have produced in isolation.

In ancient Greece laurel wreaths were awarded to victors of poetry competitions as well as athletic games. These days, the spirit of creative competition is alive and well in countless charts, prizes, awards ceremonies and squabbles over top billing at events. Advertising creatives are regularly castigated for being more interested in winning awards than selling clients’ products. And if you think that ‘pure’ artists are motivated by nobler impulses, then you should check out Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘An Afterwards’, where he condemns ambitious poets (including himself) to the ninth circle of hell, frozen together in the ice, gnawing through the backs of each other’s skulls in “a rabid egotistical daisy chain” as punishment for professional backbiting during their time on earth.


Competition can be intense without being cutthroat. And it doesn’t exclude collaboration. Most creative partnerships are founded on mutual respect and friendship, and a realisation that we can usually create something better together than we can manage on our own. It’s easy to isolate Lennon and McCartney as towering geniuses, and Ringo Starr has been the butt of a few cruel jokes about his relative musical abilities, but The Beatles wouldn’t have been The Beatles without George and Ringo. And the fact is that the supposed geniuses did their best work as part of a group.

I’ve written before that one of the best things about pursuing a creative career is the chance to work with other cool creative dudes. Whether you’re a jazz musician or a theoretical scientists, you can recognise the same excitement at putting an idea out there with colleagues and seeing it come back bigger, better and bolder. Talent attracts talent — we all want to work with the best in our business.


Beatles, Beats, Deadheads, Mods, Rockers, Romantics, New Romantics, Imagists, Surrealists, Modernists, Post-Modernists, the Rat Pack, the Brat Pack, Britpop, Young British Artists, bloggers, Wikipedians, the Twitterati. All of these names are badges of identity, of creative people associated with cultural movements and trends. Seth Godin would describe them as members of a tribe:

A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.
Seth Godin, Tribes

Just like everyone else, creators want to belong — even if it’s only to the tribe of outsiders. Look at the legions of Smiths fans. Become the leader of a tribe worth joining and you won’t have to worry about ‘motivating people’.


Commitments breed commitment. When you make a promise to another person, you have an investment in keeping it, otherwise you’ll lose face. It’s not the most ennobling form of motivation, but can be very effective. If you know that you’re liable to procrastinate, making a promise to someone else to deliver a piece of work by a certain date is a great way of setting a ‘motivational trap’ for yourself. Anthony Trollope did this very effectively when he paid his aged manservant awaken at 5.30 every morning with the coffee, so that he could start writing his novels before breakfast. Trollope evidently didn’t trust himself to get up every morning — but what was the master going to do in front of his servant? Ask for “five more minutes” in bed? Say it was “too cold” to get up? I don’t think so. Trollope new himself well enough to know that he valued his public image more than his personal comfort.


Creative work isn’t easy. Apart from the ‘perspiration’ side of things, it’s risky. Your brilliant idea might look pretty silly in the cold light of day. Your bold new design might be far too old for the client. People might laugh at your sculpture is all throw tomatoes at your symphony. If you’re part of a team then you have people around you to bounce ideas off. You give each other feedback and encouragement. You egg each other on.

I remember watching an interview with Paul McCartney talking about the process of writing ‘A Day in the Life’ with John Lennon. He said there was a moment when John first sang the line “I’d like to turn you on”, when the two of them looked at each other — evidently this was an outrageous thing to sing in 1967 — as if to say “are we sure we want to do this?”, before agreeing to keep it in.


If you’re doing anything remotely interesting or worthwhile, there will be days when you wonder why you bother. You’ll be misunderstood, blocked, let down or just ignored. These are the days when it makes a world of difference if there’s someone there to remind you how good you are, how important the work is, why it matters to keep going. Or simply to reassure you that it’s perfectly normal to feel as frustrated/angry/disappointed/bewildered as you do.

“On tour that year, it was crazy. Not within the band. In the band we were normal, and the rest of the world was crazy.”
George Harrison


It’s easy to be cynical about the idea of contribution. As we’ve seen, competition is rife in most creative fields and many creators have a well earned reputation for egomania. But part of the pleasure of collaboration comes from feeling that we have made a contribution to the team and help to make the whole bigger than the sum of its parts. Of course we all like to be personally credited or rewarded, but that doesn’t take away from the deep satisfaction that comes from contributing to and connecting with something larger than yourself.

It takes you back again to the times when we were this band, the Beatles band.

In that period, there was a lot of emotional turmoil going on, but, when you listen to the music, the music always surpassed any bullshit we were going through.
Ringo Starr in 2003, talking about the release of Let It Be… Naked


At the outset The Beatles took their share of flak for writing throwaway pop songs, but they matured into one of the most critically acclaimed bands of all time. Looking back, it seems inconceivable that they would have played it safe by churning out variations on ‘Love Me Do’ ad infinitum — but they had plenty of contemporaries (now forgotten) pursuing exactly that strategy.

No genuine artist panders to the critics, but most of them want to be recognised and respected by the people who matter to them — usually their fellow creators, sometimes respected critics or gatekeepers. People like John Peel, whose names are bywords for discerning judgement.

The comedy in Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant’s TV series Extras hinges on Andy Millman’s excruciating embarrassment at achieving wealth and fame at the expense of his artistic integrity. After years of struggle, Andy’s comedy programme is watched by millions and he’s got more money than he can sensibly spend, but he’s tortured by damning reviews and the jibes of fellow actors. Meeting his hero David Bowie turns into a nightmare when the Thin White Duke serenades him as a “Little fat man who sold his soul”. Starving artist or self-loathing sell-out? For many creators it would be a genuinely difficult choice.

Facilitating Interpersonal Motivation

I’ve said before that you can’t motivate anybody — only facilitate and amplify their existing motivation. This is particularly true of interpersonal motivations — you can order people about all you like, but the kind of interactions I’ve described don’t occur on command, but emerge spontaneously within a group. You can inspire and facilitate but you can’t impose.

In Tribes Seth Godin says that the two things that turn a group of people into a tribe are:

  • A shared interest
  • A way to communicate

And that therefore the most important two things a leader can do are:

  • transforming the shared interests into a passionate goal and desire for change;
  • providing tools to allow members to tighten their communications;

Here are a few ideas for doing this.

Turn common interests into common goals

Chances are your team have a lot of interests in common. Your job is to make the link between these interests and the organisation’s goals crystal clear. This is relatively easy in an organisation that has a clear sense of purpose, beyond just making money — the chances are that sense of purpose attracted people to work there in the first place. As we’ve seen, creative performance depends on intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations — ‘increasing shareholder value’ won’t cut it with creative types. But even if an inspirational purpose has not been explicitly spelt out, it may be possible for you to work with your team to discover or even create this sense of purpose.

You’re probably familiar with ‘tell and sell’ approach to goalsetting, which can work very well, especially when applied creatively. But don’t forget the value of asking questions and listening — it’s can be much more powerful to ask someone about their own interests and passions, and point out how these relate to team goals, then to give an impassioned speech based on your reasons for committing to the goal.

Tell a story

Stories are a great way to persuade without preaching. Independent minded creatives resist being told what to do — but we all love a good story. Stories that resonate with a tribe are often about ‘us and them’, revolution or changing the world. The Beatles told the story — in their songs, the concepts their interviews and their lifestyles — that resonated with the story of the 60s. A story about optimism, revolution and self-discovery. In the recent US election, Barack Obama told a story about change to an audience ready to hear it.

Creatives can be a tough crowd to please. For a story to appeal to them it needs to have:

  • Authenticity — it needs to resonate with their felt experience, not sound like something concocted to manipulate them.
  • Originality — they have built-in cliche detectors.
  • Passion — you need to feel it in your gut. They can tell if you don’t.
  • Space for improvisation — remember it’s a story, not a script.


What kind of environments are available to the team? How well do they facilitate the free flow of ideas and people? Are they chained to their desks or allowed to roam where they like to get the job done? How well does the physical setup facilitate casual discussions and chance encounters? Can people and groups find privacy when they need it?

Promote diversity

Creativity thrives on diversity, on novel combinations and intersections. This includes ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class and age — not for politically correct reasons but because they represent a range of experience and perspectives that are fertile ground for creativity. It also includes diversity of professions, personalities, education and interests, for the same reason.

How diverse as your team? It’s not necessarily a creative disaster if they’re all middle-class middle-aged white males who went to Harvard Business School and play golf at weekends — but they may well benefit from interactions and dialogue with people who are none of these things. When choosing new team members, ask yourself “What will they add to the creative diversity of this team?”.

Think about the team beyond the team

In the old days, the office walls drew a firm line between your team or company and the rest of the world. These days the walls are becoming transparent, even permeable. Blogs and other forms of social media are opening up the conversation with the wider world. Banning Facebook is one response. Another is to take the opportunity to engage with your customers, colleagues, competitors — and people who have nothing (obvious) in common with you and your team’s work. Get your voices out there and listen to the response.

Have a look at my list of top 10 Social Networks For Creative People and ask yourself whether you and your team could benefit from a presence on some of them. To see what leading bloggers are saying in a wide range of subjects, visit Alltop.com and browse through the different subject categories.

Provide communication tools

Seth Godin suggests providing tools “to allow members to tighten their communications” — but sometimes you don’t need to do the providing, just notice what they’re already using and give permission or resources to amplify its. Or you could offer an invite suggestions for bringing in new communication tools. Blogs and wikis are obvious examples, but it doesn’t need to be elaborate. A Facebook group, Delicious or Twitter account, or good old-fashioned e-mail or whiteboards could give you all you need.

Use feedback loops

Some sales teams promote competition by displaying public sales totals for every team member. Some creative departments have a monthly feedback session where everyone has to present their work for critique by their peers. Seth MacFarlane puts together Family Guy scripts with a team of writers around a table covered in “soft drink cans, candy wrappers, half finished bags of beef jerky”. Executive Producer David Goodman highlights the critical feedback loop:

if the writers in that room don’t laugh — it’s not going on … That’s a tough room. If we laugh, it’s probably funny.
Fast Company feature, November 2008

The kind of feedback loop you use will depend on your goals, criteria for success and team culture. Whether you go for explicit and formal (public sales totals) or implicit and informal (laughter) is not as important as knowing what you’re looking for — and what the team responds to.


There’s nothing wrong with a bit of creative friction, but if things get personally vindictive and conflicts threaten team goals then you’ll need to intervene. Principles for effective mediation include: 1. Point out how the conflict is having a damaging effect on each party’s personal goals; 2. Find out what each party wants from the other — in terms of specific, concrete actions; 3. Shift the conversation away from accusations and justifications about the past and towards requests and commitments for the future.

How Do Interpersonal Motivations Affect You?

Which forms of interpersonal motivation have affected you the most?

How much influence can a manager realistically have over interpersonal motivations?

Any other tips for facilitating interpersonal motivation?

Would you like your team to be more motivated and creative?

And if you’d like some help motivating your team to produce stellar work, ask me about running my popular motivation training workshop How to Motivate Creative People (Including Yourself) for your organisation.


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