Much of your company’s success may depend on kernels of ideas that keep you on the cutting edge. In that sense, we’re all dependent to some degree on creative people, those individuals capable of coming up with the new formula, the new technology, or the new process that will change the game. 

But there’s a problem. It’s not a consistent problem and not one that is endemic to all creative people, but it is a problem. Creative people often possess certain attributes that can make leading them a bit difficult.  

Creative people sometimes operate most effectively on the outside of the collective. They often find themselves rejected by the group, and at times, they take the initiative and reject the group themselves. They may seem, at times, to be more entranced by their own thoughts than whatever problem the collective is trying to solve. Isn’t that the world of the creative geek?

There’s increasing evidence that a sense of social rejection actually fuels creativity, which makes things even harder for a leader trying to inculcate some sort of esprit de corps. Research by Sharon H. Kim of Johns Hopkins University, Lynne C. Vincent of Cornell University, and Jack A. Goncalo, also of Cornell, has recently found that the more that people feel excluded from a group, the more they may resort to creative endeavors. (This work is scheduled to be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology.)

This isn’t true for everyone. It does hold true, though, for those with a so-called "independent self-concept”--those who don’t need the group to feel whole and self-confident. The authors write that “for individuals with an independent self-concept, rejection will reinforce their desire to differentiate themselves from others, and that mind-set should, in turn, lead to more creative outcomes.”

So how do you lead strong, creative individuals who operate outside of the group while making sure that they don’t feel totally rejected? How do you make sure independent outsiders don’t become idiosyncratic rebels? In short, how do you lead the creative geeks?

There are three things to keep in mind:

  • Incorporate their creativity. Consciously reinforce the idea that creative geeks fit into a larger collective effort. Make it as clear as possible that their ideas are important in moving the agenda of the group. This brings creative geeks in while enhancing their self-worth and celebrating their creativity.
  • Engage them through dialogue. Ask creative geeks what they’re doing. Ask how you can be of assistance. Coach them, and partner with them as much as possible. 
  • Establish parameters. Within your company, you need to set boundaries for your most creative people. Though you want to give them enough space outside of the group, you also need to monitor them to make sure that their agenda does not spin out of control, putting the interests of the larger collective in jeopardy.

Leading creative outsiders is a balancing act. Feelings of rejection can stimulate creativity, but you need to make sure the creative geek feels like part of the group. In leading creative team members, make sure they have enough space to operate as outsiders, but give them enough opportunity to be part of the team. While these people may be independent and creative, and even may relish the role of outsider, they also look for social recognition and a sense of belonging.