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The inner game of work – creating an engagement culture

Timothy Gallwey, regarded by many as the father of coaching, wrote The Inner Game of Tennis in 1974.  He later demonstrated how the same fundamentals apply to getting the best out of people at work, publishing The Inner Game of Work in 2000.

Gallwey’s central tenet is that we consist of two parts, Self 1 and Self 2

Self 1 is conscious, rational and thinking. Self 2 is our unconscious, intuitive self that largely works on autopilot.

Interestingly, since 1974 many of his findings have been backed up by neuroscience.  Self 1 can be equated to the logical brain (pre-frontal cortex), and Self 2 to the emotional brain (limbic system).

The pre-frontal cortex is the newest part of our brain, representing just 4% of its total mass. It gives us our rational abilities but is limited in processing capability, is very energy hungry and shuts down under stress. Neuroscientists use the analogy that if our logical brain represents our pocket-change, the limbic system represents the global economy!  In short, our limbic system stores our total life experience.

Gallwey says that what gets in the way of top performance is our (logical) Self 1’s critical and judgemental chatter. In tennis, or any other sport, if we hit a bad shot, we reprimand ourselves, instructing ourselves what we should have done differently.  Others are also very keen to give us corrective advice. Gallwey says this is like a pocket calculator giving instructions to a super computer!

I’d no longer see a ball, but a threat flying through the air.

I remember my grandfather teaching me cricket as a little boy. Every time I missed he’d tell me: keep your eye on the ball. I’d be so concerned about following his instructions, and pressurised to do well that I’d end up missing even more shots. I’d no longer see a ball, but a threat flying through the air. From a young age I’d defined myself as no good at cricket. This cycle was perpetuated through school – I was always last to get chosen for the cricket team, and this identity was now firmly in place.

Avoid threatening questions

Far better to ask non-judgemental, descriptive questions. For instance, when teaching tennis Gallwey suggests asking questions such as which direction is the ball spinning as it approaches youIs it rising or falling on contact with the racket?

Such questions create an awareness of the ball and its movement.  As the student becomes absorbed in noticing the flight of the ball, Self 1 is distracted from trying to control the shot, and Self 2 is left to learn how to play the shot free from interference. Invariably learning happens much faster and more naturally when threat and judgement are removed.

Gallwey summarises this in the formula: Performance = Potential – Interference (threat and judgement).

The impact of interference can be seen in the Stroop effect. Say the following colours aloud row by row:

Say the following colours aloud row by row

Easy! Now say the colour of the ink of each of the words below:

Say the colour of the ink of each of the words below:

Very confusing – we have to focus on suppressing our desire to read the word. This invokes the inhibition circuitry of our logical brain, which slows the whole process down, making it jerky, unnatural and hard work.

This is similar to what happens to our performance either on the sports field or at work when we are over-instructed, rather than allowed to learn for ourselves.

The default way to manage others in the workplace is by giving instructions and corrective advice. Hopefully it will now be apparent that coaching by asking non-judgemental questions might be a better way to achieve long-term change and improved performance in both yourself and those you manage.

Allowing others to find out for themselves, rather than telling them, not only creates enduring change, but also a more engaged, learning culture.

If you want to

  • Reduce blame and fear in the workplace to create a fertile environment that encourages best efforts, creative thinking and problem solving
  • Generate confidence and self belief in your workforce; instilling a desire to succeed and push boundaries
  • Coach your people and hold them accountable to deliver the goods
  • Give others ownership for their results, allowing them to learn from their own mistakes
  • Demand people’s best efforts – and celebrate their success


Use our sophisticated technology to identify traits that differentiate high performers from average. Coach individuals in the behaviours that are more productive.

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