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The Inner Game of Leadership

What it is and why it makes a difference

In 1974, Timothy Gallwey published the book “The Inner Game of Tennis” in which he anticipated the fundamental themes of the future psychology of sport. The author emphasizes the fact that the game of tennis consists of two parts: an exterior one that is played against the opponent, made of techniques and game strategies. The other is the one that you play within yourself.

The critical elements of this ‘inner game’ are insecurities, disempowering inner dialogues, and anxieties:  those mechanisms that are triggered automatically at critical moments and that can dramatically affect our performance. Of course, there is also an upside: this inner game, when mastered, can lead the athletes to transform the stress of competition into an amplifier of their technical strengths.

The same happens in companies.

The Inner Game and the Skills of a Leader

Those who play an executive role must certainly rely on their skills: first of all, the technical ones related to the role; then the so-called soft skills which have to do with the ability to be persuasive during a presentation, the ability to motivate self and others,  to organize one’s time effectively and efficiently, to negotiate and so on; finally, we add what are considered the skills necessary to deal with complexity: the ability to read the complex context and make decisions in states of uncertainty, the ability to learn quickly and adapt to changing contexts.

All these skills can be annihilated when we enter a state of excessive stress. Stress can be both chronic when it lasts for a prolonged period, but we can also be the victims of sudden reactions when certain situations touch our sensitive points. When the tension we experience exceeds a certain threshold, we are no longer lucid in making decisions,  even the most experienced presenter can find him/herself on stage in a state of mental confusion.

Team Dynamics and Inner Game

In the business environment, there is also a very important systemic dimension, starting with the Leadership Team. If we take the various models that describe how to make a team effective, we know that everything revolves around the ability to establish trust and authentic, transparent, open communication, to be able to directly address any problems and to redirect actions towards shared objectives.

However, if we look at what happens in many companies, we often find that these basic rules are not well followed. Very often we find that different departments do not communicate information correctly and do not cooperate as they should. Typically, this phenomenon is not due to people not knowing that it is important to circulate information: everyone knows the theory. Yet over time, communication barriers are created, underground power games are created, and trust is compromised. These extremely human dynamics are the result of what we call ‘the inner game’.

The inner game can therefore affect both the effectiveness of the individual and the effectiveness of the Team.

What is this Inner Game more concretely?

We can have a more immediate understanding if we consider the biological substrate of the Inner Game: our Autonomic Nervous System represents our apparatus of self-regulation and defense against threats. In the absence of threats, we are relaxed, our parasympathetic system has control of our body, digestion works well like all other vital functions and we are both able to access all our knowledge and skills, and to establish positive connections with others: the vagus nerve in fact also controls the muscles of facial expressiveness with which we create empathic and reassuring relationships.

When we feel threatened, the so-called state of “fight and flight” comes into play and things change drastically: for survival, our vital functions are no longer so fundamental (it’s not really important that we finish digesting or having amazing intercourse when a tiger is about to eat us); the mind and also the sight enter a state of extreme focus in which what matters is the danger from which we must defend ourselves; a great deal of information irrelevant to survival is cut off; dichotomous splits are created in our perception to speed up the decision: black or white, escape or attack, right or wrong; there is no time to evaluate nuances. Imagine if in these situations we can lose metabolic energy to use the hundreds of micro facial expressions; the muscles that come into play are the ones that allow us to mobilize quickly, the psoas contracts, and the heart accelerates the beat. In short, in these conditions, it becomes practically impossible to manage a negotiation well, deal with a problem with a colleague, a delegation process, or make a healthy decision for the company.

But where is the problem? The fact that we have these defense mechanisms is positive, it has helped us survive over millennia… why do we talk about Inner Game now? That is the point: our autonomic nervous system tends to react with this mode of fight and flight even to a whole series of small stimuli that we receive from the business environment around us, without any real-life or death threat.

Sometimes these are really stressful situations in which we may not risk our lives but we could risk our jobs. But often these events are not really so dangerous but, filtered by our experience, become great threats. There is nothing objective: what is irrelevant for one person can generate anxiety for another: a puppy approaches you wagging its tail but if you had trauma as a child because you were bitten by a dog, your nervous system will be triggered and create a state of alarm.

It is our personal experience that has taught our nervous system that some phrases, some looks, some attitudes, and some situations, are associated with danger. 

An everyday example of Inner Game

I had a hypercritical father who shook his head every time I proposed something; it didn’t make me feel understood and accepted. Today, as an adult, whenever a person doesn’t let me finish speaking and begins to dispute what I’m saying, my nervous system snaps as if that ancient wound reopened. Our neurological defense system, at that age, soon learns to recognize a state of danger as we are creatures dependent on the care of parents and we cannot risk losing their protection and love. This is why we develop a high sensitivity towards all those situations that can call into question our safety. It is like a mark that is imprinted in our nervous system, and throughout our lives we will tend to be hypervigilant towards those same signs of danger, even when, as adults, we certainly no longer risk anything.

The other day while I was trying to explain a project to my collaborators, one of them started to shake his head. I resisted the first time. He interrupted me a second time;  I tried to keep calm and explain a concept that he couldn’t have understood because, simply, he had not made me finish speaking; at the third interruption, however, trying not to show the annoyance, I responded in an altered state.

The External Game was very clear here: my colleague did not show listening skills, he posed himself incorrectly towards me by interrupting me and expressing judgments without having understood what I meant. I was right and he was wrong. There is little to add.

In the External Game, at that point, some simple communication skills come into play: it would be enough to propose to the collaborator to express and explain his disappointment to the point where the misunderstanding is revealed. We know in our heads that answering wall to wall does not solve the problem. We know all this well. We know how to win what Gallwey calls the Outer Game

The problem is that at that moment my response was automatically prompted by a state of defense.

The Autonomic Nervous System into play

My autonomic nervous system reacted by entering that ancient state of alarm as if the collaborator was that disqualifying father and I was that child. I don’t like to admit it even to myself. I prefer to think that the other person is really rude or that he does not know how to listen or that in the end, it is not even worth insisting. This shifts the focus to the outside; it justifies the state of nervousness and maybe even the conflict I am going to create. But instead of putting myself ahead in the ‘game’ with the other, it puts me at a distinct disadvantage.

I counterattacked by saying provocatively and in a tense voice: “How can you say ‘no’ even if you don’t know what I’m talking about?” I was right to say this. Certainly. And I also had the role to silence the other party. But what happens is that my reaction, in all probability, goes to touch the Inner Game of my colleague, who in turn feels interrupted, does not feel respected, understood, etc. Now his primordial defense system enters a state of defense. At that point, he crosses his arms and closes in on himself with a look of disapproval.

Playing that game serves no purpose except to lead us into a conflictual spiral at the end of which everyone will go away thinking that the other is wrong. In the end, we changed the subject and the project is still there that needs to be evaluated by the group. I am tempted to carry it out anyway because I believe in it and I do not want to waste time. If I do, I will not have his cooperation in the coming weeks and times when he is needed.

The Inner Game is where the real game of Leadership is played

Often the solutions we adopt try to act on the behavioral level: this or that technique of communication, persuasion, negotiation, etc. Yet when these deep mechanisms are activated, our ability to access our capabilities is deeply impaired.

The world described by Leadership theorists is all very fascinating. Let’s give each other feedbacks and grow together! Of course, until receiving feedback touches some egoic part that then wants to defend itself. For Feedback to be useful, you need to have a welcoming interior space. And in the company everybody knows when the boss is just unnerved by disrupting feedbacks, so why should they be honest?

It’s wonderful to promote kindness, empathy, and inclusiveness in our leadership role. Actually we are all capable of doing so… as long as other people do not hurt our nerves.

The same dog can be, for someone, a source of tenderness and playfulness, and for another person, a terrible threat. The dog is the same, cheerful, wagging its tail. Yet for the person who was bitten by a dog when he was little, a phobic reaction could be triggered. One solution he might adopt is to lock the dog in a cage. Another solution, however, is to make sure that his Autonomic Nervous System does not react in that way when faced with the sight of a dog. This second solution is the one that adds degrees of freedom and well-being to self – and even to the dog! The first way, on the contrary, just maintains the overall problem.

In short, real solutions lie in becoming aware of our inner games and disconnecting external events from automatic inner reactions. The inner game is the one in which the real game is played and can only represent the playing field for the Leaders who want to make a difference in the near future.