Two Selves: A Metaphor for Micromanaging

Tim Gallwey is an author and long time tennis coach. He originally wrote The Inner Game of Tennis in the 1970s and has produced several edits of this classic in more recent years. His ideas merge the fields of sport psychology and learning. In his early days of coaching, Gallwey noticed that individuals were talking to themselves as they played and learned. Some would do it using their outside voice but even those that were quiet were talking internally to themselves. They may be encouraging themselves to apply a particular technique. They may be excoriating themselves for having made a mistake. They may be talking about what they need to do to make the next point. What was being said varied widely, but that something was being said was universal. Gallwey began to ask himself who are we talking to when we talk to ourselves? In The Inner Game of Tennis, Gallwey writes, “One day I asked myself an important question—Who was talking to whom? Who was scolding and who being scolded? ‘I’m talking to myself,’ say most people. But just who is this ‘I’ and who the ‘myself’?”

Gallwey began to believe that inside each of us are two selves. “One, the ‘I,’ seems to give instructions; the other, ‘myself,’ seems to perform the action. Then ‘I’ returns with an evaluation of the action.” Gallwey coined these two selves: Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1 can be thought of as the thinker and Self 2 as the doer. Self 1 is also considered the ego mind while Self 2 represents our natural abilities. At the heart of Gallwey’s approach was a belief that our ability to perform is largely tied to the quality of relationship between our two inner selves. Gallwey believed that we had an inherent natural ability to learn which we can inhibit through our thoughts.

For example, when a baby begins to try to convert from a crawl to a walk, she isn’t being taught. Her parents haven’t signed her up for a learn to walk class. Neither, yet, has her inner coach or critic yet evolved. Her Self 1 has yet to develop. It is just her Self 2 that fuels her forward. Something within compels her, whether it is curiosity or a yearning to move more. Something pulls her to try to explore her surroundings. As she tries, she stumbles. At first she can barely pull herself upright. She seeks to balance against something using her hands. Her legs wobble as they seek to hold her up. Slowly the first step is taken. A fall here and a fall there before she gets anywhere. Then, bit by bit, she’s able to move fluidly. She becomes able to make a complicated coordinated physical movement easily on her own in time. All of this effort from the start through to success follows from no intrusion, no direction, and no judgement. Her body knows what to do and figures it out “naturally.” Learning to walk is our Self 2 in action. It is trusted to figure out how to complete the task.

Even if mom and dad are watching their daughter explore, when she struggles they may offer support and encouragement. Even if they try to provide guidance, their daughter doesn’t understand it. She may sense kindness in their tone. She doesn’t grasp any direction. If you’ve been a parent, how did you react as your children learned to walk? Did you try to offer direction? Did you sit your child down to watch videos or attend classes on how to walk? Did you criticize them when they struggled? Did you tell them to get it together or try harder? Or did you let them explore with confidence that they would figure it out on their own? Did you trust that they had it within them and they just needed to let nature take its time to teach? As parents, we act as Self 1 in this example. We best help Self 2 by staying out of the way. We don’t want to overload with instruction. Nor do we want to increase the anxiety by applying pressure or judgement. We clear the path and get out of the way. We ensure there’s a safe environment in which to experiment. We leave the child to figure it out.

Our babies have the “luxury” of not having their Self 1 developed. As such, it can’t get in the way of their attempts to explore. Their Self 2 is free to explore and learn. As our brains develop, so, too, does our thinking. Our conscious engagement with our surroundings expands as our Self 1 gets into the game. Gallwey observed that Self 1 represented our conscious attention and typically undertook one of two actions: Judging or Observing. The typical approach of Self 1 for most of us involves Judging which is an evaluation of good or bad. This inserts ego. Self 1 assigns a value to an event. If the event is considered bad, then negative emotions result. This typically leads to increased tension, a desire to try harder, and self-condemnation. Self 1 imposes additional burdens and interference over Self 2. Self 1, effectively, doesn’t trust Self 2 to get the job done. As a result, it tries to impose itself upon Self 2. This creates a battle not a supportive relationship. Gallwey writes, “It is Self 1’s mistrust of Self 2 which causes both the interference called ‘trying too hard’ and that of too much self-instruction.” Instead of judging, those that were able to use their Self 1 to simply observe reduced obstacles to learning. When observing, Self 1 isn’t telling Self 2 what to do. Instead, Self 1 is communicating neutral, factual information about the environment and actions. It observes and relays information. Self 2 is free to accept the information and act accordingly. The best way for Self 1 to help Self 2 is to trust it. Where Self 1 can trust, its overbearing presence can be removed, and Self 2 left to do what it knows what to do. Self 1’s goal becomes to help Self 2 observe things neutrally.

If we think about a physical skill we’ve learned in the past, how did you talk to yourself as you were learning? Perhaps, you started by trying to repeat an instruction to yourself that you have received. If playing tennis, maybe you told yourself to take the racket back and swing through the ball. If things weren’t going well, what did you then do? Did the tone of your self talk change? Did you start to tell yourself other things like, come on, concentrate, try harder? Did you begin to tighten the grip on your racket? Did you start grunting like Rafael Nadal thinking that may help? Did you begin to get critical with your self-talk? “What’s the matter with you, this isn’t that hard, why can’t you get it right?” What would your efforts have looked like from the outside? Were they smooth, flowing, and controlled or tense, tight, and restricted? Where we struggle, our Self 1 tries to become more involved. It tries to influence things as it doesn’t trust our Self 2 to learn and perform. Contrast this with how we perform when we have a bit more skill and confidence in ourselves. How do we talk to ourselves when we nail a physical skill? We don’t even recall what we’re thinking. We almost cease to exist. Our self blends with the activity. Our Self 1 is sitting down taking a backseat to letting Self 2 do its thing. We’re getting out of our own way and letting Self 2 play. We think of ourselves as playing out of our minds. It’s like I wasn’t even there we think. Our performance looks effortless. When at our best, we’re exhibiting what Marcus Aurelius observed over 2,000 years ago, “The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.”

The dynamic between our personal Self 1 and Self 2 offers a great metaphor through which to consider the concepts of micromanaging and autonomy related to work environments. Micromanaging reflects a relationship where Self 1 is trying to control Self 2. Self 1, or the manager, has a mistrust of Self 2, its staff. As a result, Self 1 tries to control its influence over Self 2. These relationships are characterized by criticism and over direction. Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton ask in Anxiety at Work, “How often do we, as leaders, start to micromanage when things get tense?” When struggle is seen, for many managers the instinct isn’t to lean back and trust that staff are equipped with knowledge of what to do. Instead, it’s to try to pull on the puppet strings seeking to orchestrate activity with increased direction. Micromanagers badger and berate where performance isn’t seen as great. Where Self 1 is worried about judgment, it is easily stressed when it sees a disconnect between action and outcome. The outcome orientation turns situations into pressure and urgency heightening its desire to dig in and take charge. Self 2 isn’t free to do. It loses faith in itself and lives down to the expectations of Self 1. The micromanaged give up thinking and contributing. They succumb to what tennis coach Nick Bollettieri refers to as “the centipede effect.” A centipede is naturally able to move by somehow coordinating its 100 legs. If micromanaged and yelled at with direction to move each leg independently it would quickly become unable to process everything and either freeze or trip over each pair of legs. Over-direction gets in the way and pulls our attention away from constructive action.

This is the opposite of a relationship based on respect and trust where autonomy naturally flows. Gallwey writes, “If you observe Self 1, in its critical posture, it looks down at Self 2 and diminishes it (in its own eyes) with its disparaging thoughts. The other possibility is to learn to look up to Self 2. This is the attitude of respect based on true recognition of its natural intelligence and capabilities.” Gallwey notes, “With an attitude of respect, you learn to speak in the language of the respected person.” Successful managers work not to judge but to observe. They offer information not judgement. If managers instead of increasing control demonstrate confidence in their staff, staff may be able to bring greater attention and insight from their perspective. Managers can express confidence in their team by steering their attention to key issues and encouraging them to apply their skills. Instead of judging, trusting managers focus on observing. Managers can guide by asking questions as opposed to imposing directives. What’s going on over here? Is there something we could consider trying? What would happen if we did X? Staff that feel trusted and free to provide input will have their engagement and commitment enhanced. Staff with management’s help can increase awareness of relevant information which will allow them to improve their ability to execute.

Gallwey’s concept of the two selves applied to learning offers a useful lens through which to view our role as leaders. Lead by observing instead of judging. Focus on clearing the path and guiding attention so that your team can take care of what you’ve hired them to do. Leaders transcend management by saying, as Greg McKeown writes in Effortless, “When you can say these four little words, ‘I trust your judgement’—and mean them—it’s like magic. Team members feel empowered. They take a risk. They grow. Trust is strengthened. And then it tends to spread.” To help others perform at their best, express your trust in them.