Progress-Focused Conversations and Inner Work Life

There has been a lot written about wellbeing for both educators and students in recent times. And, rightly so. The pandemic and associated extended lockdowns have prompted a focus on wellbeing and mental health. GCI leaders have already contributed to this in helpful ways.

This heightened focus on wellbeing led me back to a book I had read a little while ago - The Progress Principle (Amabile and Kramer, 2011). It is in this book that Amabile and Kramer introduced the term ‘Inner Work Life.’ They described this as the combination of perceptions, emotions, and motivations that contribute to how people think and feel about their work world. The book suggested that positive Inner Work Life is a beneficial thing associated with a range of organisational and personal benefits. But, perhaps even more significantly, the authors’ extensive research identified distinct practices that influential leaders do to contribute to the positive Inner Work Life of those with whom they work. Right at the top of the list of these effective practices was helping progress happen, hence the book title. The authors make this bold claim:

“...facilitating progress is the most effective way for managers to influence inner work life. Even when progress happens in small steps, a person’s sense of steady movement to an important goal can make all the difference between a great day and a terrible one” (Amabile & Kramer, p. 77).

They go on to elaborate upon two key factors that contribute to progress. The first is Catalyst Factors, which are actions or steps that help progress the project. These could include new ideas from a colleague, an additional resource, identifying a new next step, or a recommended app that might offer a more efficient way. Nourishment Factors are the second. These are actions that support the person. They include a range of interpersonal practices like listening, showing respect, providing encouragement, and other forms of interpersonal support.

The encouraging thing about the authors’ conclusions is how much these practices resonate with leaders using a coaching approach. At its heart, coaching is about movement and progress. Every coaching conversation, done well, will bring about at least tiny step movement and progress; frequently, it will be much more than that! It’s reassuring to have a growing amount of research evidence to support the many stories about how coaching often helps energise people, serving as a stimulator of positive Inner Work Life in formal and less formal settings.

Further, Catalyst Factors highlight the value of the search for resources and options and identifying clear next steps, which are also central to the GCI coaching approach. As Professor Tony Grant at the University of Sydney used to say, “If there ain’t actions—it ain’t coaching!”

A closer look at Nourishment Factors emphasises the importance of the Coaching Way of Being that surrounds good coaching interactions. Conversations in the context of a relationship built on trust and psychological safety will impact the willingness of people involved to explore new thinking and innovations. These are vital ingredients for making progress.

Whatever your current situation, it’s worth considering:

  • In what ways might you be more of a trigger for progress in your leadership context?
  • What Catalyst and Nourishment Factors might you be able to incorporate in your daily interactions?

Many of us are working in a more challenging working environment than we have ever experienced. So it’s good to know that when we use a coaching approach as our way of leading, we are going a good way towards nurturing the positive Inner Work Life of our colleagues and team members. That’s got to be good for all of us, especially right now.


Amabile, T., & Kramer, S. (2011). The progress principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Harvard Business Review Press.