The Ethics of Coaching
Most professional organizations have a code of ethics or conduct that guides members of the profession. The American Psychological Association is an excellent example; the APA publishes ethical principles and a code of conduct that guide its members on appropriate and inappropriate behavior. No professional association exists for executive coaches that I am aware of, and I have never seen a document delineating core values or ethical standards related to coaching. In this blog, I will offer my personal views about the core values and ethics of coaching. In a future blog, I will identify and discuss specific ethical conflicts that often occur in the coaching process.
I will identify three core values.
In my opinion, the most important core value of executive coaching is trust. The trust that exists between a coach and a coachee is the basis for effective coaching. For the coach, trust is demonstrated by maintaining strict confidence, a shared value in being open and honest, and a willingness to give feedback aimed at helping the coachee to succeed. From the coachee’s perspective, the willingness to be vulnerable and open with the coach is paramount.
From the beginning of a coaching engagement, a coach needs to explain the purpose of coaching and how he or she will engage the coachee in dialogue. The coach also needs to pledge confidentiality and offer examples of what this means. Without confidentiality, there will be no trust. The confidence that a coachee needs in order to be open and honest with a coach is directly related to the belief that what is said in a coaching session remains confidential between coach and coachee. I am aware that many coachees are sponsored by their CEO or board of directors, and there may be pressure for a coach to reveal specifics about the coachee. Any pressure to share confidential information needs to be denied. In my coaching practice, I make it known upfront to both the sponsor and the coachee that I will not share information that is discussed in a coaching relationship. Because this has been explained beforehand, confidentiality has never been a problem.
Maintaining confidentiality in coaching does not mean that sponsors of coaching do not get feedback. I encourage sponsors to observe and share any changes with the coachee and coach. I will also meet with sponsors to review what I see as changes and seek specific examples from sponsors about their observations. In other words, by staying focused on tangible results, the coach is able to review progress and provide the sponsor with information without breaching confidentiality
Two related core values that I will address are best discussed early in the coaching engagement. They are transparency on how the coaching model works, and unwavering support for the coachee in his or her quest for success.
Transparency means there should be no secrets between the coach and coachee. A coach will ask many questions and create tension in the coachee. It should be apparent to the coachee as to why he or she feels tension and how the tension relates to progress in coaching. A coachee also needs to know that probing questions are part of finding what truly matters to the coachee. Otherwise, this type of questioning can lead to suspicion and resistance. Transparency will also reinforce trust; it promotes the openness and candor that are essential to an effective coaching relationship.
The third core value is unwavering support for the coachee’s quest for success. The purpose of coaching is to help the coachee to succeed. There is no other purpose. A coachee needs to feel his or her coach is not just supportive but is an advocate for change that will help the coachee to be successful. In my coaching practice, leveraging strengths is central to the coaching process. This helps make change a positive, reinforcing experience, which, in turn, enhances the positive relationship between the coach and coachee. Success in altering behavior supports both coach and coachee.
I have only scratched the surface about the core values and ethics of coaching. If I have offered some clarity, I have accomplished my mission. When the coaching profession publishes ethical standards that guide coaching behavior, everyone involved in coaching–the coach, coachee, and sponsors of coaching–will benefit.