Welcome to our new economy cabin: what new technology and a changing market for coaching will mean for the ethics of the profession
Andreas Kleinschmidt with Mary Watts
What is good coaching? What is ethical coaching? Is unethical coaching good coaching, when it is effective?
These questions will have to be asked and answered by every generation of coaches, and by every coach, again and again, as he or she grows. Some of the answers have found their way into ethics codes, of which there are many and more to be written. Their mam points tend to overlap, in practice they often only offer limits and some guidance, but they can never replace a set of personal values.
This chapter will take a look at some of the thorniest ethical issues and dilemmas emerging for coaches today. It will take a look at the answers given by practitioners and coaching organizations. And it will look into the future: trying to predict which ethical questions will start to cause us headaches in the years to come. If you are looking for simple answers to ethical problems in coaching, presto, here are three dos and three don’ts, based on highly unrepresentative interviews with practitioners:
Respect your client.
Help your client.
Keep your client’s secrets
Don t harm your client.
Don 1 lie to your client.
Don’t sleep with your client (even if both of you
were to consider it a gesture of respect).
If you are ok with easy answers, you can stop reading now and use the time for some coaching or to find new clients. If you are keen to explore your own answers to current and future issues and dilemmas around ethics in coaching - as we would hope - the rest of this chapter is for you.
What will be the big topics tomorrow?
There are three megatrends in the coaching industry, which will change its shape and size in the next five years and which will throw new, painful ethical questions at us. The trends are: Digitalization. Democratization. Professionalization.
Digitalization: Machine Learning (often called Artificial Intelligence, or Al) is beginning to support coaches, and it will take over some aspects of coaching completely, especially in the area of skills coaching. Already, at the time of writing, you could use an app that helps you speak a bit more like Obama, for instance. This will mean better, measurable objectives for some coaching assignments. And it will bring cheaper coaching to more people. But it raises big questions in terms of accountability. If your coaching app were to lead you to bad business decisions, who is to blame? The self-learning algorithm? How will the algorithm deal with conflicts of interest? How comfortable will we be with its coaching if it were a black box, like many Machine Learning Applications are? Are human coaches not black boxes?
Democratization: Coaching has been a wildly successfill industry over the last ten years, with lucrative growth rates. While growth rates will shrink gradually, growth as such is here to stay for years to come. We can expect coaching to become more widely accepted - and available to individuals lower down the corporate food chains. This is helped by three trends: the first we already know, cheaper, scalable, coaching through use of digital tools, partly dr awing on Machine Learning. Second, the transformation of management styles toward flatter hierarchies and networks of teams. Third, the growing number of coaches on the market: “it is estimated by the International Coaching Federation that there were 71,000 coach practitioners, worldwide, in 2019, up from 47.500 part time and full time coaches in 2011.” (LaRosa https://blog.marketresearch.com/us-personal-coaching-industry-tops-l-billion-and-growing; https://coachingfederation.org/app/uploads/2020/09/ FINAL_ICF_GCS2020_ExecutiveSurnmary.pdf, pg 8; 20 February 2019).
Extrapolating cunent market trends, more work for coaches will also mean more coaches entering the market. If we assume the quality of coaches, whichever way we want to measure their quality, is a normal distribution, then more coaches in absolute numbers means, in absolute numbers, more underwhelming, worse than average coaches on the market. By which standards will we measure the quality of a larger coaching industry' in the future? Who will have the power to define the standards? And how will we hold accountable those who tram coaches for this gr owing market?
Industrialization of coaching: the ugly twin of democratization. Today, coaching lives a profitable existence in the cracks between professions: psychotherapy to the left, counselling to the right, consulting not far away, training a friendly neighbour, sharing the front lawn. And since we are talking about changing behaviour and mindset we cannot ignore the potential overlap with education, religion, cults, and sects for example. As the industry grows it will have to answer calls for it to define itself more clearly: Which distinct skills does a coach need? Which type of training and education is necessaiy? How will the profession police itself? What empirical proof is there for its claims to being effective (lordanou et al. 2016; Athanasopoulou & Dopson 2015)2? Answers to these questions will likely raise barriers to entry. We will see the rise of larger players which are able to invest into technology, including supporting Machine Learning applications.
Coaching may turn from being dominated by freelancers into an industry of fewer, bigger players. Once we see a McKinsey - or maybe a Deloitte - of coaching, we will also see sales pressure, margin pressure and standardization of product. While this is partly great news, as it could bring coaching to more people, it might erode some hard to measure qualities of the better coaching we see today. What will happen to the human touch? To bespoke solutions? The spirit of true care? Will the employed coach of the future - enhanced by Al, incentivized through sales and volume targets - be able to create the safe space in which he or she can care and focus on the individual in the same way as today’s great coaches claim to do?
Let’s use an analogy from air travel to sum up these three trends. Executive coaching in the for-profit sector up until now is business and first-class travel. Expensive. Elite. For the few. Bespoke and exclusive. Sometimes a trophy item, to carefully boast about. Industry growth as well as lower cost and lower price through application of technology will add new segments: economy and premium economy cabins. (A lot of great coaching is already happening, by the way, at lower average hourly rates, in the public sector and charity contexts.)
This will be both helpfill and challenging in terms of ethics. Coaches with less experience, less live weight, quickly trained in standard programs, maybe in undergraduate university courses, supported and guided by technology including Al, will service this cabin. Depending on the quality of the algorithms they are given as support, they might potentially offer more effective coaching in some areas than the most experienced coaches of the year 2019, who largely work without technology support.
But are they going to ooze out the seniority and confidence many clients seek and pay top dollar for? And given their relative lack of life experience, will they be able to coach in a way that reflects more than the very (sometimes narrow) objectives presented by then' clients? Will they be willing and able to explore further? Will they negotiate then' ethical perspective with both their- client’s and with ethical nonns prevalent in the society they live in? If they are willing and capable to do so: Will their sales and margin targets allow them to do so? Or, on the flip side, will they potentially be so effective and cost-efficient in some areas, that they collectively undermine the business model of the seasoned, senior freelance coach of today? (If results are great, who should care about the seniority a coach oozes out?)
Before we explore the future, let’s take a look at the most challenging ethical aspects of coaching here and now.
What are the big ethical questions that bite trs today, in the pre-industrialized, predigitalized, pre-democratized world of coaching?
Let’s look at the numerous codes of ethics, published by the equally numerous coaching organizations. Then let’s put ourselves into the shoes of clients. And finally, let us listen to some practitioners and their experiences, which they shared with me, frankly and anonymously.
Diane Brennan and Leni Wildflower (2018) compared numerous codes of ethics published by coaching organizations. They have identified common themes:
- 1 Do no harm: do not cause needless injury to your client or others
- 2 Duty of care: act in ways that promote the welfare of other people
- 3 Know your limits: practice within your scope of competence
- 4 Respect the interests of the client
- 5 Respect the law
As it turns out, our tongue-in-cheek dos and don’ts are not too far off the mark. The issue with these codes is: some are very long and granular, apparently trying to regulate every conceivable case. Others are very high level. Both approaches are limited in their usefulness.
On top of it: There is not one organization that can claim to represent the industry on the whole. Even worse: the rales from numerous overlapping codes can’t be enforced effectively. A coach may be excluded by a coaching association they are a member of. But they cannot be banned from coaching altogether (as can a surgeon who regularly forgets scissors in patients!). On top of it, many coaches are not members of any coaching organization at all.
Identify your favourite code, ideally the most demanding one, use it to give yourself a crash barrier in terms of ethics. Of course, you may be tempted to pick and choose and make your own code. Please do - it will make for great reflection. But also, please, don’t use it in practice. Codes by professional bodies are updated regularly and you will benefit in the long ran from the efforts other people put into keeping your code of choice in nine with the times.
The client perspective
Before we look at the experience of practitioners, let’s put on the shoes of clients. What would they NOT want from their coach? Some lowlights:
A coach who makes them dependent, milking them through a never-ending series of sessions.
A coach who manipulates their thinking and their actions in ways that are not beneficial to them.
A coach who abuses them to feel good himself (the “narcissistic guru coach syndrome”).
A coach who blackmails them with secrets shared in confidentiality.
A coach who tries to sell them a share in a holiday park after an uplifting, inspiring session.
A coach who, over drinks, boasts about the work done with the client or the high profile of the client - or even her identity.
A coach who uses information from coaching for insider trading.
A coach who insists on giving a relaxing oil massage at the beginning of a session. (Which might potentially work for some sports coaching.)
What else? Think of three more outrageous things you would not want as a coaching client:
(Of course, some of these points describe behaviour which is not just undesirable, unpleasant and unethical, but straightforward illegal, e.g. insider trading.)
Curiously, many clients assume impeccable ethical behaviour from their coaches from the beginning. One reason why so few questions are usually being asked ar ound boundaries of the relationship may be the feeling of urgency on the client side. (When we urgently need a locksmith, it is understandable why one might rush the vetting phase.)
Experience of practitioners
So, what does the experience of practitioners tell us about ethical challenges and their ways of dealing with them?
There are seven big areas into which we can group ethical problems (lordanou et al. 2016, p. 67). Let’s take a look at each in turn and then see what coaching practice teaches us about then- relevance and ways to mitigate conflict.
- 1 Proposition: Which skills and what level of experience does the coach advertise and what type of outcome from a coaching relationship is being suggested?
- 2 Competence: What credentials, experience and capability does the coach truly possess?
- 3 Product quality: What kind of service is actually delivered and at what level of sophistication?
- 4 Contracting: What exactly are the objectives, scope, mutual rights and obligations?
- 5 Confidentiality: Which pieces of information may (or must) the coach use outside the coaching arrangement, and how?
- 6 Bias: How aware is the coach of his or her biases and how well will these be managed before and dining the coaching relationship?
- 7 Role shift: Do client and coach maintain a transactional relationship as equals, or does the coach, knowingly or not, willingly or not, foster dependency? Does a personal relationship grow out of coaching?
Let’s take a look at these one by one.
Proposition: Which skills and what level of experience does the coach advertise and what type of outcome from a coaching relationship is being suggested?
Coaches who want to eat need to sell, (unless they rely on a generous partner or a trust fund, or eat very little). They happen to sell themselves rather than cars, zebras or luxury holidays. While for many excellent coaches this is the most difficult and unpleasant part, some thrive more on the sales side, than in terms of delivery of their service. A tad of overselling in terms of qualities or qualifications appears almost unavoidable: people do it on dating apps (add a centimetre or two?); investment banks do it when they boast with carefully calibrated league tables in which they miraculously come on top almost everywhere; and many coaches do it, when they suggest they work almost exclusively at C-level or that they were Senior VP of a multinational corporation (their wife’s advertising firm with a total of three employees and an office at the holiday home in Greece). What about proposed outcomes: Are you proposing to make your client CEO? Are you proposing to help your client overcome depression? Does your website suggest this is what happens to your clients?
Where do we dr aw the line?
There are legal boundaries to misrepresentation and there are ethical boundaries. Where should your boundaries be? Here are two litmus tests. One is the Financial Times (FT) or Wall Street Journal test. The other is the Mom test.
Perform the FT test by asking yourself, what an investigative journalist would write after testing all the explicit and implicit claims made on your website and in communication with your clients leading up to a mandate. If after consulting with the legal team of the newspaper, the reporter could write about several misrepresentations, chances are that at some point, some client or competitor will make this point. The FT test is the legal test.
Now ask, what Mom would say to your marketing claims, (or anyone in your life who tried to make sure, you don’t come out as a nasty piece of work). If either or both tests produce red flags, and you still keep making the exaggerated, incorrect or inappropriate claims, you fail.
Competence: What experience and capability is the coach able to apply to the coaching?
You may have accurately listed on your website your impressive fry League Education, your flawless career in investment banking, the numerous board memberships at profit and not for profit organizations and all the expensive coaching qualifications you have rightfully acquired. But you might still be a lousy coach. Bad product is usually weeded out in efficient markets, however, coaching is far from an efficient market. It lacks oversight and transparency; it consists of tiny submarkets with niches in niches (e.g. public speaking at financial institutions in the UK); coaches and clients find one another through word of mouth. Bad coaches exist and they can move to new niches after binning too much terrain in one, damaging the brand of coaching on the whole.
What makes things harder: competence (and outcomes of coaching) can currently hardly be measured. This makes it theoretically impossible to defraud coaching clients. How come? Fraud requires - from a legal point of view - intent. Abad coach may well live in the delusion of being a great coach, while delivering bad and expensive coaching. This would be a bad deal for the client, but from a legal point of view no fraud.
Know and communicate your boundaries: Don’t do psychotherapy when you are not qualified. (And, by the way, numerous coaches are qualified to do so.) You would not try to fix a broken bone, either, would you?
Product quality: What kind of service is actually delivered and at what level of sophistication?
You have bought a package of coaching sessions. Yom coach keeps you talking. You feel good about yourself. No one ever, anywhere, listens to you like your coach. Fair enough, not much has changed in your work life over the course of the six sessions - but you feel so good after each and every single session. Why not book six more? Also, your employer pays for it.
There is nothing wrong with paying people to make you feel better. Geishas get paid. Sex workers get paid. Violinists get paid. It becomes problematic when the label for it is “coaching”, rather than entertainment. (Would the product be bought, if the label weren’t coaching?)
Even when the client has specifically requested coaching, and hired you based on your stellar competence and based on an appropriate proposition on your end, delivering great coaching might still be the wrong thing to do. It happens frequently that executives are being offered coaching when really they would rather need training. Or - worst case - they may be on a performance plan and the idea truly is to get them out of the door. The coaching (which in this case is meant to be unsuccessful) is just a box to tick on the road towards an orderly, early exit. In the first case the sponsor for coaching is deluded. In the second case the client is deceiving both the employee and the coach. Clients can behave unethically, too.
Contracting: Defining objectives, scope, mutual rights and obligations
Many coaches insist contracting is the most cnicial moment in the coaching relationship. It is not only about how often and how much. It is where the proposition (including any potential misrepresentation) gets baked into both a legal and an ethical commitment. And it is the moment where experienced coaches check who really is the client: often organizations get coaching for an employee and pay for it. Whom is the coach supposed to serve? Can the coach with good conscience coach a high-flyer out of her current role, leaving the contracting organization burnt? Would this be ethical? Should the coach avoid this potential outcome from coaching? Would it be ethical to exclude this avenue and opportunity?
Many coaches make a distinction between the sponsor (the party paying for the coaching) and the client (the individual receiving coaching). It may be agreed that the coach (or preferably the client) check in with the sponsor regularly to report on progress, which raises issues around confidentiality. The distinction between sponsor and client, however, only cosmetically addresses the problem, by naming it. Transparency goes a long way, by setting clear boundaries at the beginning.
Alas, some boundaries could mean lost business, if the sponsor does not play. Ethical behaviour sometimes has a price.
Confidentiality: Which pieces of information may the coach use outside the coaching arrangements, and how?
“Whatever is said between these four walls, remains between these four walls.” This paradigm is powerfill and necessary in privileged relationships: between priest and believer, between doctor and patient, between a lawyer and his client. And between coach and client. But is it realistic? In many countries, priests are obliged to report crimes against minors, even when they learnt about them during confession. Similar rales are in place in some jurisdictions for lawyers. By taking out health insurance, we usually sign aw'ay large parts of the confidentiality regarding our health. So, what about coaching?
Not all cases will be this severe, but what if a client talks about committing fraud? What do we do if a client talks about having forced someone into uncon-sensual sex? What if we pick up sexist bias that is likely to harm the culture of the sponsoring film? Should whatever is said between these four w'alls, remain between these four walls wider all circumstances? When it comes to psychotherapy, the UK Council for Psychotherapy’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practice (2019) says no: and that while the psychotherapist commits to:
“Respect, protect andpreserve clients ’confidentiality’ ” they must also “Notify clients when appropriate or on request, that there are legal and ethical limits to confidentiality, and circumstances under which confidential information might be disclosed to a third party”.
(UKCP 2019, p. 3)
Coaches are encouraged to discuss their sessions with a supervisor w'ho also adheres to a strict code of professional conduct. It may be tempting to do so informally with other coaches, to share success, to seek consolation about failwe, and sometimes to boast a bit. However, even anonymous accounts can far too easily be traced to individual clients.
It gets even more difficult, when coaches serve in a dual role, for example a line manager who coaches an employee. Or when coaches work with several clients who work with one another; these may be competing companies or several individuals at the same organisation. The promise of confidentiality can lead to conflicts of interest.
Conflict of interest
Imagine a fantastic coach who is also a yoga enthusiast. Why not offer a couple of yoga sessions to a stressed-out client? It may do her good? Why not do them in yow owm new studio? Conflict of interest or enhanced product offering?
Many coaches are not only coaches: They have grown out of flourishing careers, they have a wide network of friends and business partners, they have lots of interests, personal and commercial. It is in part the richness of their lives and experiences which makes them attractive as coaches. It can make them crossroads of opportunities and therefore crossroads for conflicts of interest.
These conflicts can take mild forms - our yoga example. They can take severe forms: buy some stock after becoming aware of preparations for a merger? Propose client A for a promotion, since you also coach his boss, or hint at reasons that should forbid such a promotion? Managing such boundaries gets easier after good contracting but often remains a case by case task in complex settings.
Bias: How aware is the coach of his or her biases and how well will these be managed before and during the coaching relationship?
Coaching is not a science. It is not clean, it is hardly empirical. And we are humans. The human element in coaching is one of the elements which makes it powerful (a notion to be revisited once we see results from “Robo-Coaching”, coaching empowered by Machine Learning). The way we think and feel - and coach - is underpinned by our experiences, our cultural context, by the way we see ourselves and the world. The way we think and feel influences how we see clients, the options and opportunities we accredit to them. Without bias, we would not function efficiently, including as coaches. (Ever tried to discover the world every single day anew, like a newborn baby?)
What research tells us about our biases - regarding gender, age, race, sexual orientation and so much more - is that most of them are unconscious. And that even when we make them conscious, we still have a hard time overcoming them. One avenue taken by large companies is to create systems that counterbalance unavoidable bias: for instance creating more checks and balances when it comes to new hires and promotions, like involving diverse teams in making such decisions. In coaching we usually don’t have these resources. Digital tools might be helpful in the future, by matching coaches and clients in a way that mitigates biases, by providing second opinions in real time, by adjusting for a stick}' bias of a coach. In the meantime supervision is the best tool coaches can use to challenge their own biases.
Role shift: Do client and coach maintain a transactional relationship as equals, or does the coach, knowingly or not, willingly or not, foster dependency? Does a personal relationship grow out of coaching?
You really like your client. Your client really likes you. How about a coaching session over dinner? With a glass of wine? Or a bottle? Let’s do a city tr ip together to see a few Rembrandts at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich? Wouldn’t that be a great setting for some good coaching? This is the beautiful side of role shift. Friendship. Most coaches will in such a case draw a line at some point and suggest to end the professional relationship. How could they objectively coach when they have become part of the system that potentially feeds the challenges a client brings to coaching?
Few would argue that lovers should or could effectively coach one another for money. Codes of ethics for psychotherapy and counselling - as well as coaching - explicitly forbid practitioners to engage romantically with their clients. Coming back to our last Don’t from the introduction: don’t sleep with your client. Even if you personally find it ethically acceptable, the quality of your (coaching) service is likely to suffer.3
The practitioner’s view
Now we know what can go wrong. How relevant are these aspects in practice, though, according to seasoned coaches? What are the biggest ethics topics in today’s coaching landscape? Unstructured interviews with our unrepresentative sample of coaches from different countries and with different specializations make three big ones stand out:
- • Incompetence
- • Conflict of interest
- • Abuse
These three cut across the seven fields we have identified. And in practice they arguably carry the gr eatest potential for harm of clients and the reputation of the coaching profession.
Coaching is an unregulated profession with lots of good and lots of bad coaches. You want to be a coach: get a business card, with the title “coach” printed next to your name. (To be fair: highly regulated professions like psychotherapy also have better and worse practitioners.) As coaching grows, more individuals are attracted to this field. Expensive and cheap training programs woo entrants into the profession. The main gauge of quality appears to be whether a coach gets booked and at what rate.
There are currently no effective filters that keep the greedy and the seedy out of the industry. Buyer beware. Still today, coaching clients often have no previous experience with coaching and will not be in a good position to judge the qualification of their coach, nor the quality of the product. The presumed gate-keepers -coaching associations - are numerous and largely represent coaches and their interests, they are also financed by coaches. A bad doctor usually gets into trouble, after a while. A bad coach can currently fish elsewhere, in a large and growing pond.
Conflict of interest
A lot of coaching happens in companies, predominantly larger organizations which have the resources to pay for it. It is not uncommon for coaches to work with several individuals in the same organization. How can a coach keep confidential information confidential - but fully serve the organization? How about a client with a drinking problem which has not yet been noticed higher up in the hierarchy? What if the coach were to work with the employee afflicted by addiction and her boss, at the same time? Should the coach, in another scenario, avoid any allusion to the fact that the promotion her client is preparing for eagerly, has long been earmarked for someone else (as the CEO had revealed in confidentiality in yesterday’s session)?
Abuse takes many forms. (Practicing in spite of incompetence can be interpreted as one.) A particularly common and damaging form is baked into the prevalent business model of coaching and requires a lot of discipline on the side of coach and client to steer around: raking up hours.
Most coaches currently work based on billable hours.
Packages are booked, for example for six sessions. Retainers exist, much rarer is coaching based on measurable outcomes. Some coaches go as far as requesting a share of additional profits or even equity in a company. But the hourly model prevails, partly because it is easy to understand and measure. Other providers of professional services go with the same model. (It is interesting to note that this model is also a favourite with many of the coaching professional bodies where the level of accreditation and, implicit in this, the assumed level of coaching competence, are linked directly to the number of coaching horns completed).
However, it creates a vicious incentive structure for coaches. More hours mean more income. It sweetens the deal for coaches when their clients develop a dependency - for example consulting always with their coach before important decisions. It can motivate coaches to create pleasant sessions, which invite repetition of the experience, while an unpleasant session can at times be more impactful for the client. Sometimes “a kick in the behind” is a great move that speeds things up. Coaches who prepare solidly before sessions and reflect and document after sessions, are indirectly punished; it is hard for them to bill time and work which is not witnessed by the client.
Law firms have traditionally worked on the basis of billable hours, however, clients today are pushing for new models, which are more clearly aligned with outcomes. A tough call for coaching. An ethical challenge for coaches, to push for results more quickly, when it means they may get less from an individual assignment.
The topics described in the previous sections will not go away as coaching evolves as a profession. But technological change, and the changing shape and size of the coaching industry will throw up new issues. So how will the three megatrends of digitalization, democratization and industrialization affect the ethics of coaching?
First of all: the three trends will bring good things. Coaches and their clients will get great digital tools to make their work both more efficient and more effective. Digital tools will also enable better measurement, which might open the door for better billing models, especially outcome-based fees. More automation - in line with democratization and industrialization -will also mean more coaching for more people. This in turn means more data points from digitally enhanced coaching, which will increase the effectiveness of coaching even further, as supporting algorithms will learn and improve.
On top of it, more automation in coaching needn’t mean we move to “one size fits all”. Algorithms will start to cater to individual needs, and pick up nuances in interactions which even the most seasoned human coaches would not pick up without help. The bigger risk is bias, which to date has been found in Machine Learning solutions, e.g. for credit scores. First steps are being taken to both make bias in Al solutions transparent and to remove it (or at least mitigate its consequences). This mindset and practice needs to inspire all Al ventures in the space of coaching going forward.
Assume bias can be mitigated and the digital coaching assistants - or automated coaches - deliver great outcomes for clients. Will we know what they are actually doing? Complex systems which rely on deep learning usually cannot explain why they are doing what they are doing. In critical applications, like selfdriving cars or autonomous weapons systems, that is already an obvious problem. Should we take billions of leaps of faith and blindly trust an algorithm that had taught itself through billions of data points over time? Or should we insist on understanding every decision it takes - meaning we may end up underusing this resource where it can’t explain itself to mortals? What does this mean for coaching? Usually, no one dies during coaching. And, assuming satisfactory orrtcomes from their work, would algorithms really have to be able to explain what they are doing and how and why? Nevertheless, be prepared to see lawsuits from disgruntled clients of robo-coaching.
Digitally enhanced coaching will produce data on human behaviour and cognition. What should happen with it? Who will own it? And who will be allowed to draw valuable conclusions from it and monetize these? The question mirrors the current debate around collection and use of online data which is monetized through advertising. Will there be one dominant player reaping outsized benefits front a quasi-monopoly on coaching data, with the outsized scaling and network effects it may bring? Or should future coaching clients co-own the data and the observations coaching-machines produce? And how will we as a society negotiate this decision?
Even if regulation were to forbid the emergence of one dominant player, consolidation in the coaching industry is likely to take place; more likely than in therapy, in any case, as coaching will for the foreseeable future evolve outside the realms of regulation from bodies of the public health system. The required investment for technology will drive consolidation further.
What will this mean for standards of best practice, training, measurement, supervision and - of course - ethics? Here is the sober view: as other consolidated professions show, the winners, the dominant players of the market, tend to define the market standards over time: by offering only what allows for high margins and thereby “educating” the market; through their ability to advertise and market; by means of lobbying; and by forming and dominating industry associations which codify standards, including ethical standards. They build de facto standards, which over time become codified standards.
Here is the idealistic perspective: whoever dislikes this scenario has two choices. Start building a big player in the future coaching industry and use your market power to try and establish standards you deem ethical. Or attempt the grassroots approach, herd the cats and try creating binding standards for coaching through international consultation and consensus (also, good luck).
While consolidation might be bad news for mediocre freelance coaches whose market will be served by others and better, it may very well be great news for coaching clients: they will have the choice between more automated, affordable coaching, and what we had called business and first-class cabins. (These premium cabins, by the way, will in their own right become better, as they will also be able draw on new technology, including Al, while delivery will remain high touch.) At the same time the future mass market will allow more people to benefit from coaching.
But let’s brace ourselves for a few bumps on the road. Yes, there will be growth, yes, coaching will be more of a formal profession, yes, standards will start to converge. But we are not there, yet. Currently, coaching relies on self-regulation, which is a privilege. As the industry grows, incidents of malpractice will become more numerous in total numbers and thereby more visible. Coaching might be up for a cathartic moment in the next few years, a moment of judgment by public opinion - modulated and amplified by media and social media - if and when selfregulation fails, as, unfortunately, it so often does.
If coaching were to be struck by a moral crisis, let’s not waste that crisis, and use it to build a better industry. Also, we can start today: by reflecting on our own practice, the ethics of our practice, and how we can improve both.
What we learn from the experience of coaches: small infractions, ethical missteps may be overlooked by both coach and client. They can cause - invisibly at first -great damage. At the same time, masterfill coaching can draw on elements that might appear ethically borderline, but which turn out to be spectacularly successful. In the space of psychotherapy, for instance, “provocative therapy” comes to mind (Farrelly & Brandsma 1989).
So, what is ethical coaching? Is unethical coaching good coaching, when it is effective? It is time for you to give a first version of your own answers. And feel free to revisit them as often as you like, ideally before and after every session. As coaching evolves and grows as a profession, we will see a convergence of rules and nonns, in the same way as this happened with other professions, like psychotherapy. However, ethical behaviour will always be enmeshed with the ideologies prevalent in the societies and the segments of society that we coach in (Watts et al., 2020).
To make an extreme example: had coaching techniques been popular in Nazi Germany, the rulebook around the ethics of using them would surely have looked very different from today’s codes. Because ethics is also a function of social context, previous experience, and numerous individual factors; because ethics differ between societies; because ethics are always evolving; because of this, ethical behaviour in coaching is more about thinking for yourself and challenging yourself, rather than simply following rules.
Questions for reflection
What are the underlying values that inspire your own ethics around coaching?
If you had to sum up your ethical principles in three bullet points: What would they be?
What was the trickiest ethical challenge you faced in your own coaching practice?
Go through your own marketing materials and do the Financial Times and the Mom test.
When coaching was effective in the eyes of client and coach, but breached ethics codes, is it still good coaching, according to you?
If you didn’t bill by the hour, which other billing methods would you consider? For each method you come up with, think through how the changed incentive structure might change your approach, methods or delivery'.
Can you think of a situation where you did breach client confidentiality? What have you learned from this?
- 1 Thanks to: Prof. Mary Watts (for challenging expertly at every stage), Emilio Galli-Zugaro, Jonathan Hartley, Dr. Guljit Kohli, Anne Secular, Katarina Skobeme, Dick Tyler and many more.
- 2 While numerous studies tried to measure the return on investment (ROI) of coaching interventions, the results of these studies differ wildly, albeit most suggest a staggeringly high positive return, often several 100 percent.
- 3 The acutely in-love coach or coachee might want to make the case that a patient undergoing therapy is vulnerable, whereas a coaching client on the other hand is by definition in an equal position to the coach and should be able to give consent to move to a more romantic place.
Athanasopoulou, Dopson (2015) Developing Leaders by Executive Coaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Brennan, D. & Wildflower, L. (2018) Ethics and Coaching. In E. Cox, T. Bachkirova & D. Clutterbuck (eds) The Complete Handbook of Coaching, ch 32 ps 500-517, London: SAGE Publications.
Farrelly, F. & Brandsma, J. M. (1989) Provocative Therapy, London: AbeBooks.
LaRosa, J. U.S. Personal Coaching Industry Tops SI Billion, and Growing. https://blog. marketresearch.com/us-personal-coaching-industry-tops-l-billion-and-growing; 20 February 2019.
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UK Council for Psychotherapy (2019) UKCP Code of Ethics and Professional Practice, UKCP, London.
Watts, M., Kleinschmidt, A. & French, D. (2020) Ethics Challenges - Challenging Ethics: Keeping an Open Mind on Ethics and Professionalism. In M. Watts, R. Bor & I. Florence (eds) The Trainee Coach Handbook, London: SAGE Publications.
Chapter I 5