The Problem with Ethics
Say the words “ethical dilemma” to most coaches and their eyes will glaze over, their ears will curls protectively inwards to thwart the meaningless sounds, and their mind will wander to what’s for dinner!
I exaggerate, of course, and many coaches are now interested in the concept of ethics. However, there is something undoubtedly abstract about the concept.
Perhaps because, for too long, it has been the domain of philosophers (think Aristotle, John Stuart Mill or, more recently, Peter Singer) or of policymakers thrashing out codes of conduct that are then imposed, top-down, on a profession.
“Here is the code of conduct you must follow!”, it seems to say. “Do you agree to it?!”
There is little a coach can do to challenge the code of conduct of their professional body, and that’s understandable. But it does make it all seem a bit distant.
Ethics Made Real
Yet, ask a coach how they might respond if they faced any of the following, and the conversation gets a whole lot more interesting:
- A client shares that a decision they have made was based on racist assumptions.
- A client shares with the coach that they are drinking during lunchtime due to stress and causing a level of danger in the workplace.
- A client continually terms up late and seems to be making no progress but always has a “reason” and says they want to continue.
- A client predominantly talks about childhood abuse and its consequences and frequently becomes upset and distressed but says they don’t find therapy useful.
- The coach finds they are attracted to a client and that this is affecting the quality and nature of their coaching.
- The coach doesn’t like the client and dreads each session.
- An organisation asks the coach to coach someone who is going to be made redundant but asks the coach not to reveal this to them.
- The coach feels protective of a client and angry at the organisation who is paying their coaching fee and finds they increasingly side with their client against what they see as a “toxic” workplace.
A coach might face any of these at any time and there is no clear path forward in each.
For example, in the last vignette, the coach might decide they need to stop working for the organisation but worry they are abandoning the client. Yet continuing to do the work leaves them feeling compromised.
In the first, what is the solution? Report them? What about confidentiality? And report them to whom? Educate them? Is that the coach’s role? What is the way forward?
Ethical dilemmas are a huge part of coaching because it involves human beings with different values and worldviews working together in relational systems that are complex and ambiguous.
The Role of the Coaching Supervisor
The coaching supervisor is, of course, just another human with their own worldview, values and peculiar ways of seeing the world.
They are not gurus, nor are they an unerring representative of a monolithic profession that, in some Orwellian manner, dictates the minds and behaviours of coaches.
And so the role of the coaching supervisor is to facilitate conversations around dilemmas and enable the coach to come to their own conclusions.
This will involve:
- Drawing attention to potential dilemmas that the coach is not seeing.
- Enabling the coach to talk through their concerns.
- Exploring the nature of the dilemmas, potential solutions and choices.
- Offering their own take or, where appropriate, sharing the profession’s position (eg. by highlighting an element of a code of conduct)
- Playing out the consequences of the choices.
- Planning how to implement and explain a given route.
- Enabling the coach to be at peace with their final choice through restorative, supportive conversations.
Rarely (though it can happen depending on the nature of the supervisory relationship) will a supervisor tell a coach what they need to do.
Towards Ethical Maturity
In their book, Ethical Maturity in the Helping Professions: Making Difficult Life and Work Decisions, Elisabeth Shaw and Dr Michael Carroll describe a concept called ethical maturity which maps very closely to the points made above in terms of how a supervisor might work.
There are 5 areas within ethical maturity:
- Ethical Sensitivity – being more aware of possible ethical issues.
- Ethical Discernment – using emotional and cognitive processes to work through the issue.
- Ethical Implementation – following through on the decision.
- Ethical Conversation – being able to explain the course of action.
- Ethical Peace – being able to live with the choice.
The subtlety of this model is that it is not binary.
A coach may be extremely good at working through options and solutions but remain tortured by the reality of their decision. Or they may be highly-sensitive to the existence of dilemmas but feel complete lost in terms of how to deal with them.
Thus, maturity is a complex thing which supervisors can explore.
This, to me, seems like an excellent framework for considering and dealing with ethical dilemmas and is one we teach and use on the Diploma in Coaching Supervision.
Whilst the words “ethical dilemma”, then, may cause various responses, I believe it is vital that coaches become more ethically aware and ethically mature, and coaching supervision is critical in this journey.