“I don’t like the Normative Function. I don’t feel I have the right to tell another coach what they should or shouldn’t do.”
This statement, said by one of our new coaching supervision learners, reflects a misconception about the Normative Function that often leaves it the poor, unloved cousin of the more attractive Formative and Restorative functions!
Of course, implicit in this student’s statement is the assumption that she would know what they should do.
And as Hamlet would say, “there’s the rub!”
In this article, I aim to dispel the myth that the Normative Function is one of authoritarian prescription and finger-wagging. Rather, I want to show that it enables and empowers a truly collaborative conversation between the coaching supervisor and coach to address some of the most vital and challenging questions in coaching.
Far from the coaching supervisor telling someone what to do, the Normative Function is most often used when there is no clear answer about what should be done but a necessary conversation to discern the best way forward.
The 3 Functions of Supervision
First, though, let’s briefly remind ourselves of the three functions of coaching supervision so we can more clearly position what we are discussing here.
I have described the three functions of coaching supervision in more detail in a previous article, but to briefly recap, they are:
The Restorative Function: – the coach as a person.
The Restorative Function looks at the needs and wellbeing of the coach as a person impacted by the work they do and with a focus on restoration, renewal and recovery.
The Formative Function – the coach as a coach.
The Formative Function concerns itself with the coach’s skills, knowledge and attitudes to help them become more effective in their work and to improve the quality of outcomes for their clients.
The Normative Function – the coach as ethical practitioner
The Normative Function helps the coach assess their practice in light of questions of good practice, professional standards and ethical dilemmas.
It’s to this third function we’ll turn now.
The Normative Function
The Normative Function is concerned with the professional standards of the coach as it relates to how they conduct themselves, rather than simply their effectiveness.
At the simplest level, the Normative Function would include issues such as:
- Membership of a professional body
- Understanding of their code of ethics
- Adherence to that code of ethics
- Honesty and integrity in dealing with clients
- Maintaining core behavioural norms such as confidentiality
- Protecting client information and records
In truth, however, these are rarely issues that need to be discussed in supervision other than to establish an initial baseline around which professional body a coach is registered with and what assumptions steer their practice.
Put another way, a coach who willfully contravenes the most basic of ethical standards is unlikely to be receiving supervision in the first place! It’s not out of the question, of course, but the areas above are so much part and parcel of a good coach’s working practice that they will not often come up as issues to address.
Where the Normative Function truly comes alive within supervision is in relation to ethical dilemmas.
Ethical dilemmas and the Normative Function
A dilemma is a dilemma for a good reason! There is no clear right or wrong answer.
One might see the pros and cons of either option and still be no clearer on the best way forward or the most appropriate response.
A dilemma is also somewhat different from a more general question or area of uncertainty. Whether to use one particular coaching intervention or another might have no clear right or wrong answer but it’s hard to see it as a dilemma – it is merely a choice. Within supervision, this would fall most usually under the Formative Function – helping the coach choose and use their skills.
A dilemma has something more about it. It challenges our sense of right and wrong, it raises questions of risk and consequence, it leaves us feeling that, whatever we choose, we are compromising something, it leaves a residue.
It can even leave us questioning ourselves and our standing.
Ultimately, we are talking here about ethical dilemmas.
And that’s where the Normative Function comes into its own.
Ethical dilemmas present themselves in coaching surprisingly often and any conversation around noticing, facing up to, understanding, analysing, dealing with, explaining, and learning from such dilemmas enters the Normative Function’s field of view.
As coaches, we’ve all faced moments where we have had to ask ourselves what the right choice is, given competing factors and emotional pulls.
“What should I do with this piece of information my client’s just given me? How does it impact my relationship with her manager?”
“This session feels like I’m venturing into therapeutic work I’m not qualified to do but to halt it could be damaging right now.”
“I find myself rooting for my client against the very organisation who’s paying them to be coached and I feel like the organisation is our mutual enemy!”
“I need the work, I’m good at the work, I perform to my best – but I don’t have any respect for this client group.”
The Normative Function is not so much telling someone what they should or shouldn’t do but helping them achieve a clearer mind and sense of choice through dialogue. After all, the supervisor has no inherently superior ability to answer a dilemma…unless it is not actually a dilemma at all, but simply an absence of information which the supervisor has access to.
The Normative Function, at its best, is about creating the conditions for dilemmas to be noticed, talked about and, to the extent possible, resolved.
These conditions are not authority, dictate and imposition, but rather:
- Openness and willingness on the part of the coach to consider ethical blindspots
- Courage from the supervisor to name uncomfortable ethical dimensions
- Trust and respect between coach and supervisor
- A curiosity for what is not being seen as much as what is
- A collaborative attitude to unpick together rather than a prosecutorial approach
- The courage to face the situation
- The non-judgmental attitude to minimise any sense of shame and fear of reproach
- A sensitivity to the needs of all parties without there being a sense of side-taking
With these conditions in place, it becomes possible to address ethical dilemmas and challenges that might lie in a coach’s practice but which they had either not noticed or were holding to themselves out of fear, shame or confusion.
Depending on the stage in which the ethical dilemma is at (past, present or future), the normative conversation becomes one of:
- Checking in whether the coach and supervisor share the same assumptions of what ethical practice within coaching looks like
- An openness to explore those assumptions and establish common ground
- Sensitivity to the expectations of the profession and any specific professional bodies the coach might belong to
- Awareness as to what is challenging about the dilemma
- Becoming clearer on any emotions, triggers, past experiences that might be shaping the response to the dilemma
- Clarity around the choices and options available
- Confronting the coach with any conflicts between their potential choices and professional standards
- Consideration of the intent and motivations
- Exploring the ethical dilemma from the point of view of all stakeholders – the client organisation, coachee, peers, professional bodies, profession
- Exploration of what can be learned and adapted
- Enabling the coach to reach a sense of closure and to draw from the experience what they need
“Being on the same normative page”
The first item in the preceding list is an essential starting point.
The caricature of the Normative Function as about telling a coach what to do rests on certain assumptions. Most typically, it rests on the idea that the supervisor is safeguarding the profession and knows what ethical practice looks like. To some extent this is true but as I mentioned earlier, it is rarely these cut and dry issues that come up in supervision. When it comes to dilemmas far more subtle understandings of the role of a coach will come into play and need to be understood first.
If the coach believes that the very nature and purpose of coaching is one thing, and the supervisor believes it’s another, then any conversation about norms and ethics will fall at the first hurdle as they proceed to talk at cross-purposes.
I recall supervising a supervisor on his practice. He was from an NHS mental health background in which coaching had been established with strict adherence to the ICF, non-advisory approach. He had been supervising a coach for whom giving advice was a core part of her practice. The two had become locked in a “death struggle” for who was right as he felt she was being unethical. He failed to establish that she wasn’t breaking rules but rather following different rules! In fact, neither was right or wrong – they had a different understanding of coaching.
The first step of any normative conversation must then be to understand the starting point of the coach.
The Normative Function and Ethical Maturity
An excellent model for considering ethical dilemmas from multiple angles comes from the work of Michael Carroll in his book, Ethical Maturity in the Helping Professions.
There is no better model for having a collaborative conversation around ethical dilemmas. The richness of the exploration enabled surely dispels any myth that the Normative Function is one of rules, rigidity and regulation.
Carroll introduces six dimensions to what he calls ethical maturity and I believe that the Normative Function both aids, and is aided by, all six dimensions.
The six dimensions of ethical maturity
The first area is helping the coach develop greater sensitivity to where ethical dilemmas might exist.
It is entirely possible that the coach is not aware that there an ethical issue exists in a particular situation. Perhaps they haven’t fully understood the professional code of conduct. Or they haven’t spotted the conflict of interest. Or they felt so strongly about something that they didn’t notice how they’d been pulled into a “game”.
Whatever it might be, the first step in ethical maturity is becoming more sensitive to where ethical issues exist.
The Normative Function provides a critical lens over this and helps the coach develop a finer awareness of such possibilities.
The next area concerns becoming clearer in what the ethical dilemma actually is.
It might start off as a niggling feeling, a discomfort, or something the coach finds themself loathe to bring up. Being able to discern what exactly it is and why it is a dilemma becomes a precondition for dealing with it.
The Normative Function enables a conversation that unpicks the issue and helps the coach become clearer in what they ar facing.
Once the ethical dilemma has been understood, choices can be made and acted upon.
The Normative Function enables conversations that play out the possible ways forward, the implications, the specific approach to taking action and more besides. It allows a safe space to try out the ideas, even to practise them.
Depending on the importance of the issue, ethical dilemmas can necessitate having to explain oneself to a professional body, an employer, client or another.
Accountability here is the ability to make a clear case for the choices made rather than simply “going with your gut”.
Again, the Normative Function allows a space for the coach to make sense of their choice in ways they can explain – the supervisor can act in the role of the “interrogator” in the sessions to help the coach make their case.
Often, the person we most need to make our case with is ourselves.
Ethical dilemmas, as I stated earlier, can leave a residue and, despite knowing how we came to our decision and being able to explain our reasoning, we can be left with a feeling of discomfort – “did I do the right thing?”
This is where Carroll talks about learning to be at peace with our decisions and moving on. Whilst this might lend itself to the Restorative Function, it nonetheless stems from the Normative Function that led to it.
Carroll’s sixth dimension of ethical maturity is that of learning.
“What did this ethical dilemma allow me to learn?”; “How can I preempt this next time?”; “How might I approach it differently?”
And so the Normative Function blends with the Formative Function to create new learning and greater ethical capacity.
I hope I have breathed new life into the Normative Function with this article. I believe it is absolutely critical that we enter into normative conversations but that we do so in a way that is collaborative, respectful, curious, engaged and productive.
Simply battering at someone else’s value system is, at best, ineffective, and, at worst, destructive of the relationship.
There are many dimensions to the Normative Function and there is no denying that they introduce a greater element of the supervisor’s own knowledge of the values and best practices of the profession but it is in the collaborative use of the Normative Function that the coaching supervision will thrive.