Professional ethics and ethical behaviour are critical aspects of any profession and coaching is no different.
Supervision provides a vital space to explore ethics in all its forms and, in this article, I will examine how ethics and ethical considerations form a key piece of the supervision jigsaw.
Along with a brief exploration of coaching ethics in general, I will describe Michael Carroll’s Ethical Maturity Model as well as introducing my own framework for engaging in ethics-focused conversations, the IIS-IIS Model.
However, despite the two models, this is not intended as an instructional article but rather as food for thought on how coaching supervisors can think about, and work with, ethics in coaching.
Background To Coaching Ethics
Ethical frameworks for coaching were introduced early in the growth of the profession and a broad consensus soon emerged between the professional associations around what it meant to be an ethical coach.
We take much of this for granted nowadays when we talk about confidentiality, clear boundaries, and so on.
However, ethics are not static. They do not reside in formalised statements of intent.
Instead, they are lived out in the day to day behaviours of individuals as they confront the realities of their work.
Nor is it as simple as just applying the “rules” and ticking ethical boxes. Ethics is complex, multifaceted and, most often, ambiguous.
Ethical issues are not only often ambiguous in nature but often hide from awareness. Many coaches are not even aware of an ethical issue until it emerges in the supervision space.
This is why coaching supervision can be so vital to helping coaches maintain ethical practice.
Ethics is one of the most fascinating areas of coaching supervision, but it is also one of the most challenging.
One reason for this is that discussions of ethics can lead a supervisor to fear damaging the relationship or coming across as judgemental if they disagree with the supervisee’s choices. In turn, the coach may find themselves reluctant to share what’s really going on for fear of being judged, “scolded” or even reported.
None of this should be the case but the risk of relational rupture is indeed often considerably higher when confronting ethical issues, tied up as they are in our values and beliefs, than when dealing with more practical challenges, such as planning coaching interventions.
That’s why I believe it is so important for coaches and coaching supervisors alike to think about what ethics means to themselves and how they can explore ethics with an open and curious mind.
Two Levels of Ethics
When discussing ethics, we can usefully talk of two levels of ethics which demand markedly different levels of self-awareness, reflection and action.
Ethical Norms of the Profession
The first is what we might call, “the standards of the profession” or the accepted norms.
These are behaviours and practices that can be expected of all coaches and which are relatively clear and straightforward.
They are typically captured in the codes of conduct of professional associations and they lay out the foundations for the profession.
They relate to such areas as contracting, confidentiality, relationship boundaries, financial and legal procedures and so on.
The second area is often referred to as “ethical dilemmas”.
Here, there are no black and white answers, no unambiguous pathways, no rules that dictate a clear response by the coach.
Instead, the coach must navigate the issue based on their best thinking, intuition and felt sense. The supervisor must do likewise when this is explored in supervision.
In such cases, codes of conduct do little to help provide a way forward. Indeed, they are often part of the problem in that the code may suggest one response whilst true regard for the individual may suggest another.
The Ethical Domain of Supervision
It probably goes without saying that supervision typically deals with the latter of these two – ethical dilemmas.
Coaches seldom need to be reminded of the baseline ethical expectations of their role.
This is not to say that coaches are immune from breaking these codes and, as we see shortly, there are times when a supervisor may need to remind a coach of their responsibilities and help them acknowledge deliberate or unconscious unethical behaviour.
That said, supervision is more usually focused on the grey areas where coaches have perhaps not even seen the ethical issue or, if they have, are unsure of how to deal with it.
Let’s take a brief look at the question of professional standards and then we’ll move on to the more complex area of ethical dilemmas.
Ethical Standards of the Profession
Codes of Conduct
Professional codes of ethics and conduct, such as those provided by the International Coach Federation (ICF) and the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC), serve as a foundation for ethical practice in coaching.
These guidelines lay out the norms of the profession including principles such as confidentiality, autonomy, honesty, non-maleficence, and beneficence to ensure that coaching is conducted responsibly and ethically.
These are useful for establishing the non-negotiables of coaching and allowing all concerned, including clients, to know what they can expect from the coach.
I won’t go into the content of such codes here since they are easy to access from the relevant professional associations.
Instead, I want to explore the role of coaching supervision when these ethical norms are not met.
The Consensual Nature of Coaching Ethics
Let’s first acknowledge that coaching is not a regulated profession.
As such, any coach that submits to a code of conduct is doing so voluntarily either because they truly believe it is right or because they want the badge of credibility provided by the association it relates to.
Either way, this means that all ethical discussions are fundamentally collaborative and consensual rather than predicated on authority. Other than illegality, there is no immutable consequence for behaving unethically.
There may, of course, be contractual issues within a particular context (for instance, within an organisation) that would more strictly govern a coach’s behaviour and have clear consequences – but in a general sense, a coach chooses to adhere to an ethical framework.
I say this to recognise that ethics in coaching is not governed by the power of consequence but by a desire on the part of the coach to be the best they can be. That will be critical in how a supervisor addresses ethical challenges.
We can add too that a coach in supervision is typically committed to bettering their practice both in terms of skill but also in terms of ethics and professionalism. This makes a collaborative approach far more effective than if the coach were in supervision by compulsion.
Breaching the Professional Code of Conduct
What can be done when a coach does not follow a code of conduct or the broadly accepted standards of the profession?
Whilst this is not common in supervision, it is also not unknown.
Coaches are humans and sometimes their own human needs can consciously or unconsciously supersede the code of conduct to which they subscribe..
This may relate to any number of issues including:
- Discussing a stressful coaching situation with a friend or colleague as way to vent but thereby breaking confidentiality
- Not giving their best to a client due to some animosity
- Acting upon a sexual attraction for the client
- Colluding with the client against a third party (such as a manager) due to a shared issue
- Turning up late to client sessions because the coach has personal issues but hasn’t addressed their impact
- And so on.
These are not ethical dilemmas in any meaningful sense. There are no grey areas here. The coach needs to change their behaviour in some clear way but has not yet done so.
Degenerate and Perverse Interventions
John Heron, in Helping the Client, usefully describes what he calls Degenerate and Perverse versions of interventions and distinguishes what might drive a certain behaviour.
The Degenerate type of action is one that comes from a good place but which is damaging. For instance, perhaps the coach thinks that by colluding with the client against the third party with whom they share an issue, they may make a difference. And indeed, perhaps they will, but it is no longer coaching.
The Perverse type of action is done for the benefit of the coach themselves. This may be unconscious or conscious but either way the real intent is for the coach’s benefit whether that be their sexual gratification, gaining a sense of control, acting out an unconscious desire to punish the client, and so on.
Again, it is relatively rare that these standards of coaching are overtly contravened yet, as a supervisor, I have experienced it frequently enough not to assume that coaches will naturally follow the code of ethics.
The Options for Working with a Failure to Adhere to the Norms
As mentioned, coaches voluntarily follow a code of ethics. As such, it is useful to acknowledge our limitations in enforcing any kind of standard.
Instead, our role as supervisors is to engage in a dialogue and, ideally, find consensus around the issue.
When the supervisor perceives a coach to be acting unethically against the very core standards of the profession, there is a certain logical flow to the questions we might ask ourselves and the coach.
Are they aware?
When a coach fails to follow the standards of the profession, they are either doing so knowingly or unknowingly.
The first logical step is to ascertain this.
I’m not going to describe how to do this as there are, of course, multiple ways including asking questions, provoking, sharing your own observations and so on.
But fundamentally we want to find out if the coach is even aware there is a potential breach of ethics.
Do they care?
The next question is whether they care that they are not following the standards.
We can’t make them care and we can’t assume they do.
We can only discuss it.
If they don’t care then this will lead to a very different conversation than one in which they do. Indeed, depending on the severity, it may ultimately lead to you choosing not to work with the supervisee.
Are they stuck?
If they are aware and they do care, then the next question must surely be, what’s preventing them from resolving it.
Are they stuck with it emotionally, practically, financially? Are there pressures being brought to bear on them that you are not aware of? What, in other words, means the ethical issue is ongoing?
At this point you are moving into a collaborative and productive phase in which you and the supervisee can explore how they wish to resolve the ethical challenge.
Is there an impasse?
Whether you achieve a collaborative dialogue or not, you may still reach an impasse in which the coach feels powerless to do something differently.
Any number of routes could lead to an impasse.
If the coach knows they are behaving unethically and they don’t care, this is an impasse. This now becomes your ethical dilemma. What are your options? What are you willing to deal with? Can you continue to supervise them? What does it mean for them, their clients and the profession if you don’t?
Another impasse may be that you can see the glaring transgression of a professional norm but the coach simply can’t. No matter how clearly you share your concern and describe what you are seeing, the coach doesn’t agree and sees it differently.
Some might say this is denial on the part of the coach. But perhaps not – perhaps you have distorted the situation in some way. It is important to reflect carefully. If you remain convinced then, again, you now have your own ethical dilemma to deal with.
An impasse will always present you with your own ethical dilemma. This is a corollary of the consensual nature of the ethical framework.
A Brief Conclusion on Ethical Norms
As I’ve mentioned a few times, it is a relatively rare phenomenon to supervise a coach in flagrant breach of professional norms.
It does happen and, as a supervisor, you may need to confront your supervisee about it as well as critically reflecting on your own sense-making and values.
The lack of regulatory authority means this will always remain a collaborative exploration.
In practice, many coaches feel the authority of the profession and supervisor regardless of the lack of formal avenues, but I believe recognising the reality that we are collaborating on ethics is an important step for both parties for deal with any issue in an adult manner.
Ethical dilemmas are different from the more binary nature of professional norms.
A coach confronting an ethical dilemma is faced by a situation in which there is no perfect answer or where there are multiple options all with some level of pros and cons. This is the murky area of the unknown.
Ethical dilemmas may relate to professional standards specific to the codes of conduct or they may relate to human issues that transcend the profession itself yet leave the coach feeling compromised or confused ethically.
The power of coaching supervision is in creating a space for these things to be explored.
As the old cliche goes, “Two heads are better than one”!
Scope for Ethical Dilemmas
The scope of ethical dilemmas is vast, encompassing every area that a coach covers.
One of the supervisor’s roles here is to help the coach identify the fact that there even is an ethical issue and then work through it with them.
I will share my IIS-IIS model shortly which provides a framework for doing this but first of all it’s useful to acknowledge the scope of ethical dilemmas since we can often focus purely on the coach.
In fact, the ethical dilemma may be surrounding the client, the system in which the coaching is taking place, the stakeholders, the procedural and financial arrangements and, yes, the coach and their feelings.
Recognising that ethical dilemmas can exist within any of these areas should encourage us to tune into what issues we are noticing and where they are coming from.
Challenges Within Ethical Decision-Making
Before we take a look at how to work with ethical issues, it is also worth considering why supervisors often avoid it.
From supervising other supervisors, I have observed how often potentially ethically-charged conversations are NOT had.
Why might that be?
Ethical decision-making can be difficult at times due to a variety of factors, including:
Ambiguity: As we have already mentioned, ethical dilemmas involve situations where the right course of action is not immediately clear or where multiple options seem equally valid. This ambiguity can make it challenging to determine the most ethical choice and thus it can seem easier to avoid the conversation in the first place and focus on easier to solve issues.
Conflicting values or principles: Ethical dilemmas may involve conflicts between different ethical values or principles, such as confidentiality versus the duty to protect others from harm. In these situations, it can be difficult to prioritise one value over another and again it becomes easier to “not notice this issue”.
Personal biases: Individuals may have unconscious biases or preferences that influence their decision-making process. These biases can make it challenging to objectively evaluate the ethical implications of different options.
Emotional factors: Ethical dilemmas can evoke strong emotions, which may cloud judgement and make it difficult to think rationally about the situation. This can potentially lead the coach and supervisor to experience implicit or explicit conflict and disagreement.
Pressure from stakeholders: Supervisors may face pressure from various stakeholders, such as clients, supervisees, or organisations, to make decisions that align with their interests. This pressure can make it challenging to prioritise ethical considerations and act in the best interest of all parties involved.
Limited information: In some cases, supervisors may lack sufficient information to fully understand the ethical implications of a situation. Without adequate information, it can be difficult to help create an informed and ethical decision.
Fear of consequences: Supervisors may be concerned about the potential consequences of their role in a decisions, such as damage to their reputation, legal repercussions, or strained relationships. This fear can make it difficult to make tough ethical choices.
Cultural differences: In situations involving diverse cultural backgrounds, ethical norms and values may differ, making it challenging to determine the most appropriate course of action.
Time constraints: Ethical decision-making often requires careful reflection and analysis, which can be difficult when faced with time-sensitive situations or urgent demands.
Despite these challenges, supervisors can improve their ethical decision-making skills by engaging in ongoing self-reflection, seeking education and training on ethical issues, developing cultural competence, and utilising ethical decision-making frameworks, such as the 5-stage ethical maturity model proposed by Michael Carroll and my own model, the IIS-IIS Model.
Let’s finish with these models.
Carroll’s Ethical Maturity In Coaching
Michael Carroll created a 5 stage framework for considering “ethical maturity” – the ability to hold and work with ethical issues and ambiguity.
This is not a metric but rather a useful model for considering where someone is stuck tackling an ethical issue.
The stages are:
- Ethical Sensitivity: The ability to perceive the ethical challenge in the first place.
- Ethical Discernment: The ability to make sense of relevant information, including professional guidelines and legal requirements, and to come to a decision.
- Ethical Implementation: The ability to implement the plan devised in the previous stage.
- Ethical Validation: The ability to explain one’s thinking and decision-making.
- Ethical Peace: The ability to come to terms with whatever choice was made and to live with it, knowing you did the best you could.
These five stages allow supervisors to help coaches map where they are with any given situation. Is the coach aware of the issue? If so, what is their thinking? Do they have an idea in mind but are not sure how to put it into action? Or perhaps all this is in the past and their concern is with explaining why they did what they did? Or perhaps they are stuck with the emotions of it, feeling unsure, guilty or regretful.
Knowing where they are on this journey will help the supervisor provide the best support.
The model also allows supervisors to help coaches identify patterns of where they need to develop.
For instance, they might be highly adept at perceiving an issue but poorly equipped to figure out a solution. Or the exact reverse may be the case. This is not a linear model in which one must master the first level before moving on to the next. It is perfectly plausible that someone could be exceptional at analysing an ethical issue and making decisions but yet unable to see the issue in the first place.
As we will see shortly, understanding the ethical maturity is a key element in my own IIS-IIS ethical model.
Bolton’s IIS-IIS Model
Over the years, I noticed how often supervisors have skirted around ethical conversations.
Often this was due to a nervousness of seeming to be the authority. At other times, it was fear of upsetting the coach by seeming to judge them. And at other times again it seemed that the supervisor just didn’t know how to bring the issue up.
That’s why I created the IIS-IIS Model for Ethical Conversations.
IIS-IIS stands for:
What is the issue that you are perceiving or that the coach has brought to you? Are you clear on it? Do you and your supervisee see the same dilemma?
Micro-reflect on your own internal emotional response and take a step back to disengage an automatic response. Ensure that your response is not going to be an emotional one based on a your own values.
Which stage(s) of the Ethical Maturity Model is significant?
Is your supervisee aware of it? Are they stuck in deciding what to do? Or implementing it? Or explaining it? Or are the ruminating on the after effects?
Does your intervention need to be formative, normative or restorative?
A lack of awareness might require a normative approach whereas awareness absent a plan might require a formative approach. A supervisee stuck at the level of ethical peace might need a restorative frame of supervision.
In other words, don’t automatically think that an ethical issue requires a normative approach.
Choose your approach based on the supervisee’s state of awareness and readiness to engage with the ethical issue.
This might mean a catalytic questions or it could me a more prescriptive approach. There may be need of catharsis or of support. Each of Heron’s 6 Intervention Types may play a role in an ethical conversation.
Explore where the ethical issues lie – for instance, using the 7-Eyed Model, is it a systemic issue, a client issue, a coach issue etc?
It can be easy to situate the ethical issue with the coach but often this is not the case. Ultimately, the decision they make will come from them but the ethical dilemma may be systemic, client-centred, coach-centred and so on.
Working with IIS-IIS
The aim of IIS-IIS is not to provide a linear model for ethical dialogue but rather a leaping off point. It offers the scaffolding for what can often feel like difficult conversations.
Each part of the model enables the supervisor to create the most effective conditions for a robust but respectful, collaborative and consensual conversation about ethics.
I cannot repeat often enough that unlike some professions in which there are strict regulations that have clear consequences, this is NOT the case with coaching. This is partly why, I suspect, many supervisors avoid confronting ethical issues. They fear they have no right and/or no authority.
Yet by adopting this stance they abdicate their responsibility as a coaching supervisor to protect and support all parts of the coaching system.
It is vital that we own our response and our thinking but that we don’t shrink from expressing it. Likewise we must enable our supervisees to engage in critical reflection on their ethical situations and create critically considered responses to them.
In conclusion, ethical awareness and practice are essential components of effective coaching supervision.
Supervisors should be well-versed in the ethical principles guiding their profession, including confidentiality, informed consent, professional boundaries, competence, cultural competence, and ethical decision-making.
But even more importantly, they need to develop the skill and courage to have challenging, collaborative conversations around the grey areas of coaching ethics.
By engaging in ongoing self-reflection and professional development, supervisors can uphold high ethical standards, foster a culture of ethical practice in coaching, and ultimately contribute to the growth and success of the coaches they supervise.