Leader as Coach: Meeting Ethical Guidelines and Professional Standards

ethicalLast week, I set out the International Coach Federation coaching competencies.  Now it’s time to delve into each one in turn, starting with Meeting Ethical Guidelines and Professional Standards.

You might think this doesn’t apply to leaders as coaches, only professional coaches.  But it’s just as important for leaders as coaches, as there are multiple boundary issues to think about.

First off, you’ll be abiding by your own company’s code of ethics.

But then, there are ethical dilemmas that are particular for coaching in an organisation.

An ethical conundrum: which hat to wear?

For example, if you are a person’s manager, when do you put your coaching hat on, and when do you use another managerial hat, such as performance management? (albeit you can use a coach approach to managing performance).  You need to think about how much a person will open up to you in a coaching relationship, if they know that you are going to be rating them at the end of the year.  Can they trust you?  Do they believe they can trust you, even if you think you are trust-worthy?  So is it actually ethical to coach someone on your team?  Ethics are never black and white, but my take is that if you are being clear about which hat they need you to wear (coach, mentor, manager, friend, teacher….), you can contract for the kind of conversation that is needed.

Notice I say that it’s about their needs, not your desire to practice coaching on them.  If they are not willing to be coached, you may not coach them.  You may have a triage conversation first to decide which approach might suit their development needs, but ultimately it’s up to them.

An ethical issue: different relationship contexts

Sometimes we coach people who have been an internal client in the past, or an internal boss, or a colleague.  We have some back-story about them.  But we can’t let that cloud our neutrality in the coaching relationship.  Of course, we (or they) may decide that it’s just not appropriate to engage in coaching together given the history, but if we do go ahead, we need to keep to the coachee’s current agenda, not their past mistakes or difficulties.

An ethical difficulty: maintaining equality in the relationship

Coaching requires you to work as equals.  Neither of you know the right answers.   You are exploring together.  That can be tricky in the situation above, but also where you are coaching somene more senior than you.   It’s important to prepare to start and maintain an adult to adult relationship with an internal coaching client who is more senior than you; and to have that conversation with them as you contract for the work.  You see how that is about ethics and professional standards?

An ethical problem: not making assumptions about the system

As an employee of the organisation, we know the system like the back of our hand.  This can help; but it can also be a hindrance, when we make the same assumptions as our coachees about what can and cannot be changed.  When we are swimming in the same sea as our client, it can be hard to see that the water needs changing!  We need to be careful not to collude with the coachee’s assumptions, but to challenge them instead.  “Is that really true?  What could you do differently?  How might you get around that old way of doing things?”

An ethical snag: hearing stuff that changes my relationship with the company

Sometimes we hear stuff in coaching that affects our own personal relationship with the company.  Perhaps we hear about some bullying that’s going on, and we start to despise the company for allowing such behaviour.  Of course, we have an ethical duty of care in that scenario too, but we also need to have a place to discuss what’s going on for us.  Supervision is crucial for that.

An ethical hitch: not using what I hear in coaching to my own ends

We can also glean information in coaching that we could use to further our own projects or career.  This isn’t ethical.  It needs to be set aside and treated as confidential, not to be used for our own gains.  That can be hard.


I’ve named just a few of the ethical difficulties that you might encounter as a leader as coach.  I’m sure you can think of many others.  What have you come across, and how did you work through that?  Please share in the comments for others to learn from.