Has someone asked you to break your confidentiality agreement with a client asking for information about what’s going on in a coaching relationship?
These situations are probably more common than we think. I’ve heard variations on this story when friends, peers, supervisors, HR staff, and other coaches ask for and expect the coach to share information about the client or the topics being discussed. It might be a casual “How’s that coaching going?” or a more formal invitation to provide insight like “Do you think the client is ready for that promotion?”. These requests are challenging because they create conflicts between the interests of the stakeholders in the coaching engagement. They can violate promises, expectations or agreements. And they put the coach in an uncomfortable position of not knowing what’s the right move to make.
Ethics in coaching is a topic that touches close to home for me. Making choices when there is a conflict between self-interest and “the right thing” has been a life-long challenge. From the petty shoplifting of a candy bar as a small child to falling in love with a client, my personal history is littered with examples where I had to make these tough choices. Many times I chose “right”, some times I did not.
As I’ve delved into Ethics in Coaching, I’ve come to appreciate it’s complexities and nuances. We make many decisions each day that are easily in line with our personal morals and professional ethics. It’s the challenging situations that trip us up. My experience has taught me that coaches need to learn about, prepare for, and practice their responses to challenging ethical situations. It is also crucial to have a support system to help evaluate these challenging situations and make well-reasoned decisions about how to act.
Behaving ethically seems easy - in theory.
In theory, you dispassionately weigh the pros and cons, play out the possible scenarios and consequences, research what others have said and did, have rational conversations with the parties involved, and come to a well-reasoned and defensible decision on how to proceed. But, let’s be honest, we’re never this logical, even for the easy decisions we make!
By their nature, situations that challenge us to act “ethically” are confusing, conflict-ridden, ambiguous, and risky. They can ask us to break promises or contractual agreements, or involve illegal and immoral behavior that can be embarrassing and shameful. The conflicts can attack the things we hold dear, like our reputation, important relationships, and self-image. They can put our livelihood at risk. They may hinge on something we did or said (or didn’t do or say) in the past that we wish we could erase but can’t. They can happen when we’re experiencing other pressures – like difficulties with our finances -- that make it harder to be impartial, objective, and rational.
In short, we’re dealing with situations that can hijack our rational thinking causing us to retreat into hiding, avoidance, rationalization and magical thinking. Without our rational minds to guide us, the “right thing to do” might seem unnecessary, at one extreme, or downright dangerous, at the other.
There are many temptations in the coaching profession. We spend our time alone with clients in serious and personal conversations, in a trusting and intimate relationship. We work under an agreement of confidentiality, with little oversight or need to report to others. We are paid based on time spent with clients, and often get new business based on referrals and the “good word” of people we work with. We are often self-employed, with no “internal” support structure. Personally, I was not prepared for the stresses of being self-employed with a young family in a new profession without a strong support group. I’m curious how prepared you feel for the life you lead as a coach.
I have no easy answer to questions that start with “how should I handle (insert your favorite ethical challenge)?”, because the answer depends on so many things. If you need immediate help, talk with someone you trust about the specifics. But now that I’ve got your attention, take this opportunity to be reflective and thoughtful about how to prepare for the future situations that will surely happen. Although you can’t predict what they will be, you can bolster your foundations to make tough choices.
Find the ICF Code of Ethics and Professional Standards and read it through. Review the agreements you make with your clients and the contracts you sign with sponsors. Reflect on the challenges you’ve faced in the past, and the stories you’ve heard from your colleagues. Think about how you can be prepared and how you will respond to the common ethical challenges.
This is also an opportunity for self-reflection. What makes you vulnerable to being knocked off your ethical center? What are the triggers that take you out of your rational mind and how do they get activated? How can you prevent these and what support system do you need around you to keep you true to your ethics?
You have to DO Ethics, not just HAVE Ethics. Doing Ethics means making choices when there is no “right” and you might hurt yourself in the process. It’s harder than you think.
Two “out-of-the-box” references for exploring the complexity and nuances of Ethics.
In understanding how to handle ethical challenges, I think it’s important to understand human nature and motivations that drive our behavior. This means delving into the shadows where breaking rules, hiding information, taking risks, and doing damage seems to make sense.
If you’re curious to learn more, I have two recommendations:
Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely, especially Chapters 6 “The Influence of Arousal” and 13 “The Context of Our Character, Part 1: Why We Are Dishonest and What We Can Do About It”. Revised and expanded edition published in 2009 by HarperCollins, New York.
This book has some eye-opening experiments and results that remind us that our rational brain is not always in charge, especially when there are opportunities to be dishonest or take advantage of others.
Spreier, Scott, Mary Fontaine, and Ruth Malloy. 2006. “Leadership run amok: The destructive potential of overachievers”. Harvard Business Review 84, no. 6:72.
Available from https://hbr.org/2006/06/leadership-run-amok-the-destructive-potential-of-overachievers
This great article that explores how a motive for achievement, when overplayed in an environment without constraints, can be destructive to businesses and the people working in them.