How do coach supervisors respond to ethical dilemmas and tricky issues? In this two-part series, Jonathan Passmore, Eve Turner and Marta Filipiak report on their research

The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind”: songwriter Bob Dylan’s famous lines suggested it’s not hard to do the right thing. Too often people ignore the obvious, because it’s tricky or because making an ethical decision creates unpleasant consequences for them. In this article we explore coach supervisors’ responses to such dilemmas and issues.

The article picks up on themes from our previous articles (Turner & Passmore, 2017; Passmore & Turner, 2018) and is based on 14 indepth interviews with supervisors in the UK, the Americas and Asia. In this first part we examine three themes that emerged. In the second part we will focus on the remaining four themes and discuss implications for practice.

Ethics may involve the concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ conduct in making decisions about how we live our lives. Clients, their coaches and coach supervisors all face such decisions in their work. Making judgements about what to do often creates dilemmas, which require us to draw on our personal attitudes, backgrounds and values, as well as situational factors.

For many, making decisions is complex, and is often not ‘black and white’. We were interested to explore how supervisors sought to help their clients navigate ethical dilemmas, the role supervision plays in this process, and what coaches can learn from these insights for their own ethical practice.


Supervision has been viewed by some as a means by which coaches, and the wider profession, can protect themselves from the challenges of poor practice (Hawkins & Schwenk, 2006).   While there is some anecdotal and small-scale survey evidence to support these claims (Grant, 2012; Lawrence & Whyte, 2013), little empirical work has been done to fully understand the role of supervision as a mechanism for improving coaching outcomes (Joseph, 2016). However, this is beginning to happen with increasing numbers of doctorial level research projects at institutions like Henley, Oxford Brookes and other research-led institutions.

Despite this lack of evidential proof, coaching supervision has become embedded as the recommended practice by a number of the leading professional coaching bodies as seen
in Table 1 below.

The Research

The data was gathered from a series of semi-structured interviews of up to an hour with 14 coaching supervisors. The sample included male and female supervisors in North America, Europe and Asia. This research built on a global online survey in which 101 coaching supervisors identified their views on the extent and nature of organisational ethical issues (Turner & Passmore, 2017).

Seven broad themes emerged, of which we consider three below.

Key themes

1 Origins of the dilemma

2 Obstacles to resolution

3 Personal resources

4 Empathetic listening

5 Safe practice

6 Blowing the whistle

7 Increasing ethical capability


The seven main themes that came up from the analysis are outlined (see Key themes).

  1. Sources of ethical dilemmas

Respondents listed three areas, with some overlap, where ethical issues were most likely to arise: the client, the coach and the multiple relationships which coach and client needed to navigate.

According to the coaching supervisors, issues with the client were most frequently related to their emotions. These included feelings of anxiety, fear or sadness. The coach had to work with their client to explore and resolve these as part of the ethical dilemmas faced by their client.

In contrast, when describing potential issues for the coach, the source of the ethical dilemmas was focused mainly on behaviours. In these cases the coach was most concerned with what to do, or maybe what to do differently next time. One supervisor noted “[the coach] Inadvertently… without thinking about it…. shared some information, from a meeting she had with her client, with the boss [the organisational client]. This made her question how she managed such meetings”.

The third common source was from the multiple relationships which the parties needed to navigate within the wider system. In this sense coaching was clearly part of a wider social process, nested in multiple relationships with bosses, partners, commissioning managers and others.

  1. Obstacles in dealing with ethical dilemmas

A second theme was the obstacles to resolution. Most coach supervisors experienced difficulties in dealing with ethical issues and we categorise these under four broad sub-themes: assumptions, reporting, relativism and emotions.

A common theme across all four was the lack of practical experience in making ethical choices as a ‘conscious decision’. Supervisors reported that such choices were rare, they were often one-off situations and coaches and their supervisors lacked training in dilemma resolution. They were mostly unaware of models or frameworks to help guide their thought processes and thus were often starting from base camp without a map to guide them. However, the role of the supervisors was a useful aid: helping the coach, and in turn the client, find a way through the difficulty. In doing this, supervisors often needed to make multiple assumptions about what was going on, and based on these to guide the client forward towards resolution.

Another important sub-theme was the difference in how supervision is currently understood around the globe, and a lack of ethical awareness. For example, in the Americas one supervisor commented: “I just think, in the US…supervision is not nearly as well known or understood as it is in the UK…” (Interview 10). This leads to its own problems in that supervisors suspected that coaches were left with their own dilemmas and simply pressed on, as coaches didn’t fully understand how best to use their supervisors. Potential issues were thus unreported, or not discussed, when in reality these were ideal topics for coaching supervision and would help develop ethical sensitivity and greater judgement.

An interesting issue in this theme was culturally relative values. Different cultures operate different practices and how should one balance cultural imperialism with universal right and wrong? For example, “What is a bribe in a US context may not be in another context” (Interview 1). Another participant noted: “…you might be very clear in one, but not in another location” (Interview 11).

A final theme was emotion, which acted as an obstacle to managing dilemmas. Supervisors wondered how best to handle emotion and, in this context, were particularly concerned about what they saw as negative emotions such as shame, anxiety and anger: “How do I deal with her shame situation?” (Interview 1).

  1. Personal resources

The third theme arising from the interviews with supervisors was personal resources – personal character, individual values and judgement.

Supervisors noted the importance of personal character, or personality. For some individuals nothing was an issue, while for others, every encounter was to be picked over. Supervisors highlighted the importance of resilience, for coaches to be able to endure ups and downs in relationships and their work.

A second theme was values. As one supervisor noted: “I’m constantly having to explore and challenge my own values, inside and outside the supervision, because what happens outside impacts the way I am inside” (Interview 6).

The third sub-theme was the role of judgement. Supervisors argued that their intuition played an important role: “I found it difficult because the individual wanted to do something different to what my instinct told me needed to be done” (Interview 5).

But none discussed any model they referred to as a guide to help them navigate the dilemmas, instead preferring to place their judgement with what felt right. Yet there was some recognition this was difficult, and coaches needed to “live with the consequences” (Interview 1). In cases of illegality it was suggested this was even more of a difficult call for the supervisor, but the primacy of their client seemed to be of most importance to supervisors even in cases of illegal activity.


In an interview after the release of Bob Dylan’s second album which contained “Blowin’ in the wind”, a music journalist asked what the song was about. Dylan was reported to have said: “I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong.” And Carroll and Shaw warn “how incredibly simple and, at times, tempting it is to remain ethically unaware” (2013, p351).

As we progressed through this research, we wondered whether coaches and their supervisors are in danger of doing what Dylan was referring to if they collude with clients, and ignore the responsibility they owe to organisational clients and wider society? The next article will explore the four other factors, and implications for practice.


  • British Psychological Society (2017) Practice Guidelines
  • M Carroll and E Shaw, Ethical Maturity in the Helping Professions. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2013
  • Global Code of Ethic for Coaches, Mentors and Supervisors (2018)
  • A Grant, ‘Australian coaches’ views on coaching supervision: A study with implications for Australian coach education, training and practice’, in International journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 10(2), 17-33, 2012
  • P Hawkins and G Schwenk, Coaching Supervision: Maximising the Potential of Coaching. CIPD: London, 2006
  • International Coach Federation ICF’s position on Coaching Supervision (2018)
  • I Iordanou, R Hawley and C Iordanou, Values and Ethics in Coaching. London: Sage, 2016
  • S Joseph, ‘A review of research into business coaching supervision’, in Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Practice & Research, 9(2), 158-168, 2016
  • P Lawrence and A Whyte, ‘What is coaching supervision and is it important?’, in Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 7, 39-55, 2014
  • J Passmore, ‘Coaching ethics: Making ethical decisions – novices and experts’, in The Coaching Psychologist, 5(1), 6-10, 2009
  • J Passmore, H Brown and Z Csigas, The State of Play in Coaching and Mentoring in Europe: Executive Report. Henley-on-Thames: HBS, 2017
  • J Passmore and E Turner, ‘Reflections on Integrity – the APPEAR model’, in Coaching at Work, 13(2), 42-46, 2018
  • E Turner and J Passmore, ‘The trusting kind’, in Coaching at Work, 12(6), 34-39, 2017
  • E Turner and J Passmore, ‘Ethical dilemmas and tricky decisions: A global perspective of coaching supervisors’ practices in coach ethical decision-making’, in International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 16(1), 126-142, 2018
  • WABC (2013) WABC Professional Standards for Business Coaches.


Professional body

Extracts from published Ethical codes


AC, APECS, AICP and UNM (Global Code of Ethics, 2018)

4.3 Members will engage in supervision with a suitably qualified supervisor or peer supervision group with a level of frequency that is appropriate to their coaching, mentoring or supervision practice, the requirements of their professional body and the level of their accreditation, or evidence engagement in reflective practice, ideally with peers and/or more experienced colleagues.

4.5 Members will discuss any ethical dilemmas and potential, or actual, breaches of this Code with their supervisor or peer supervision group for support and guidance.

ICF (2018)

“ICF recommends coaching supervision for full-time professional coach practitioners as part of their portfoilo of continuing professional development (CPD activities designed to keep them fit for purpose). ICF does not require coaching supervision.”

WABC (2013)

9. Professional development

…Keep my learning and practice up to date through appropriate professional development, such as conference and workshop attendance, work-based learning, reading, research, training and supervision activities, presentations and involvement with WABC or other relevant professional associations.

British Psychological Society (BPS 2017)

1.5 Consultation/supervision

Consultation or supervision is considered an essential part of good practice as a psychologist. There is no legal requirement for supervision, although it is considered an ethical and professional expectation to engage in appropriate consultation in order to support an effective practice.

Table 1: Professional bodies’ attitudes to supervision