How do coaches address their own unconscious bias? Catherine Wade reports
Recent media coverage arising from the death of George Floyd in the US, and the subsequent Black Lives Matter demonstrations, have led many of us to reflect on our own unconscious bias, attitudes and behaviours when discussing issues around race, diversity and inclusion.
There are many research studies that have investigated the nature of unconscious bias and how intrinsic our beliefs systems are to human behaviour, alongside studies around stereotyping and prejudice and the effect this can have on how we behave towards others. However, few studies have looked at the coaching profession and the level of self-awareness coaches have around their own unconscious bias and the impact this has on their coaching practice.
It’s increasingly apparent to me that the world is changing – a new, younger, diverse, culturally sensitive generation is having a greater influence on the future of work and how we live our lives and access services. In addition, with the increase in virtual coaching during the Covid-19 pandemic, many coaches are working for global organisations, coaching clients from many different backgrounds and cultures, who might increasingly want to work with someone who understands their world.
It’s also clear that greater access to coaching for different groups is likely to result in coaches needing more than a superficial level of understanding of unconscious bias and greater sensitivity to what diversity and inclusion really means.
The extent to which these topics are being considered by the coaching literation, profession and factored into the work of coaches still seems to be in its infancy.
As part of my MSc. in Coaching and Behavioural Change at Henley Business School, I undertook a research study to investigate this topic. The study consisted of one-to-one interviews with 10 professional executive coaches from very different demographic backgrounds and extensive experience in the field.
The study examined what level of awareness they had around the topic and their own unconscious bias when working with clients different to them. Biases discussed ranged from the protected characteristics, such as gender, sexuality, race, age, religion to disability. However, it also extended to thinking about socio-economic backgrounds, regional accents, or any one of the multitude of differences we all share. I explored what they did during coaching sessions when their own biases emerged, along with examining what specialist skills, techniques and training they used to ensure they operated respectfully and ethically with their clients.
The results from the research were illuminating, highlighting significant variations in their opinions on the subject and in their coaching practice.
During the interviews, as might be expected, the coaches all understood what unconscious bias was, either from their own experiences or from working with clients. However, there were extreme differences in how they related to the topic in their own practice. This varied from being fully integrated into how they worked, to something they knew about, but which had very limited impact on who and how they coached.
One coach explains their approach as:
“In order to not be judgemental you have to deal with your own unconscious bias on whatever subject that may be. I think it’s one of the fundamentals around the ethics of a coach. You have to be aware of it and self aware of how you deal with it and have a process around it. If you don’t have that, I think it’s difficult to be a high-performing coach.”
“I believe that all people have bias, right, there are the social beliefs about people, based on your experience and your brain makes a shortcut. I mean it is part of how people have made decisions as well, so if you are not aware of them and you do not catch them, you are going to make these automatic assumptions and it is going to keep us from seeing people.”
It was also evident that how the coaches worked with bias was clearly influenced by their own demographic background. The heterosexual white male coaches in the study approached the topic completely differently to the others. They demonstrated a greater sense of self-assurance in their approach to coaching, with less evidence of adaptation to their client’s differences. Interestingly, it was also evident from the study that the female coaches and those from minority groups, while disclosing they themselves held bias, were the ones most proactively addressing
the impact in their practice, in stark contrast to their white male colleagues.
Tools and techniques
Many of the coaches initially struggled to conceptualise their own unconscious biases and were unable to recall, at first, any specific coaching tools and techniques being used. However, when pressed, most could speak of specific cognitive processes or techniques they’d developed and used when biases surfaced in coaching. This aligns to some of the ideas of Bohnet (2016) and Banaji and Greenwald (2016), who have highlighted that if you really want to address biases, specific processes are needed to raise awareness and interrupt what might be unconscious bias.
It was surprising, given what’s known about biases that for most of the coaches, the tools and techniques chosen were led entirely by the coaching objectives without factoring in an approach that would allow them to take into account the diversity of their client. It was evident that the coaches with a higher level of sensitivity to the topic and who viewed it as more important, had developed emotional regulation processes to manage themselves while coaching and when issues arose.
For those coaches, these practices were seen as fundamental to their work.
“I am always thinking about the adapting part and how do I need to work to coach this person. I can’t just use a set of tools, right, I can’t just use a script, because that hasn’t worked for me, that has not worked, because I am not a typical coach when you compare me in my physical and ethnic background to, you know, a white male. I’m very different.”
What was an unexpected finding from this study was the strength of feeling to ‘calling out’ unconscious bias they noted in their clients. Despite some of the reticence in looking at their own level of awareness, having the courage to give feedback to clients around their unconscious bias and being able to challenge clients was seen as important. This skill of being courageous and challenging clients enabled the coaches to manage professional boundaries, gain credibility and build respect while remaining authentic. It also seemed to serve as a mirror for the coaches themselves, enabling them to question their own behaviours and beliefs during personal supervision and reflection.
Training and development
Throughout the study, the coaches’ varying levels of self-awareness to their own unconscious bias was very apparent. It was also evident that the coach training they’d received was focused on general knowledge and information, rather than deepening their own level of self-awareness around how they addressed the topic of diversity and inclusion through practice. Their varying array of coach training, qualifications, memberships and accreditations attained with different professional bodies didn’t really touch on the subject in
However, all the coach participants believe that novice coaches would benefit from a combination of:
- Formal qualification and unconscious bias training
- Hours of coaching practice with a diverse group of clients outside of their normal network
- Immersing themselves in other groups and cultures through studying, reading and charitable work or philanthropy which would enable them to get first-hand experience of other groups to broaden their outlook and truly step into the world of others.
The study highlights that for professional coaches working with clients from diverse backgrounds it’s likely that their own unconscious bias could impact their practice. How the coaches worked with bias, their coaching processes, the tools and techniques being used and their approach to reflection and supervision were significantly influenced by their own life experiences, demographic backgrounds and what they perceived to be the expectations of sponsoring clients.
Observing their clients’ behaviour when discussing issues of diversity and inclusion and needing to react in the moment proved a significant learning point for the coaches in understanding how to address their own biases while coaching.
This study evidenced that coach training and development activities, reflective practice and supervision should include greater emphasis on developing skills in understanding unconscious bias to assist in the development of coaches.
The extreme and contrasting views that arose in many parts of my study, would indicate the use of a developmental model such as Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (Rosinski, 2003), could be useful to coaches in raising their awareness to working with difference in the same manner in which culture is addressed. Particularly given that some of the coaches felt that developing intercultural sensitivity and flexibility towards clients was important.
Other recommendations from this study include:
- Developing more specific knowledge and practice-led training for novice coaches in deepening their understanding of their unconscious biases and how this plays out in practice. This would allow coaches to gain the requisite skills and knowledge to work effectively with a broader, multicultural, diverse client base and to be sensitive to their own bias
- Developing a best practice approach for coaches in how to build a trusting, mutually respectful relationship when working with a diverse client base
- Aligning university-led coach training to the professional bodies’ practice requirements. This would provide a focus on acquiring in-depth knowledge around bias, alongside developing competence in practice
- Aligning the competency frameworks and ethical guidelines of the professional coaching bodies to a common format. This would again assist coaches in operating to a commonly recognised standard
- Requiring coaches to undertake mandatory reflection and supervision.
I believe being better able to recognise and work with unconscious bias is important in coaching for a number of reasons. For one, as coaches, we’re increasingly working alongside people who aren’t the same as us in many ways, and who have a different view of the world. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to coaching doesn’t work now nor will it in the future. Many clients want to be open about their differences and issues relating to these with their coaches.
Of course, these same clients may, over time, have more influence in the purchasing of coaching services as they progress in their careers. At the same time, we’re seeing greater global interconnectivity, greater use of technology and a more virtual market, meaning that coaching services can be bought from anywhere by a diverse range of buyers and sponsors. Clients are increasingly sourcing socially responsible vendors who pay attention to diversity and inclusion, becoming more discerning in their choices of vendor/supplier, as well as the quality and standard of their training.
Most coaches understand that “who they are has a fundamental bearing on how they practise” (Long, 2011: 78). To be effective “coaches must continuously reflect on their own cultural assumptions and biases and to how these may distort their perspective and the way they work with clients” (Baron & Azizollah, 2007:373). Without this, the credibility of the coaching profession may be brought into question, with the huge variation in understanding and practice in this area and without clearer standards and guidelines for coaches in recognising the dimension of bias. The role and training of supervisors in this context becomes fundamental to ensuring they can support coaches in working on themselves as instruments, so coaches can become more authentic and improve the quality, depth and professionalism of their work.
- Catherine Wade is an associate executive coach with Leadenhall Consulting. She will be participating in Coaching at Work’s Diversity & Inclusion Podcast series
Coaches need to:
- Develop a deeper understanding of how unconscious bias influences behaviours and of the adaptations needed to improve practice.
- Move beyond unconscious bias awareness training and immerse yourself with diverse groups and literature to broaden your knowledge.
- Stay informed. Complete, university-led training coupled with professional accreditation to develop competence and improve practice.
- Support professional bodies in enhancing coach competency frameworks so the industry develops a clear and consistent standard of practice.
- Make greater use of reflective practice and supervision to challenge thinking. Blind spots hinder good practice.
- Be curious and authentic. Don’t be afraid to ask sensitive questions to broaden awareness, gain knowledge and increase credibility with clients.
- Extreme differences were noted in how the coaches believed they addressed their own biases when working with clients.
- The UK- based heterosexual white male coaches approached the topic completely differently to the rest of the group.
- Several male coaches made no adjustment in their coaching approach and felt the topic was irrelevant to them, their clients or sponsoring organisations.
- The female coaches and those from minority groups adapted their approach and considered this crucial to their effectiveness as a high-performing coach.
- The ‘calling out’ of unconscious bias in their clients proved to be a great catalyst for the coaches’ own development.
- There was a clear lack of consistency in how the coaching profession views, trains and develops coaches around unconscious bias, diversity and inclusion.
Table 1. Demographic backgrounds of the participants
|Gender||Coaching Years||Location/Client Base|
|Derek||White Male||30||Asia – Asian client base|
|Nigel||White Male||25||UK – European client base|
|Roger (G)*||White Male||25||UK – Global client base|
|Matthew||White Male||20||UK – Global client base|
|James (G)*||Black Male||25||UK – Global client base|
|Henry||White Male||8||UK – Client base|
|Jill||Asian Female||15||US – Global client base|
|Jen||White Female||20||UK – European client base|
|Geraldine||White Female||15||UK – European client base|
|Monica||White Female||12||UK – Client base|
Table 2. High level themes: working definitions
|The main theme that explained the assumptions, pre-judgements and stereotypes made about individuals from different backgrounds. How individuals related to one another both positively and negatively in this context. How well the coaches understood the implications of bias. In addition to their ability to recognise the client’s view of the world may not be the same as their own. Observing their client’s unconscious bias. The coaches’ level of self-awareness and the importance attached to this.|
|The steps followed during the coaching encounter. The coaching tools and techniques used, the mental processes, emotional regulation, mind processes, mindfulness and taking time out. The use of silence, appreciative inquiry, listening skills. The techniques deployed to control and manage the coaching relationship. Working within the objectives of the client organisation.|
|The ability, willingness and confidence of the participants to raise concerns to clients in what were sometimes difficult situations relating to bias. The circumstances in which clients were challenged. How the coaches felt, what they did. How they resumed the relationship. Ethics, boundary management.|
|Chemistry and Rapport
|The role of the contracting process in the coach-client relationship. How coaches related to their clients in a positive way in order to build a strong ongoing trusting relationship. The role of humour. Sharing information. What steps the coaches took initially and throughout their relationship to create the conditions for clients to speak freely.|
|Coach Training and Development
|The activities pursued by the participants to raise their levels of skills and competence in all areas of coaching including qualifications, accreditation, membership. Cultural awareness and development. Reflection processes, peers, coach support and supervision. Professionalism of coaching.|
*(G) Identified themselves as gay
“Every moment. Every prickle, when you get that prickle in your shoulders, something, every mental eye roll, every time you hear him start to give a response that you know is going to give an eyebrow that does that. I know it’s going to make my eyebrow leave my forehead. Every one of those I pre-prepare for.” Quote from coach James
References and further info
- Association for Coaching & J Passmore, Diversity in Coaching: Working with gender, culture, race and age (2nd ed). London: Kogan Page, 2013
- M R Banaji, & A Greenwald, Blind Spot, London: Penguin Random House, 2016
- M R Banaji, R Bhaskar, & M Brownstein, ‘When bias is implicit, how might we think about repairing harm?’, in Current Opinion in Psychology, 6, 183-188, 2015
- I Bohnet, What Works: Gender Equality by Design, Harvard University Press, 2016
- J F Dovidio, M Hewstone, P Glick, & VM Esses, Prejudice, Stereotyping and Discrimination. London: SAGE Publications, 2010
- H Baron & H Azizollah, ‘Coaching and Diversity’, in S Palmer & A Whybrow (eds.) Handbook of Coaching Psychology, London: Routledge, 2007
- G Hofstede, J G Hofstede & M Minkov, Culture and Organizations (3rd ed). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010
- l B Kandola, The Value of Difference: Eliminating bias in organisations. Oxford: Pearn Kandola, 2009
- K Long, ‘The self in supervision’, in T Bachkirova, P Jackson & D Clutterbuck (eds.), Coaching and Mentoring Supervision, Theory and Practice, (Supervision in context series), London: Open University Press, 2011
- S Malos, ‘Overt stereotype biases and discrimination in the workplace: Why haven’t we fixed this by now?’, in Employee Responsibilities & Rights Journal, 27(4), 271-280, 2015
- C Nieuwerburgh, ‘Intercultural-sensitive coaching’, in T Bachkirova, G Spence, & D Drake (eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Coaching, London: SAGE Publications, 2017
- P Rosinski, Coaching Across Cultures, London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2003
- S Stout-Rostron, Working with Diversity in Coaching, London: SAGE Publications, 2017
- S O Utsey, G Ponterotto & J Porter, ‘Prejudice and racism, year 2008 – Still going strong’, in Journal of Counselling & Development, 86, 2008
- S Warren, ‘Coaching gay and lesbian clients’, in Association for Coaching & J Passmore (eds.), Diversity in Coaching, London: Kogan Page, 2013