That magic ingredient

Could empathy, openness and common purpose be more important than a particular coaching approach, asks Geoff Alred, visiting research fellow at Sheffield Business School Irvin Yalom, the eminent existential psychotherapist, tells a good story. One concerns his failure to cook dishes as well as a teacher in a cooking class (1980). “What was it”, Yalom wondered, “that gave her cooking that special touch?” An answer came when he observed the teacher handing the dish to an assistant who “carried it into the kitchen to the oven and, without breaking stride, threw in handful after handful of assorted spices and condiments”. […]

Research matters – How long have you got?

Do hours and minutes equate to effective coaching or should sessions be ‘lean and mean’, asks David Wagstaff, visiting research associate at Sheffield Hallam University’s Coaching and Mentoring Unit How much time do you need for an effective executive coaching session? The question came up for me after a visit to my GP. I knew I had a limited time with the doctor. Seven minutes later I was outside with two prescriptions. I wondered how the doctor would measure up against International Coach Federation (ICF) criteria1, for example: Meeting ethical guidelines and professional standards? Probably OK – no reason to question […]

Collaboration best approach

Collaboration across the profession to educate buyers and the public about what best practice looks like and to develop a joint code of ethics and complaints procedure are your preferred ways of encouraging good practice and reducing incompetent, poor and unethical practice, according to the Poor Practice 2010 Survey. The survey was carried out among Coaching at Work readers and members of the following professional bodies: the Association for Coaching (AC); the British Psychological Society’s Special Group in Coaching Psychology; the European Mentoring & Coaching Council (EMCC); the International Coach Federation (ICF), and the Society for Coaching Psychology (SCP). Some […]

Research matters – too close for comfort?

Should coaches consider the intimacy created in the coaching relationship and its impact, asks Lis Merrick of the Coaching and Mentoring Research Unit at Sheffield Business School The concept of intimacy is so often tainted with sexual overtones that the coaching profession tends to shun discussion of it or shuffle with uncomfortableness when it is mentioned. Intimacy at work has been well researched by Ridley-Duff1. He links intimacy to the idea of detailed knowledge about something or someone: “Intimacy develops when two people seek to give each other both attention and assistance. In giving and getting attention, they seek opportunities […]

Be Positive? — bah! humbug!

Many coaching approaches are based on positivity. Just don’t let it become oppressive, says David Megginson of the Coaching and Mentoring Research Unit of Sheffield Business School Positive thinking and positive psychology need to be differentiated. Positive thinking stems from the work of Samuel Smiles1 in 19th century America and more recently of Norman Vincent Peale2, 3. Positive psychology takes a rigorous, evidence-based approach to positivity. Like positive thinking, it turns its gaze towards the positive, but looks at the data rather than telling stories. Both, however, take their place in coaching – and many would argue it is a […]

Poor Practice 2010 survey

In recent months, a handful of large UK organisations have raised concerns about what they consider to be poor, unethical or even downright dangerous practice. But how, if at all, should they respond?

Coaching is increasingly viewed as a profession in the UK – with all the expectations that come with this. More and more people are setting themselves up as coaches. The trouble is, those who do not have adequate training, CPD or supervision are bringing the profession into disrepute.

Most are probably well-intentioned. But how can we capitalise on this good intent and raise the bar without being all ‘Big Brother’ about it, and without attracting the attentions of the government?

Or is the latter what we want? Yet if the experiences of sister helping professions regulated via the Health Professions Council (HPC) are anything to go by, this is not to be undertaken lightly. It could well turn out to be a veritable minefield.

Many burning questions have been asked:

  • What exactly constitutes incompetent, poor, unethical or dangerous practice? Are we in agreement or, more likely, is there a range of subjective perceptions?
  • Should we be attempting to reach agreement across the professional bodies about what we deem to be best (and otherwise) practice?
  • What incompetent, unethical or poor practices have coaches or assessors encountered anyway?
  • Presuming there to be no all or nothing spectrum of what’s acceptable and unacceptable, what sorts of shades of grey should we be thinking about and what are the exceptions?
  • And when we do encounter less than ideal practice, what do we do about it, if anything? Should there be a range of options that come into play depending on the “severity” of behaviour or is this all too Big Brother for us?
  • Should we turn to the individual professional bodies to deal with complaints, seek cross-body collaboration, or use a government body such as the HPC?
  • By sticking our heads above the parapet, are we increasing the likelihood of the government stepping in and requiring coaches to be registered with the HPC?

Against such a backdrop, and to get a sense of what you, as coaching providers, think, Coaching at Work has joined forces with the Association for Coaching, the British Psychological Society’s Special Group in Coaching Psychology, the European Mentoring and Coaching Council, the International Coach Federation and the Society for Coaching Psychology.

We will be sharing the results of the survey in two parts over two issues. This first part looks at what you think constitutes incompetent, poor and unethical practice, and explores the extent to which you’re encountering it.

What you say

Ninety five per cent of you think sexual intimacy with a client is “unethical” although 3 per cent of you have encountered it. Some 91 per cent of you think developing an inappropriately personal relationship with clients is unethical; 12 per cent of you have encountered it.

Some of you query how “inappropriate” is defined: “If it means becoming friends and seeing each other socially outside of the coaching, it’s perfectly acceptable so long as it doesn’t compromise the coaching”; “While I do not coach friends and family, for example, many coaches do, and I do not see this as a problem if the boundaries are clear.”

The question of whether it’s acceptable to become intimate after the coaching has finished also arises: “If the coaching relationship ceases when an intimate relationship starts, that’s not unethical.”

Ninety one per cent of you think breaking client confidentiality is unethical; 25 per cent of you have come across this. However, as many of you stressed, this is not a “black and white” issue.

One respondent says: “However occasional, people can and do disclose things that require the helping professional to take further action, otherwise they may be failing in their duty of care to their client, the general public and possibly acting outside the law.”

These would include, according to another respondent, child protection, or risk of harm to self or others.

Some 93 per cent of you think misleading people about your credentials or a professional body is unethical.

Making clients dependent on coaching was deemed to be “unethical” by 67 per cent of respondents, “poor practice” by 51 per cent and “incompetent” by 29 per cent of the 529 respondents (bearing in mind respondents could choose more than one category).

What you’ve encountered

Presented with a list of practices and behaviours, the two most commonly encountered are “leading the client” (63 per cent) and not evaluating (59 per cent). Others encountered by many of you include the coach talking for the majority of the session (50 per cent), concentrating on problems (49 per cent), not reviewing/gathering feedback from the client (49 per cent), not contracting at the outset or along the way (48 per cent), and not taking into account “the wider system” – 41 per cent of you.

Twenty-six per cent of you have encountered coaches “making the client dependent on the coach”, while 20 per cent of you have come across coaches encouraging dependency on coaching in general.

One respondent comments: “We see most of these problems in coach assessment centres, and these are mainly accredited coaches. So the problem must be even more widespread among coaches in general!”

There were many other practices and behaviours you put forward, including not being aware of or managing boundaries well, the coach bringing their own issues or agenda to the coaching, and a lack of self-knowledge and awareness in the coach.

One respondent says that occasionally, they have “come across coaching that is quite dangerous, simply because the coach was working beyond their competence or because they were un-usefully attracted to the notion of helping the distressed”.


One thorny issue is whether it is acceptable to practise therapy while wearing a coach’s hat. A number of you query how we define therapy in this survey. Some 61 per cent deem practising it “unethical”, 49 per cent “poor practice”, 12 per cent “incompetent” and 9 per cent “acceptable” (respondents choosing more than one category).

Many of you felt this was a fuzzy area and one which depended on what contracting took place, on whether the coach switched back and forth between coaching and therapy, on the specific circumstances, on the definition of therapy, and so on.

A number of you believe that as long as the “hat-change” is made obvious, with clear contracting and client permission, the practice of therapy is not unethical.

One respondent argues that it is good ethical practice if a coach/therapist, with permission, breaks the coaching relationship for a while so that therapy can be undertaken. Assuming, of course, that it is agreed by the client and all appropriate discussions around the change of relationship have happened.

“It is unethical and poor practice if the coach just flip-flops between the two without mutual agreement between coach and client.”

Another says: “As a qualified counsellor and coach, I do not believe there is as much difference between coaching and therapy as some would like to make out. Coaching is therapeutic. Many counselling approaches emphasise solutions/goal setting and the client as expert.”

This respondent says that whether some of the situations listed are poor practice/unethical or not depends on the coach’s levels of competence, skill and expertise both within and outside coaching and on what has been contracted (both upfront and ongoing) with the client and sponsor.

Another says: “If a therapist is coaching, and she and the client agree that she can sometimes take off her coaching hat and do therapy, I do not see an issue of ethics or incompetence.”

This same respondent gives another example: “If a client who has fought alcoholism or drug abuse in the past now wants to work with a coach, I do not see a problem, as long as the coach recommends a therapist or other intervention when appropriate.”

Neither do they and a number of other respondents see it a problem if a coach switches to some consultancy, as long as they make the hat-change clear.

Neither is it clear-cut when it comes to working in areas or with clients traditionally associated with therapy. Twenty two per cent had come across coaches working with someone who is mentally unwell, while 18 per cent had encountered coaches working with “deep-rooted psychological issues” such as sexual abuse. And many of you defend the right to do so. Many others comment that it very much depends on the circumstances, a point made about other issues under the spotlight in the survey.

  • In the next issue of Coaching at Work, we will look at what, if anything, you think should be done about incompetent, poor and unethical practice.

The Poor Practice 2010 survey

Some 529 coaches responded to the Poor Practice 2010 survey carried out between April and June 2010.

Many of you welcomed its timeliness and the collaboration between Coaching at Work and the professional bodies. Some of you feared a pre-agenda – pushing the case for government regulation or more power for professional bodies, for example. However, the survey was initiated by Coaching at Work.

Others of you would have liked a debate beforehand about some of the definitions used including “unacceptable”, “therapy”, “inappropriate”. A few of you suggested carrying out another survey on best coaching practices.

Many of you felt that there are no clear-cut situations, that it is hard to categorically say a behaviour or practice is unethical as it would depend very much on the circumstances.

You’ve also encountered coaches:

  • Misrepresenting professional bodies or one’s credentials
  • Acting as consultant within coaching
  • Not understanding tripartite contracting
  • Not understanding conflicts of interest and what to do about them
  • Lacking awareness of boundaries and how to manage and hold them appropriately
  • Lacking self knowledge and awareness
  • Practising despite needing therapy
  • Making grandiose claims for coaching
  • Offering poor advice
  • Bullying or harassing clients
  • Dominating conversations with own issues
  • Coaching children without criminal record checks or appropriate training
  • Seeking referrals when client is vulnerable or during “halo effect” of coaching
  • Not advising client to get appropriate professional support
  • Not keeping client files according to Data Protection Act guidelines
  • Coaching despite insufficient training
  • Using “wishy-washy psychobabble approaches” they’ve made up
  • Frequently referring to own examples
  • Dismissing client issues (depression), advising them to get anti-depressants while working on coaching
  • Using “high pressure sales tactics to get client to commit to 12-18 month contracts upfront”

Coaching at Work, Volume 5, Issue 4

So does coaching have an impact?

You can only answer this question if you are clear about your evaluation criteria, says Paul Stokes, deputy director of the Coaching & Mentoring Research Unit at Sheffield Hallam University Coaches, buyers of coaching services and individual clients are very interested in research that supports the use of coaching. Many people, however, don’t reflect on their own criteria for evaluating coaching and research. “Getting the measure of you”, in the previous issue (vol 5, issue 2) looked at the dangers of a dominant discourse in research. I want to build on this by taking a critical look at the different […]

Managers new to coaching need ongoing support

It is vital that organisations provide continuous learning support to managers to help them embed newly acquired coaching skills, particularly in the first month, according to research from Sydney University. It takes about six months before the perceived benefits of adopting coaching behaviours outweigh the perceived downsides, suggest the findings. Pros and cons The study of 99 managers found that the Stages of Change or Transtheoretical Model of Change is relevant to workplace coaching. “Lots of coaches use the model, but there has been virtually no research on its applicability to coaching. I found it does apply to workplace coaching […]

ICF survey reveals what clients really want

Coaching is not the first port of call for most clients – 87 per cent first try other methods to help them address issues, including seeking free advice, according to global research by the International Coach Federation (ICF). Forty two per cent confide in colleagues, 36 per cent in family, and 29 per cent seek advice from a mentor before seeking a coach. The main alternatives to coaching in the commercial arena are training (38 per cent), counselling (21 per cent) and consulting (16 per cent). Select few Fifty eight per cent of clients engage the first and only coach […]