Coaching and Ethics


This article is written for three important audiences. First and foremost, the article speaks to professional leaders and coaches, whether you work within organizations or as practitioners providing coaching services on a temporary or contractual basis. Second, it is for those who are new coaches, those on a development track to refine their capabilities and ideas about coaching, or those who have been introduced to coaching through courses such as Coaching for Breakthroughs and Commitment offered by the Canadian Centre for Management Development. Finally, anyone who is interested in coaching as a discipline or considering working with a coach could find useful ideas here. Even if you are unfamiliar with coaching as a discipline for achieving unprecedented results, this article will introduce you to concepts and ethical issues of concern to anyone contemplating using a coach.


In recent years, coaching has become fashionable in many organizations and has captured the hearts and minds of those who see coaching as a revolutionary approach to management and leadership. At its best, coaching is not simply a new buzzword for describing a more “people centered” style of management. Rather, coaching is a distinct and different paradigm for working with people and accomplishing results. It is a way of relating and communicating in which the coach is committed to the commitments of the coachee or team and is competent to provide an opening for new possibilities and unprecedented actions to occur.

The historical culture of management is rooted in a commitment to predict or forecast the future and then control human behaviour and processes to achieve that culture’s aims. By contrast, a coaching culture is grounded in a commitment to create or invent the future and then empower the authentic commitment and actions of those being coached. In effect, this is a shift in the locus of power and responsibility from the manager to those they manage. In most organizations, coaching is not a formal role, but a body of competencies and a “way of being” in the world that can empower people in many roles, including the role of manager. When looking at the nature of the action produced, in our experience, coaching is virtually synonymous with leadership.

We believe people representing themselves as executive or organizational coaches must adhere to the highest standards of professional responsibility and accountability. Our first concern is to protect the interests of those being coached. A defined ethical standard offers a mechanism for clarifying what people can expect and lays the foundation for exploring ethical performance. In this article, we are proposing a “code of ethics” for coaches as a starting point for distinguishing standards within the coaching community and also as guidelines for consumers to consider when electing to work with a professional coach. Any code of ethics, however, is only as valuable as its endorsement by a community of individuals and the degree to which it impacts our day-to-day choices.


This discussion of ethics is grounded in the view that coaching is emerging as an important and distinct discipline in organizations. We need to be sensitive, however, to the phenomenon of how a new idea can emerge only to be appropriated by the historical culture, thus reinforcing the prevailing paradigm. In many organizations, the notion of “flavour-of-the-month” (when speaking of new approaches to management and work) is a cynical expression of this phenomenon. It suggests that the “new” is essentially trivial, is more of the same, and thus can be disregarded. The challenge is to not throw out or undermine what is valuable, powerful, and new while attempting to avoid shallow interpretations or seduction by practitioners using a popular new concept to sell “old” approaches.

Over the past decade, coaching has attracted much attention and offered opportunities for people to take advantage of increased interest and demand. Throughout this period, thousands of individuals have been trained or declared themselves as coaches, programs for teaching and/or certifying coaches have proliferated, many books have been published on the subject, and conferences on coaching are now mainstream. Several large corporations have even replaced the word manager’ with the word coach’ in all of their publications, on organizational charts and on business cards. Clearly, changing a label doesn’t change behavior or the underlying issues of organizational life and culture. Some estimates suggest that there are as many as 10,000 self-declared coaches working as practitioners in the United States and Canada today. While many of these practitioners are undoubtedly very competent and are making a positive difference with their client companies and in the individual lives of those they coach, others are simply calling themselves coaches and applying traditional techniques, giving advice, and functioning in the old command and control’ paradigm.

For consumers of coaching services, this can be very confusing.
Certainly some people expect and want their ‘coach’ to tell them
what to do. “Swing the club this way” or “Make your resume look
like this.” Others who have experienced Total Quality Management
(TQM) or organizational delayering initiatives may have been introduced
to coaches or facilitators as a replacement for supervisors —
complete with new skills to empower and support others. Such ‘coaches’
can be very productive contributors to both organizations and individuals,
yet they are quite distinct from those coaches who are professionally
trained and capable of working with people to achieve breakthroughs
— unprecedented results based on new ways of being.


As Warren Bennis and others have suggested, coaching by its nature is very personal and is based on a unique and profound level of trust between the coach and those being coached. While coaching is not therapy, the quality of the relationship is similar and the consequences, whether positive or negative, can be just as profound. This is because the coaching relationship is based on two key elements. The first is that the coach is a competent observer and is responsible for generating a possibility with the coachee that is larger than what is available in the coachee’s historical reality. This necessitates a level of faith on the part of the coachee that the coach is acting solely in the coachee’s interests. Second, the objective of the coaching relationship is to empower the coachee to take unprecedented action that more often than not is contrary and counterintuitive to the experience and historical competence of the person being coached. Consequently, the coachee is required to take significant personal risk to realize the benefits of the coaching relationship. If successful, the benefits are obvious and validate the coaching process. If unsuccessful, the coachee must be prepared to deal with and be responsible for potentially negative consequences.

When a group of seminar participants was asked to distinguish between morals, ethics and values, this was their most useful interpretation: Morals are the rules of God, ethics are the rules of a community and values are our individual rules. Ideally, these rules are aligned and coherent and become our framework for living. In most cases, however, we are faced with choices where the rules are not always clear or may seemingly be in conflict. Moreover, in many cases our actions are not so much a product of deliberate choices as natural or automatic responses to situations and circumstances in which the prevailing ethic is governed by conventional wisdom, expediency, habit or trial and error.

In the federal public service, most leaders are familiar with the Report of the Study Team on Public Service Values and Ethics, prepared with the guidance of the late John Tait. That report proposed four lenses for thinking about values:

  • Democratic values
  • Professional values
  • Ethical values, and
  • Personal values

This offers another way to look at the standards and expectations we hold of coaches and their professional conduct. In reading the remainder of this article, it may be useful to consider the connections to these categories and the implications for those coaching within a public sector context.

We believe that for coaching to become a widely respected discipline or profession, there must be an agreed upon set of rules to govern our practice. In the absence of such rules, coaching may indeed become a passing fad and the potential of coaching as a new and empowering paradigm for organizations and management may be lost. We invite coaching colleagues and clients to engage this proposal as a starting point. This article offers a foundation that can be enriched or expanded based on whatever experience and commitment can be brought to bear. Here then are the ïrules’ – the code of ethics – we propose:

  1. A coach is clear about the limits of his/her competency.
  2. Competency is defined as the ability to make and keep promises.
    One of the paradoxes of coaching is that the coach does not need
    to know as much as the coachee in a particular field to be an
    effective coach nor does she need to be able to perform at the
    level of the coachee. This is obvious if we look at coaches of
    professional athletes or performing artists. Yet the coach does
    need to be able to promise a result that is beyond the capability
    of the coachee to accomplish by herself. For example, a person
    can be competent to coach people in such areas as their relationships
    with other people, their communication, how they observe themselves
    and their circumstances, and their relationship to their own commitments.
    Breakthroughs in these domains can be powerful for almost anyone
    in any field of work. That same coach may not be competent, however,
    to write computer programs or undertake market research or prepare
    a balance sheet. The ethical issue is this. A coach needs to know
    enough about the areas being coached to listen effectively. At
    the same time, the coaches interventions should be focussed on
    the coachee’s commitments and coaching requests.
  3. A coach is always working with the phenomenon of “cognitive
    blindness,” the boundary between ‘what we know‘ and ‘what
    we don’t know that we don’t know.
    ‘ This is the area where
    coaching is powerful and valuable since none of us can observe
    ourselves in action nor can we observe our own world view. If
    a coach isn’t vigilant and aware of her own blindness, the distinction
    between expertise and opinion can be lost. When this occurs, the
    coaching can be reduced to giving advice and there is a danger
    of the coachee acting on the view of someone less competent than
    himself.One indicator of a coach’s awareness and management of her
    own blindness is that she maintains a relationship with a coach
    herself. It is good to be suspicious of anyone purporting to
    be a coach who is not also a great coachee. We recommend that
    anyone hiring a coach ask explicitly in what areas is the person
    not competent. This does not restrict the coach from ever giving
    advice, but when aware of her limits of competency she is able
    to clearly announce that “this is not coaching” and in doing
    so manage the potential for confusion or unintended outcomes.
  4. A coach is professional and clarifies the nature of the coaching
    A mark of professionals in any field is that they are very
    clear with their clients about what they do and do not offer.
    These promises may be recorded in writing and become a basis
    for later evaluation of results and value added. In a coaching
    relationship, there should also be a clear articulation of what
    is required of the coachee. Establishing expectations is important
    not only because it is a good professional practice, but also
    because the nature of the coaching relationship is inherently
    dynamic. Neither the coach nor the coachee can predict nor should
    they proscribe what the process will be. It will change and
    evolve over time and in most cases involve creativity on the
    part of the coach. Consequently, clarifying the ground rules
    establishes a frame of reference in which the individuals can
    work. At the same time, the coaching client may well make new
    requests as he discovers the possibility of achieving results
    in areas other than those initially considered. Finally, the
    coach will be responsible for clarifying the nature of the coaching
    relationship, particularly with respect to the power of choice
    exercised by the coachee. In summary, the coach should be explicit
    about the coaching process, content, and relationship.One reason that it is important to get the “agreement” clear
    at the beginning of a coaching relationship is that coaching
    can be extremely uncomfortable for the person being coached.
    Historical inertia and patterns of behavior are often difficult
    to break and require exceptional clarity and commitment to do
    so. Coaching requires “unreasonable” actions on the part of
    the coachee, which can generate considerable resistance and
    rationalization that can either undermine the value of the coaching
    or produce classical “power and control” games between the coach
    and coachee. Part of any agreement should include a mutual understanding
    of where boundaries exist, what are the protocols and practices
    for dealing with expected resistance, and any other pitfalls
    that can be anticipated. Coaching works only when power and
    choice are vested in the coachee. A failure to understand and
    clarify this at the beginning of the relationship can result
    in the coach either assuming or being given a traditional authority-control
    role in the relationship. This will negate or obscure the value
    of the coaching and even if results are produced, the coachee
    may become co-dependent upon the coach for sustaining the results.
  5. Coaches recognize the value of their work and maintain professional
    integrity in their relationships consistent with agreed upon compensation.
    We believe that coaching is a privilege. When we coach others,
    they grant us permission to observe and intervene in their lives
    and in how they are ‘being’ in their work and in their world.
    The special trust required of them for the coach to make a contribution
    is exceptional and can only be regarded as a gift. The relationship
    is analogous to that typically found with doctors, priests,
    therapists, or very close friends. When someone relates to another
    this way, it is always possible to abuse or take advantage of
    the trust. This abuse can be sexual, political, economic, or
    personal domination. All such forms of abuse are inappropriate.One way to acknowledge and maintain this special relationship
    is to clarify exactly what the basis of compensation will be
    (if any) and rigorously reject any temptations to benefit beyond
    the pre-established terms. In an organizational context, this
    may be implicit in the managerial relationship, however, it
    is incumbent on the coach to make it explicit, just as he would
    if operating as an independent practitioner. We believe that
    coaching is a valuable service and we set daily or hourly fees
    based on what we and the client consider to be appropriate.
    Once established and agreed upon, practices should be developed
    that keep the relationship on a professional level. When the
    coachee accomplishes breakthroughs, they can experience extraordinary
    emotion and gratitude. In some cases, these breakthroughs can
    be “priceless” or worth many times the cost of any fees. It
    is important to always acknowledge that the result belongs to
    the coachee and that the coach has already been compensated,
    whether formally or simply from the satisfaction of empowering
    others.In addition to establishing set fees to prevent inappropriate
    remuneration, there are other ethical issues which must be considered.
    One common abuse of coaching by professional consultants is
    to use coaching as a way to gain entry and preferred access
    to larger consulting contracts within the client’s organization.
    While many coaches are also qualified as trainers or management
    consultants, the relationship with the client is compromised
    if the coach uses it for such business development purposes.
    Another common example of abuse of the coaching relationship
    is the covert use of the coachee as a vehicle for promoting
    or marketing coaching to others. And since coaching involves
    a level of trust and openness, there is the possibility of sexual
    attraction. From an ethical perspective, encouraging or acting
    on such attraction would be another clear form of abuse.
  6. A coach has clear and observable criteria for assessing results
    and outcomes.
    A common question is, “How can we measure the results of a
    coaching relationship?” This is difficult to answer because
    breakthroughs are inherently unpredictable. If a result can
    be predicted it isn’t a breakthrough. Measurement is also difficult
    because the result of coaching occurs first and foremost in
    the coachee’s ‘way of being,’ which becomes the context
    for the coachee’s actions and the coachee’s results. It is holistic
    in nature. Our answer to the above question is always that the
    only place to look for the results of coaching is in the actions
    and the results of the coachee. The only criteria possible are
    the declared commitments of the coachee that, in his view, he
    could not have accomplished by himself.An important aspect of most coaching relationships is that,
    while the commitments agreed upon at the beginning are a base
    line for assessing results, they are not necessarily the only
    results that will be produced. Because of the holistic nature
    of the process, coachees frequently report results in other
    domains. For example, although most of our coaching is in the
    context of work, results often occur in people’s relationships
    with family or with themselves. We recommend a practice in which
    the coach and coachee frequently and rigorously assess outcomes
    in a variety of areas and document these over time. Such documentation
    is valuable because as breakthroughs occur there is a natural
    tendency to forget where one began, which increases the likelihood
    that the coaching relationship will not be correlated with the
    results.It is possible that the results from a coaching relationship
    may be acceptable or satisfactory and not be a breakthrough.
    These results should obviously be appreciated and acknowledged,
    but in our view they are also the kinds of results that can
    and should be available from other types of developmental relationships
    such as skills training, counseling, mentoring, normal supervision
    and even self-study. What distinguishes coaching as a discipline
    is its focus on achieving more than incremental improvement.
    The objectives of coaching are unprecedented actions and results
    on the part of those they coach.
  7. A professional coach is a member of a community and empowers
    the profession and community.
    One-way to distinguish a profession from other kinds of work
    is that a profession is a community of practitioners that draw
    their identity and practices and to some degree their power
    from the community. They are not merely members of a club or
    association, but they relate to their colleagues as contributors
    to the field and as sources of new thinking and inspiration.
    While competition always exists within a profession, competition
    is not the primary factor governing strategy and action. There
    is a larger commitment to the clients and to the profession
    as a whole including general adherence to its traditions and
    practices. For example, a surgeon will not normally perform
    a procedure on a close relative, not because he or she isn’t
    capable, but because the profession has declared that the risk
    of losing objectivity is inappropriate. This kind of solidarity
    is two-way in the sense that the individual derives power, knowledge,
    and value from the community and the community exists by virtue
    of each individual practitioner’s responsibility and commitment
    to the community.At the present time, there is no recognized group or organization
    that represents those who are practicing coaching either professionally
    or as part of another profession or organizational role. Several
    associations exist and many coaches work with others in informal
    arrangements. At this point, there are no widely recognized
    licensing authorities or agreed standards for what constitutes
    the discipline of coaching. The International Coach Federation
    is contributing to the development of such standards and has
    an accreditation process for Coach Training Programs. This sort
    of formalization of the profession is emerging but is not yet
    clearly endorsed by coaching practitioners. For this reason,
    it is important that anyone offering coaching be clear with
    those they coach about their qualifications, experience, references,
    and the underlying basis for their practice. Similarly, those
    people about to begin a coaching relationship will want to be
    clear about how prospective coaches’ qualifications fit with
    their needs.
  8. A coach represents the possibility of the coachee
    accomplishing breakthroughs. When a coach can no longer be responsible
    for this possibility, he will withdraw from the coaching relationship.
    Another paradox of coaching is that breakthroughs are always
    occurring at the boundary between what is realistic and reasonable
    and what is unrealistic and unreasonable. Before Roger Bannister
    broke the 4-minute mile, there was no evidence that it was possible.
    Possibilities do not exist in reality, they only exist in the
    vision and commitment of human beings. If they existed in reality,
    they would be examples. One of the primary values of a coach
    is the ability to clarify and own the possibility of a coachee
    accomplishing the unprecedented in the face of a history in
    which there is no evidence that such a breakthrough could happen.When we coach, we always deal with two people: first, the
    person with whatever history, talents, and knowledge she might
    possess, and second, the person as a possibility. A coach is
    always relating to the latter. If we stop relating to the person
    as a possibility, then we inevitably will fall into attempting
    to fix the person rather than empowering her to accomplish the
    results herself.People often ask, “When do you give up coaching someone?”
    There may be many reasons to terminate a coaching relationship.
    One reason might be that the coachee is unwilling or unable
    to trust the coach. Another reason might be that the coachee’s
    commitment to accomplishing a breakthrough result changes. Perhaps
    there is simply insufficient time, interest, or resources to
    do the necessary work. A coach will also give up when he can
    no longer see and be responsible for the possibility for which
    they are working. This is important because the coach is often
    the only one who sees the possibility when the conventional
    wisdom or the coachee does not. When the possibility disappears,
    then so does the reason for coaching. In all cases, if the coaching
    relationship is not terminated, it can devolve into a process
    of mutual rationalization or co-dependence that is generally
    unhealthy and unproductive.
  9. A coach is responsible. Like Harry Truman, a coach works in a context of “the buck
    stops here,” not as a function of authority, but of responsibility.
    Another paradox of coaching is that, while the coach is 100%
    responsible, she must relate to the coachee or the team in a
    way that allows them to also be 100% responsible. When coaches
    deny their responsibility and blame winning or losing on the
    circumstances or on those they coach, they are undermining both
    themselves and the coachees and they will lose the context in
    which coaching is possible.Responsibility is defined here as the “ability to respond,”
    as distinct from taking on an assumption of blame or credit
    either before or after the fact. Being responsible means accepting,
    even owning, what happens in our world. This notion of responsibility
    opens a different relationship with the circumstances in which
    we find ourselves, including everything that has occurred, is
    occurring or might occur. As coaches, we promise breakthroughs.
    If they do not occur, then we are responsible for not keeping
    our promise.Successes and failures are relative to the observer and the
    time frame of the activity. Losing a game doesn’t constitute
    a failure in the context of an entire season. It is always possible
    to criticize a strategy or process after the fact. A coach,
    however, is focused on action, outcomes, and the future, not
    on differing interpretations or stories of why something did
    or did not work out. The point is that the ethical behavior
    of a coach must be guided by her moment-to-moment judgments
    in the context of responsibility. This is a coach’s way of being
    because the results of a coach are accomplished without control
    or force. This requires being fully ïpresent’ and clear with
    respect to what is occurring in the conversations with the coachee
    and also present to the intended outcomes. If the coach attempts
    to control the actions of the coachee, then the coach’s behavior
    is a re-action to what is occurring. This is a sign that the
    coach has been co-opted by the circumstances or the coachee’s
    story thus negating any possibilities for breakthroughs.Success or failure is declared at the end of whatever time
    frames are established for the coaching. There are no clear
    rules for what the consequences should be if the results are
    declared a failure. In sports, failure may mean loss of the
    opportunity to continue coaching; in business, it may be payment
    of a penalty or return of some portion of fees. Failure may
    also be handled by a simple apology and a commitment to redesign
    the coaching strategy. The point is that coaches must be responsible
    or they will lose the relationship and creative context with
    those they coach. Coaching then becomes just another part of
    the game and loses the power to empower others.
  10. A coach makes a clear distinction between coaching and other
    kinds of helping relationships.
    In our interpretation of coaching, one of the central ideas
    is that coaching changes the way people observe themselves in
    relation to their situation. This doesn’t happen as a function
    of new knowledge or information, nor does it occur because they
    are given a new model. This kind of change is ontological in
    nature, a shift in a person’s ground of being or context. This
    is also a way of describing what occurs when a person has a
    new opening for action. Historically, the subject of “being”
    has been addressed from many perspectives and generally regarded
    as psychological or spiritual in nature, which is why coaching
    is often regarded as an advisory role. From our point of view,
    coaching has nothing to do with those disciplines or approaches
    that seek change through self-understanding or insights based
    on new information. Coaching is grounded in different paradigms
    and traditions and, while it may or may not have similar objectives
    to other disciplines, it is distinct. For example, counselors
    or therapists are often oriented toward fixing or revealing
    something related to a person’s ‘internal state.’ Coaching is
    exclusively concerned with action and relegates issues like
    motive and internal state to the responsibility of the person
    being coached.Given this view, it is dangerous when coaches attempt to resolve
    or promise to deal with human behavior or other phenomena from
    any perspective other than coaching. A coach is not normally
    a therapist, although some therapists are capable of offering
    coaching as a distinct aspect of their practices. One way to
    manage this potential confusion between disciplines is by rigorously
    avoiding “why” questions with the coachee. For example, when
    taking a risk, it is natural and common for a person to feel
    fear. Most people want to understand why they are afraid and
    have the coach help eliminate the fear. As a coach, it is important
    to have compassion and acknowledge the fear, but it is not the
    coach’s job to make coachees feel unafraid. Rather, the coach’s
    job is to empower the coachees to take action whether or not
    the coachees are afraid.This distinction is particularly important when working with
    people in areas which are also the concern of other professions.
    Coaching and other disciplines deal with matters such as trust,
    being authentic, distinguishing recurring patterns of inaction
    or ineffectiveness and impacting upon cultural values such as
    responsibility, accountability, risk-taking, courage, and being
    able to complete and put the past in the past. Clarifying the
    distinction between coaching and other disciplines, including
    the theoretical foundations and practices upon which coaching
    is based, is important for preventing confusion. Avoiding any
    misrepresentation or confusion is the ethical responsibility
    of the
  11. A coach is committed to the commitments of the coachee.When we approach coaching, the power in a coaching relationship
    is always with the person or persons being coached. Thus, the
    senior context for coaching is to serve. A summary description
    of the coaching relationship is that the coach 1) listens for
    the commitments of the coachee, 2) observes action, and 3) interacts
    with the coachee until the actions and the commitments are in
    harmony. This harmony represents optimum performance. Beyond
    it, the coach works to assist the coachee to invent bigger possibilities,
    formulate new commitments, ‘complete’ past successes and failures,
    and sustain new competencies and results.From our perspective, this is the ultimate ethic: to
    be committed to the commitment of the other
    . Many times
    this means being more committed to the other person’s
    commitment than he is. It means being a support for the
    other person when they forget or are struggling with all the
    ways human beings have for giving up, or rationalizing away
    possibility, or avoiding being uncomfortable. It means giving
    the person absolute choice while at the same time having compassion
    for the difficulty of reinventing oneself consistent with a
    new commitment. A coach never needs to use force if she is clear
    within herself and with the coachee that choice and commitment
    rest with those being coached. It is the coach’s authentic commitment
    to those she coaches that becomes the context for breakthroughs
    and unprecedented action.No human being can observe himself or herself in action. This
    is why virtually all professional athletes and top performers
    always maintain relationships with a coach. In “Coaching and
    the Art of Management,” coaching is described as a dyad —
    it cannot occur except in relationship with another. It is in
    the relationship between the coach and the coachee that the
    results are created, even though the action that manifests the
    results of the coaching is the responsibility of the coachee.
    The coach is not a critic of the player; she observes what the
    player cannot observe for himself.



In this article, we have described our approach to coaching as a means to accomplish unprecedented results and an associated code of ethics to guide both practicing coaches and their clients. What happens with this is up to you; however, we would like to leave you with some specific possibilities to ponder.

For professional coaches:

  • Consider drafting your personal code of ethics, using this article as a starting point. Once you are satisfied with your own list, share it with those who can assist in testing the congruence between your words and action.
  • Review your own ethical performance and solicit feedback from clients on how you stack up. Better still, ask a neutral party to review your adherence to the ethical standards you profess.
  • Ask what your commitment is to the emerging profession of coaching. What will you do if you become aware of another “coach” performing in ways that are unethical? What would the remedy be if you slip up in your own performance?
  • Do you have a coach? If not, how do you know if you are fit to coach others?

For new or aspiring coaches:

  • Explore with your colleagues and your coach the insights and questions that this article created for you.
  • Use this article as a trigger to reflect on your readiness to pursue coaching as a serious commitment. Take time to write about coaching ethics in your journal over a period of several weeks and notice the recurring themes.
  • Notice ethical behaviour of other professionals. What does it look like? How might coaches learn and benefit from the experience of others?

For coachees:

  • What are the key messages you got from reading this article? What possibilities does it offer?
  • If you are considering working with a coach, make your own list of questions and requests to cover as you begin the relationship. If you already have a coach, check to see if there are areas that need to be addressed.
  • Who would you need to be to elicit the best ethical behaviour on the part of your coach? Are there things you could do or not do that would influence the ethical behaviour of others?

Thank you all for exploring coaching and ethics with us.« Commentary on ‘Coaching and the Art of Management’» Coaching: Buzzword or Breakthrough?