Dispatch from the [Internal Coaching] Front by Ian Flanders

Do internal coaches face specific ethical dilemmas or does being internal coaches make some dilemmas appear ethical?


I recently took part in a group supervision meeting with a number of my fellow internal coaches. For the coaches it is an opportunity, once a quarter to come together and discuss our practices. My sense is that for all of us it is an opportunity to get help and support, learn from others’ experiences, and take strength from the community. During this meeting two of the group shared quite different dilemmas that were troubling them, and sought the views of the group. The discussions that followed considered both issues as ‘ethical dilemmas’, but the outcome of the discussions surprised everyone present.

That coaches can be faced with ethical dilemmas appears to be widely acknowledged. This could be considered a truism of any role that works with people perhaps. Within coaching however it can appear that internal coaches are particularly singled out as facing ethical dilemmas specific to them. In perhaps the first paper on the emergence of internal coaches (in 2001) Michael Frisch raised concerns about trust and confidentiality, and in her Masters thesis (of 2009) and subsequent publications Katherine St John Brooks highlighted the top-10 ethical dilemmas faced by internal coaches, which could be clustered into maintenance of confidentiality, conflict between coaching role and responsibility to the organisation, and, client boundary management. Both sources have been cited regularly since initial publication.

When it came to his turn to check-in with the supervision group Gary shared with the group that he was concerned about a member of his team. He felt that this person would benefit from having a coach because they lacked self-awareness of their behaviours, and as a result they were having a disruptive effect on the team. Gary’s dilemma was that this person had made it clear that they did not wish to have a coach, that they “didn’t get it”. Gary shared that he had been acting as line-manager-as-coach, trying to coach by stealth, to try to get his subordinate to be more aware of their behaviour. Gary felt caught between his two roles of line manager and coach; he was reluctant to have a conversation with this person that might “crush them”.

In the supervision conversation that followed Gary was helped to understand that as a consequence of his reluctance to act he was holding the issue, the inappropriate behaviour of one of his team, rather than the team member. Gary realised that in reality a line manager conversation was what was required: Coaching might then support the aftermath. The action taken from the meeting was that Gary would have an “honest conversation” with this team member.

Julie shared with the supervision group that she was coaching an individual who now wished to use their sessions to decide whether to stay of leave the organisation. The employee had returned to work part-time following a period of absence but had now decided they wished to return to their original full-time role. However their line manager had said that this was not possible, and as a result they were considering leaving. Julie’s dilemma was whether she should support her coachee in making this decision.

During the discussion that followed it became clear that Julie’s real dilemma was not whether or not to help the coachee, she wanted to help, but whether to do so would break her process as a coach. For Julie the coaching process involved an initial 3-way conversation between coach, coachee and line manager during which the coaching contract and objectives would be set. The three parties would then come together to review progress and ultimately close the coaching work. For Julie, a significant change in the objectives of the coaching would trigger a re-contracting of the coaching work. Julie wanted to support her coachee, but did not want to break her process as a coach.

Having seemed to go round in a circle for some time one of Julie’s fellow coaches asked “What would you do if you weren’t an internal coach and this colleague asked for your help [to decide whether to stay with or leave the organisation]?” The instant response, which was followed by stunned silence, was “I’d help them, without giving it another thought”. The realisation was that the situation felt like an ethical dilemma because Julie was a coach, because she was weighing up using her coaching skills to support this individual’s decision making, not because of the nature of the help requested.

It’s interesting to note that in both these cases the coach involved, and the other coaches in the supervision group, appeared to come to the conclusion that the issues raised were experienced as dilemmas because they were experienced as internal coaches rather than because they were dilemmas per sae. I do not suggest that there are no dilemmas facing internal coaches. Nor do I seek to trivialise matters of confidentiality, role-conflict or boundary management. But I do think that these examples are thought provoking. As internal coaches we view our environment through a particular lens. The nature of that lens is determined, in part, by the discourse about what being an internal coach means. A key component of the internal coach discourse is constructed of the dilemmas that we are told that we face, as internal coaches. These two examples, drawn from a single supervision group meeting, appear to suggest that some situations can become ethical dilemmas in internal coaches’ minds as a result of being viewed through their internal coach lens, rather than because of the challenge they face.

To connect with Ian Flanders

Frisch MH (2001) The Emerging role of the Internal Coach. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research 53(4): 240-250.
St John-Brooks K (2009) "What are the Ethical Challenges Involved in being an Internal Coach?". UK: Middlesex University.