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3 Approaches to Being an Ethical Coach

  March 14, 2022

ICF-credentialed coaches are used to the fact that every three years we sign a pledge to adhere to the Code of Ethics and complete Continuing Coach Education on coaching ethics. (Those of us who are ICF Members also pledge to uphold the Code of Ethics annually, when we apply to renew our membership.) However, this practice does not release us from a deeper reflection on our approach to ethics, on what ethics means for us and how deeply we let ethics work in our everyday lives. This article is an invitation to reflect on what ethics is for us as coaches, whether it is a restriction, an obligation or a value.

The first thing that every coach quickly becomes aware of when reading the Code of Ethics is that it does not provide answers to all questions and possible ethical dilemmas that may appear in a coach’s everyday practice. As the director of ethics for ICF Poland, I often receive questions on this matter: Why is this happening? How should a coach solve a given dilemma? How should a coach behave?

To understand the answer to this and many other questions related to the ethics of coaching, it is extremely important to take a step back and look at ethics from different perspectives.

The first approach to ethics is one that regards it as a restriction. A coach who adopts this perspective tends to view ethics as a set of orders and prohibitions. From this perspective, ethics informs what is permitted and not permitted, so the Code of Ethics should provide a complete and total set of all prohibitions and orders concerning every possible situation and guidelines on how to respond to every possible dilemma. Ethics from this perspective is a restriction because it limits many actions. It is natural, therefore, that one will want to avoid such restrictive prohibition. For this person, ethics is an unnecessary burden in their coaching practice.

The second approach to ethics portrays it in terms of an obligation. Adopting such an approach, the coach grapples with difficult ethical decisions and challenging actions, knowing that “this is the right thing to do” and having made a commitment to fulfill their moral obligation. And since the coach has committed to it, they should be consistent and implement what was promised. In this way, ethics becomes a necessary and “heavy” part of the everyday reality of coaching practice because every coach “must do it” or “should do it.” If dilemmas appear, they will usually be solved “to the detriment,” which will be accompanied by a sense of loss for ethical reasons. From this perspective, the conviction that the standards of the Code of Ethics are correct does not make it easier to implement them, and the coach sees them as a burden.

The third approach to ethics considers it as a true value in a person’s set of personal and professional values. To understand this approach, one has to look deeper at the coherent mindset of a person. A mindset is a set of, among other things, experiences, beliefs and values. The more aware of these a person is, the more coherent their daily activities are. If in such a set, an ethical approach to life is viewed as valuable, then ethics itself appears to be a value that a person wants to realize every day. In such an approach, the Code of Ethics shows the way to choose and reflect on one’s behavior. It does not set the boundaries around how to act because knowing what is consistent with self and what is not, one does not need externally imposed boundaries as a coach. The boundaries are self-contained. If ethical dilemmas present themselves, they are easy to solve because, once accepted, the solution either fits one’s conscious mindset or not. It either fits within its internal boundaries or not. And therefore, it is either coherent with oneself or not. From this perspective, ethics not only is not a limitation, but it is not even a commitment. It is a natural part of oneself as both an individual and a coach.

It is important to understand that none of the above approaches are inherently bad or good. It is not about an evaluation, but about a coach’s awareness and ethical sensitivity in everyday life. Each of these approaches to ethics has value as long as it is a conscious choice. Each of them is also an expression of progress toward greater coaching maturity, which is the quintessence of mastery in coaching—not only the technical mastery, but above all, ethical, resulting from the integrity and authenticity of the coach in everyday practice.

Copyright Tatiana Krawczynska-Zaucha. Used with permission from author. First published in ICF Coaching World on August 10, 2020


Tatiana Krawczynska-Zaucha, PhD
Professional Certified Coach

Tatiana Krawczynska-Zaucha, PhD, PCC, is a global Executive and Leadership coach, mentor coach, business trainer and well-known academic lecturer in management, leadership and business ethics. For 16 years, she has worked with teams, executives and leaders to enable them to develop a global mindset and strengthen key competencies essential for leadership in a complex marketplace. She was a member of the ICF Code of Ethics Review Team for the last year and is now part of the ICF Ethics Education Team. Tatiana is the author of many publications including the book Ethics in coaching: Sources of effective management (2019).

Interested in more ethics conversation?

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