“If this employee doesn’t improve after your coaching, I’m firing them!”
“I want to meet with you to discuss my goals for this employee.”
“Trust and confidentiality? That sounds like therapy, not coaching!”
“I need you to help this employee get better at [insert skill or knowledge here].”
If you’re a coach, have you ever heard a client’s boss or HR department utter these phrases? I have, and I know other coaches who have, too.
If you’re a coaching client, have you ever feared your boss or HR might be making these requests of your coach? I understand, and I’ve heard clients like you express these fears.
And if you’re a manager or HR professional, have you ever expressed any of these sentiments to a coach? It’s not just you.
No matter who you are, if these words have entered your ears, left your lips, or kept you up at night, I’m here to say you’re not bad, you’re not crazy, and you’re not alone! I’m also here to explain why such phrases are red flags that get in the way of coaching success.
What Coaching Is, and Is Not
There are common misperceptions about coaching which drive many bosses, organizations, and HR departments to make inappropriate requests of the coaches they hire. These misperceptions aren’t their fault, but the result of a chaotic coaching marketplace exacerbated by lack of regulation.
I describe professional coaching as “the facilitation of a client’s self-discovery through provocative questions, insightful observations, and invitation to action”. Professional coaching is not consulting, mentoring, advising, or training (see my article explaining the difference). In other words, coaching isn’t telling, directing, or instructing.
While many coaches also provide training, facilitation, consulting, or mentoring services, those are not what coaching is designed to provide. In many ways, professional coaching is more like “work therapy”, as one of my clients calls it. While there are occasional moments where a short explanation of a relevant concept or model can be useful during coaching, ethical coaches who also train, facilitate, consult, and advise do so outside of the coaching space.
Coaching in Organizations: 4 Common Myths
Because many organizations have misperceptions about coaching, they often fall prey to at least one of the following myths:
- Coaches can do a manager’s job for them. It is not a coach’s role to make up for the poor leadership of a client’s boss or senior leadership. Even if a coach could provide boss-like guidance and accountability, doing so enables an organization’s dysfunction. It is the organization’s job to fully own the difficult but essential tasks of developing leaders, holding them accountable for their behaviors and outcomes, and terminating those who are toxic or underperforming. If a client’s leadership is unable, or unwilling, to do their core job of leading people effectively, that is a problem for the CEO, President, or Board to handle. It’s not a coach’s job to compensate for an organization’s leadership deficits. It’s outside our scope of practice and does not support the organization’s health or the ultimate good of all stakeholders.
- Coaches can be proxy mentors, trainers, or human resources professionals. Similarly, it’s not a coach’s job to compensate for an organization’s structural or HR deficits. Only supervisors, peers or mentors can onboard an employee, teach them to do their job, or set expectations. Only HR can explain policies and the performance management process. Only a qualified trainer or facilitator can teach an employee or leader the people skills necessary for their role. If those supports are what is most needed, the organization must invest in their people by hiring the appropriate staff and consultants. A coach may be able to provide those services, but not in the coaching space.
- Coaches can rehabilitate underperforming or misbehaving employees. Coaches are not HR. Coaches are not an employee’s boss. Coaches have zero power to hold an employee accountable for misbehavior, begin a performance improvement plan (PIP), or start the separation process. Some organizations “send” employees to coaching as due diligence before termination, or as a last resort in the hopes that coaching can “fix” an employee. This is a set up for both coach and client. Ethically, coaching must always be voluntary, and the client must own the coaching process. While coaching can certainly be part of a PIP, coaching is not a substitute for the ongoing monitoring and conversations that should be integral to the PIP. Those functions are the responsibility of the employee’s boss and HR, and outside a coach’s scope of practice.
- Coaches serve the client’s boss or sponsoring organization. When an organization pays for (“sponsors”) coaching for one of their employees, this creates a triangulation of coach-client-sponsor that can present ethical dilemmas. Ideally, the client will be genuinely invested in coaching and aligned with their sponsor about its purpose and desired outcomes. However, sometimes a boss wants the coach to do the boss’s bidding in coaching the employee (e.g., imposing goals or defining session topics). And sometimes a client has different goals than their sponsor (e.g., trying to determine whether they want to stay in their job). If sponsor/boss and client aren’t aligned, ethically the coach’s allegiance is to the client.
Navigating The Triangle: Coach – Client – Sponsor
All these myths describe an unhealthy triangulation among coach-client-sponsor. Triangulations can cause challenges in human relationships – in families, “love triangles”, or anywhere the drama triangle dynamic appears. To avoid these challenges and counteract the four myths, I take four approaches that work wonders: (1) frank, early conversations, (2) healthy boundaries, (3) consistent, specific language, and (4) rigorous, clear contracting.
Frank, early conversations. Unhealthy triangulation can be avoided through initial “alignment meetings” designed for the client and sponsor/boss to mutually and equitably get on the same page about the purpose of coaching and everyone’s expectations. This can happen before a contract is signed, or shortly after. Alignment meetings should not be “compliance meetings” in disguise whose true purpose is to get the client to comply with what the boss or organization wants. Nor should the purpose be to get the coach to act as a proxy manager or agent of the sponsor who primarily carries out the sponsor’s wishes.
As the check writer, a sponsor’s needs, goals, or requests are important. They have the right to expect a return on their investment, and to have a desired outcome in mind. Common desired outcomes include improved productivity, communication, emotional self-control, time management, receptivity to feedback, conflict management, delegation, or strategic thinking. However, the client is the ultimate decision maker. They design their specific goals (if any), set the agenda for each coaching session, and own the final outcomes.
Healthy boundaries. As a mentor coach to other coaches, I often tell my mentees that “Cultivates Trust and Safety” is the most foundational of our professional coaching competencies. This is because trust and safety are necessary to fulfill all the other competencies, and to maximize coaching success. Because of the dangers that triangulation poses to trust and safety, I don’t meet with bosses or sponsors without the client present, and I don’t exchange emails without copying the client. This avoids creating the perception – for the client or the sponsor – that I’m acting on the sponsor’s behalf, and it keeps me accountable. I’ve found there is no benefit to meeting separately with a sponsor, while the potential costs are high.
If a sponsor wants to tell a coach something they can’t say in front of the client, this is a yellow flag. It could mean the sponsor misunderstands coaching or believes one of the four myths. It could reflect a toxic or chaotic organizational culture. However, it could indicate the sponsor has poor leadership skills or the sponsor-client relationship is troubled. Either way, a coach should avoid getting directly involved in that unhealthy dynamic and enabling it further.
For coaching to be successful and transformational, the two sides of the triangle that must be strongest are coach-client, and client-boss. The boss-coach connection should be amiable and professional, but the weakest side of the triangle. Facilitating effective communication between the client and their boss or helping the client “manage up” can be valuable coaching outcomes. However, it’s critical that the coach avoids “doing the work” for either party or getting in the way of their relationship.
This includes progress reports. There is no value to coaches taking sole responsibility for providing those to the sponsor, and doing so muddies the role of the coach and opens the door for real or perceived breaches of confidentiality. Clients can, and should, provide updates to their boss or sponsor themselves and clients should drive in-person update meetings. The coach can be present as a resource or support, but not as a driver. This practice keeps the focus where it belongs: on the client’s success, the client-boss relationship, and the embodiment of healthy relationships and organizational practices.
Consistent, specific language. Another way I reinforce healthy boundaries is through language. Specifically, I use the term “client” rather than “coachee.” There are two reasons. One, “client” more accurately conveys the gravitas of the professional coaching relationship. Words that end in “ee” (mentee, trainee, inductee) not only sound amateur, they’re also passive and imply inferiority to their counterpart (mentor, trainer, inductor). Coaching clients are partners and co-creators of their coaching experience – not passive recipients or subordinates.
Two, referring to the person being coached as the “client” constantly reinforces who is the focus of the coaching relationship. The organization is not the client, they are the sponsor. They are the facilitator of the coach-client relationship, not the driver. They can be an influencer on the coach-client relationship, but not a controller.
Rigorous, clear contracting. Effective contracting is clear communication. A contract is an agreement, and agreements are the foundation of all healthy relationships. An effective contract lays out explicitly, clearly, and thoroughly the purpose and nature of coaching, everyone’s appropriate roles, expectations and ethical guidelines, and recourse in the event of violation or confusion. To further reinforce healthy boundaries and counteract the four myths, I include a clause that I am not responsible if, as a result of coaching, a client decides to exit the sponsoring organization.
At worst, misperceptions, myths, and triangulation damage trust and derail a coaching relationship. At best, they prevent coaching from being the truly transformational experience it can be in the hands of a skilled, ethical coach. As in all relationships, clear, candid, consistent communication combined with healthy boundaries make all the difference for everyone involved – the client, their boss, the sponsoring organization, and the coach.