Ethics and the Digital and Financial Revolution in Coaching
The Coaching industry is undergoing a transformation. It is one of the fastest growing sectors in the world. A combination of technology, workplace and societal change (accelerated by the pandemic) is creating unprecedented opportunities for coaches and investors. An industry is seeing the establishment of mega platforms attracting hundreds of millions of dollars of investment. Let’s be frank, until recently coaching underpinned by a mediocre business model, ideal for a lifestyle business, but not something for investors to get excited about. If this was a sport, we are now in the phase when the amateur game played by ‘gentle(wo)men’ is becoming professional (not questioning our professionalism). Major League or Premier League coaching, anyone?
There are huge benefits to this transformation. Coaching will no longer be the preserve of senior management, bringing the benefits of coaching to a much broader population. There is much talk of the ‘democratisation’ of coaching, and there will be more opportunities for coaches to find coaching assignments. There will be innovation, growth in academia, growth for those businesses that provide training to coaches and the most important of people, those who receive coaching, will make better more informed choices in their professional and personal lives because of their coaching. There is, of course, a shadow side, when ‘big money’ arrives on the scene; things change. The ‘democratisation’ of coaching may become the ‘commoditisation’ of coaching and a race to the bottom on price, for example. Maybe we are looking at the ‘industrialisation’ of coaching?
This transformation creates some interesting challenges for the coaching profession. Particularly, around the ethics of coaching. The profession and its’ professional bodies such as the ICF and EMCC have always placed a huge amount of importance on ethics. In many ways the development of their Code of Ethics, together with qualifications, accreditation and training, were the response to the ‘wild west’ of unregulated, self-appointed Executive Coaches that peopled the fledgling stage of the coaching business. Ensuring clients can trust the coaching industry by establishing standards had been critical to its success to date.
Like other caring professions, Coaches find themselves in privileged positions of trust. People confide personal and commercial information of the utmost sensitivity to their coach. Coaches ask probing questions that can explore deep within a person’s private realm, exploring their motivations, hopes and fears, in ways that bear comparison to a therapist or counsellor. Also, they explore the organisational politics, commercial decisions and strategies of the organisations in which their coachee works. No wonder ethical boundaries are critical: coaching cannot work without trust, clear contracting and well managed ethical boundaries.
So, what at the key ethical issues which are emerging as a result of the Digitalisation of Coaching?
1. Scale. The larger platforms are coaching hundreds of thousands of people with thousands of coaches. The technology is wonderful and brings economies of scale and accessibility to people all round the world. It is important that the quality of the coaching remains high, that matching of coachee, and coach is effective and that coaches get paid fairly for their work. It is important that each coachee gets treated as an individual and that offering coaching is not like gym membership – something that people join but often don’t use. Coaching is a human process and it’s important that isn’t lost in the business of processing large numbers of assignments.
2. Data and Privacy. As with any use of technology, it is important that data is well handled, and privacy is observed. In the UK and Europe we have GDPR and it’s important that data is secure and is only collected with the business purpose in mind. The more data collected and stored on the system, the more important that security is paramount. There may be temptations to use data for further marketing and business building, but it is important that permissions are sought in advance. It may be temptations to record sessions (video or sound) for collecting data for later analysis. This must never be done covertly, and people need to know what their information is being used for.
3. AI. Although the ‘Robot’ Coach has not been developed commercially, the march of AI continues. It is being used to match coaches with coachees (with variable success). The use of AI for Linguistic Analysis is growing in popularity in recruitment and could well be used to analyse all those words used in a coaching session across thousands of coaching meetings. This could be used to help coaches improve, or for themes of coaching or for marketing purposes. It is again important that there is clarity about the use of such technology particularly with clients and coachees. All of this will require guidelines on responsible AI use (for example Microsoft publishes its guidelines on this). AI will be an enormous force for good, but it is important that its use is fully considered and ethically considered.
4. Coaching Applications. There are many coaching apps on the market which do not involve human coaches. They provide programmes and advice to people through their phone, for example. It’s important that the content is high quality, promotes evidence-based solutions and supports the user’s development.
5. Commercialisation. Coaching is becoming big business. The claims for coaching are being promoted, on marketing collateral and websites all round the world. Claims such as coaching improves retention by 10%, or coaching improves performance by 51% – are appearing in collateral put out by the coaching firms. The Holy Grail of producing evidence of ROI means that people are tempted to use studies that lack the rigour of full randomised control to promote their offering. We know that coaching can be very effective, we will have more and more data and evidence in this area (Erik de Haan’s book ‘What Works in Executive Coaching: Understanding Outcomes Through Quantitative Research and Practice-Based Evidence’ is a good place to start). It is important that the quality of the coaching service matches the quality of the marketing.
We are very excited at the opportunities that are occurring in the world of coaching. There is an opportunity to make the world of work so much better. It is important that in the excitement to take advantage of these opportunities, particular commercially, the profession maintains its’ reputation for high quality standards and does not damage it through unethical behaviour, poor operational controls or misuse of new technologies
At Leadenhall we have developed a Code of Ethics for Coaching on Demand which is made available to all coachees. We are represented on the EMCC working group on digital ethics and will be offering our views, with other coaching platform providers on the ethical use of technology.