I received a revised version of the ICF Code of Ethics* in an email last week. I was surprised to see that the original Code of Ethics after numerous hours of research, conversation and thoughtful review of an international team of experienced coaches had not become a cumbersome and oversophisticated set of rules, on the contrary, it had gotten lighter, clearer, and easier to follow. I appreciate simplicity in complex things.
Reading this new version I contemplated the reasons that encourage coaches to adhere to the ethical standards. Certainly, there are sanctions for breaching the code. But I am sure that it's not so easy to catch a coach red-handed. Except being a party to a big scandal or a subject of a complaint, an unscrupulous coach can hide his or her wrongdoing for years, so what really keeps coaches within the boundaries?
Following my habitual practice of reflection on my coaching practice I discovered my own reasons to follow the rules. By the rules I mean the ICF ethical standards and competencies.
Reason #1. Flavor of Professionalism
Professionally accepted standards of personal and professional behavior help people take the profession seriously. All the prestigious, from my perspective, professions are bound with ethical standards, regulations, and rules. I grow up with both parents serving in the army, so discipline and following rules was the norm. In my first profession as a lawyer I learned to keep the secrets of others. Later when my mom was honorably discharged from the army and started her own psychology practice, there were ethical standards again. Each project manager can tell you that breaching the professional code of conduct you are taking the risk of losing at least your good name, sometimes job and professional accreditation.
I have been following different kinds of professional codes of conduct, ethical standards and respecting other people's confidentiality and privacy throughout my whole career. "How is the coaching engagement going on?" asks my client's boss, "how is Brad doing?". I don't answer this type of questions and never will. I have promised my client that everything that we work on will stay inside the coaching conversation between two of us. In any case this is not my job to evaluate my client's progress.
Reason #2. Clients' Trust is Precious
For me, the key ingredient of a successful coaching engagement is a trustworthy relationship between a coach and client. Building my relationship with a client I expect honesty from my client and demonstrate a rigorous commitment to speaking the truth. Being vulnerable and honest we are establishing our secret society to create a safe space for modeling, experimenting, and testing ideas before bringing them into the client's system. And I know that my clients are very intelligent and wise, they will feel any lie, insincerity, or sham. Once it happens, I'll lose my client's trust, so I'll lose my client. I can't afford this, because I believe that my clients make me who I am. Without clients – no matter how good I am – I'm not a coach.
Reason #3. Professional Pride
"Do it well or don't do it at all," said my father when we discussed my school and everyday performance, "life is short, don't waste a minute doing something badly." Initially this phrase made me a crazy perfectionist, I was even proud to be one. Now I can proudly say that I am a recovering perfectionist, my experience as a client in coaching helped me find out that my obsession about doing things perfectly leads me to frustration. How to measure perfection? How much is enough?
My clients know that I always ask them to find a way to measure their goals and degree of success because someone said if we didn't measure things we wouldn't know how good we were at measuring the things that we're measuring!
In other words, I follow the ethical and professional rules with all their requirements – to be honest, respect my clients' confidentiality and privacy, constantly push myself to improve, and so on – because as a member of a professional coaching community I don’t want to be mistaken for a quack of a coach and for my clients to say after working with me “oh, I know these coaches,” I do want to be an exemplar of a good coach.
Reason #4. Curiosity
You know that coaches don't advise nor do they lead their clients toward outcomes desirable for coaches. These are our basic rules. But it's easier said than done. It requires a lot of self-discipline from coaches to stay neutral and unbiased.
Interesting fact that in the very beginning of my coaching practice it was difficult to believe that clients know all the answers. In a role of a client I expected something miraculous from a coach wanting a magic pill; I was even angry when my coach encouraged me to think harder and create my own solutions. Nevertheless, with practice, I have seen that it was true, we already know all the answers.
Yesterday, during a coaching session with a client of mine I realized what motivates me not to meddle in my client's way of thinking and learning. My natural curiosity helps me sit tight and observe silently. No matter how cool my ideas about a client's situation are, my clients' ideas are a million times better that mine because they are relevant, based on personal experience, natural traits, gut feeling after all. And then, the client shifted her behavior from feeding back to feeding forward so organically that I was stunned with this beautiful shift from guessing and reacting toward proactive asking.
Reason #5. Growth Mindset
I'm not that young, but I don't want to be old. I believe that the main secret to staying young and resilient is continuing personal and professional development. I'm obsessed with learning, exploring, researching. I love to work and learn; I'm passionate about applying my knowledge and skills in real life situations. So it's easy to stick to the requirement "to commit to excellence through continued personal, professional and ethical development". Also, I do enjoy being supervised, it encourages me to think that reflection on my coaching practice during supervision sessions prevents me from becoming an uncontrollable despot for my clients.
Reason #6. Discrimination on the Basis of Value System
"Handsome is as Handsome Does", this phrase helps me describe my personal discrimination policy. And even here, I allow some leeway. Who am I to judge? I believe in people's uniqueness and equality. I vote for equal support for all people who have accepted conventional social norms regardless of their races, religion, personal traits, and other aspects that make people different and unique. I vote for limitless support for people who are changing themselves to be a better version of themselves, changing the world to live in a better world, and helping others to survive and succeed through their lives.
I bet none of my former and present colleagues follow the rules under pressure of fear of retaliation for misbehavior. All of us have our own reasons to act a certain way. You are very welcome to share your story and point of view on this topic. I'd like to hear what motivates you!
*The ICF Code of Ethics is reviewed every three years. The most recent update began in 2018 and involved a large Code Review Team with individuals from 16 countries. The updated Code will be effective beginning January 1, 2020. The revised version of the Code is available on the ICF website.
** The article originally published on December 20, 2019 on LinkedIn.