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The co-dependent coach


handsWith the current tough economic situation, it can be all-too-easy to let a coaching relationship go on too long, and what starts as a helping hand becomes a co-dependency warns Alan Ward.

As a coach, are you becoming a prop? Is your client starting to depend on you for solutions?

The issue of dependency is one of the moral dilemmas of coaching. Particularly in today’s difficult market, if you’ve promoted yourself successfully, passed through the vetting stage and contracted with a coachee, it can be tempting to continue with this person, rather than having to go through the whole rigmarole again with someone else. It may be easier but it’s unethical if you’re prolonging the relationship for your benefit, not the client’s.

I’m not suggesting that coaches are unscrupulous. I believe the majority of coaches try to do the best they can with their clients. But there’s always the potential for coaches to either look for that ‘next little problem’ or to say ‘we need to meet again’.

As a coach, you have to be aware of this. It’s also important that there is no ‘collusion’ between you and the coachee. Talking about the real issue may be uncomfortable for the coachee, so they may want to discuss other matters instead. As the coach, it would be easy to allow this avoidance to continue and thus to keep the coachee for a longer period - but side-lining the real issues does not serve the client.

Photo of ALAN WARD"As a coach, you should always beware that you are not contributing to behaviour that may set the relationship on a path of dependency."
Another attraction of dependency is that the coach becomes a ‘guru’ who has to be consulted. A warning sign of this may be when a coachee calls you between coaching sessions asking for a solution. Here, the balance between support and challenge must be addressed. If this balance is wrong, then you as the coach must provide an element of self-regulation and question whether it is really best for the client or whether you are heading for dependency.

I’m not saying that you should never provide an opinion to a coachee but you should be aware of what proportion of your conversation actually involves you offering solutions. If it is more your opinion than their suggestions (ie the ratio is unfavourably tipped towards answers that you provide as a coach against those that the coachee generates) I encourage you to question whether you are being appropriately directive or moving towards dependency rather than coaching.

Other issues can come into play. If an organisation assigns a coach and sets the parameters of where, when and how often the coaching sessions should take place, a client can ‘play the game’ and lead the coach along a path where the coachee turns up each time and says the right things because that’s what is expected. If you haven’t got to the nub of ‘what are we supposed to be doing here’, the relationship can become one of habit rather than benefit. As a coach, you should always challenge whether there’s a valid reason for the coaching session.

Integrity checks:
A coachee shouldn’t have to pay for someone to be their ‘best friend’. They’re paying for someone to challenge them to think things through for themselves in a supportive environment. The two are very different.

For an effective relationship that avoids dependency, a coach should consider some key questions:

What was the original goal and have you reached it? Refer back to the initial objectives of the contract and the success measures that were put in place. For example, if the aim was to help an individual to find better ways of dealing with certain behaviours or situations, has this been achieved? Check the outcomes against the initial measures.

Have you stuck to the original goal or have you expanded it? It is fine if the original goal is expanded, provided this has been done by agreement. Again, measures should be put in place so that you and the coachee both know when the new goal will have been reached successfully. It isn’t about six coaching sessions creeping up to 12, it’s about measuring whether you have achieved what you set out to achieve in the six coaching sessions - and re-contracting with a revised set of objectives and measures for the next six.

Have you stuck to the original goal or have you expanded it? It is fine if the original goal is expanded, provided this has been done by agreement."

What does the sponsor say? It is good practice for the initial objectives to be agreed at the outset between the coach, the coachee and the sponsor, so that the sponsor can sanction the spend. Progress should be reviewed halfway through the agreed contract and a closing meeting should be held to discuss the results achieved. If the objectives have not been met - or if they have changed - the sponsor should question the relationship and ensure it is in the best interests of the coachee.

An example to illustrate this point is: I am about to have the outside of my house painted and the decorator naturally wants to talk about all sorts of other jobs he could do for me. However, I am very aware that I’ll be paying him to complete each additional specific task. Yet, if I was a tenant in a rented house, and the landlord was paying to have the house painted, I would be happy to have more done because someone else is picking up the bill. A corporate client is like the house tenant, because usually they aren’t paying for ‘the work’ themselves. This is why reporting back to a sponsor, the landlord, is so important.

As a coach, you should always beware that you are not contributing to behaviour that may set the relationship on a path of dependency. If this happens, you need to be professional enough to do something about it. Of course, some coaching relationships do legitimately last a long time but those are usually ones in which the coach continually ensures that measures are in place for the relationship to be one of success and reward, rather than dependency. It’s not about the duration of the coaching, it’s about making a difference - and agreeing up front what that difference should be.

As a profession, coaching must be values-driven. We should be entering into coaching contracts where the purpose is to move forward, deal with issues, raise awareness and allow the coachee to become responsible for their actions and more confident in what they choose to do - and we should be challenging them in a supportive environment. But, in doing this, if you become a crutch for your clients, you are taking money under false pretences.

Alan Ward is director of Coach Education at Performance Consultants, which has been running university-accredited qualification programmes in coaching and development since 2003. The firm’s postgraduate certificate, postgraduate diploma and MSc are modular, part-time programmes awarded by the University of Portsmouth and accredited by the European Mentoring and Coaching Council.


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