Infinite Potential

A Caution about Coaching Supervision

October 10th, 2019

Taking a break from my writing for the leaders I work with, I am writing today on the topic of coaching supervision for my colleagues who are coaches and coach educators.

As a psychotherapist in a previous life, I was both trained in and practiced clinical supervision. In addition to my doctoral training and internship, I pursued post-doctoral study in the neo-psychoanalytic school of Self Psychology (Kohut, 1971). I then co-founded a Self Psychology supervision-study group that met monthly for seven years and had a fully trained psychoanalyst from the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute who attended regularly (Dr. Jule Miller). So I think this gives me some credibility on this topic. Now, as a coach educator at the University of Dallas-Texas’ executive coaching program and as an ICF member for over fifteen years I have a passion for the development of coaches and the coaching profession. So I want to share some thoughts on coaching supervision. I feel like I am standing before a tsunami that runs the risk of sweeping the idea of mentor coaching away.

What I am observing in at least some coaching supervision programs is taking a psychotherapy (clinical) supervision model and applying it to coaches and the coaching process. I assume the intent of this movement is good, but in my experience there is a lack of awareness of possible unintended consequences of such a movement. Such examples within the coaching supervision movement could be a result of the tendency of our conceptual models to be overdetermined by the psychotherapy culture we live in (Krapu, 2016).

I want to discuss the unintended consequences of coaching supervision in a number of important areas so the coaching profession can have a deeper conversation about the apparent and real differences between coaching supervision and mentor coaching.

Training is insufficient for coach supervisors.

Coaches will not have sufficient training to qualify themselves as supervisors within a psychotherapy supervision model as applied to coaching. Clinical supervision generally requires graduate work in the complex application of psychology.  This is supplemented with specific training in the application of this knowledge in supervision. Generally, this training requires a deep psychological understanding, usually based on psychoanalytic theories. If you don’t have a deep understanding of concepts such as transference, countertransference and parallel process, you will quickly find yourself “over your head” in processing the interaction between coach and their client. In my experience, a sufficient level of competency cannot be achieved in a training program that is measured in hours, it requires years (unless you have extensive previous training and experience in psychodynamic psychotherapy).

Coaching supervision makes coaching look like psychotherapy

The supervision movement in coaching is creating a deeper connection between the field of coaching and psychotherapy. This creates a huge risk for the coaching profession. The coaching profession has made great efforts over the years to distinguish itself from psychotherapy. The coaching supervision movement will blur this distinction and not without cost.

For instance, if you are applying a clinical supervision model as described above to coaching supervision the supervision process itself will at times look like psychotherapy.

Regulating bodies have recurrently entertained the idea of regulating the coaching profession and view it as no different than psychotherapy. The psychotherapy profession itself has at times viewed coaching as nothing more than a form of therapy. So the coaching supervision movement will create a legislative and regulatory vulnerability for the coaching profession. It threatens the important mission that the International Coach Federation (ICF) has had in maintaining coaching as a self-regulated profession. If you think psychotherapists (and their boards) were “up in arms” about coaching before, wait till word of this gets around!

Liability

Let me provide three data points:

  1. In a LinkedIn group conversation about coaching supervision I mentioned the issue of liability that is incurred in calling yourself a supervisor (as opposed to a mentor). The audience was clueless about this aspect of supervision. I think the group members were mainly both Americans and Europeans.
  2. Talking to an organization that was starting a coaching supervision service for coaches, I brought up the issue of liability. The person I was talking to, who was leading this effort suggested that the liability for coaching supervision was no different than for coaching alone.
  3. Individual coaches who I have a great respect for and are pursuing coaching supervision were completely unaware of the issue of liability and told me that in the coaching supervision training that they are receiving there has been no mention of the potential liability that is incurred in doing supervision.

Besides my concern for the coaching profession, it was these experiences that compelled me to author this article. Because the coaching profession is borrowing the term supervision, it brings with it a potential legal liability that is associated with this term. There is a long history of case law (at least in the USA) that has established that supervisors in various capacities, but especially in psychotherapy bear some legal responsibility for the actions of their supervisees. This legal liability will also be assigned to supervising coaching, it comes with the title.

So your legal liability could be increasing exponentially when you become a supervising coach. You might not only be legally responsible for your own coaching clients; you may very well be responsible for any and all clients of each of your supervisees until this is tested in court. Do you want to be part of such a test? Do you have liability insurance? Does it cover your supervision activities? As far as I know, most if not all coach supervision training programs do not cover this critical aspect of becoming a coaching supervisor. Hopefully those who don’t, will after reading this and include possible malpractice carriers and the range of premium costs.

The straw man: Supervision is better than Mentoring because it focuses more on the development of the coach as a person, not just coaching skills.

I can tell that there is already a status element embedded into this conversation. I have heard it in the conversations and seen it in the marketing of supervision programs. Supervision has not just presented itself as simply different than mentoring, but better. For instance, mentoring is often portrayed as “only focusing” on coaching behavioral markers or coaching skills. Be wary of the attraction that is being created in being a coach supervisor as opposed to a mentor coach. In my experience this argument is a straw man and does not stand up upon closer scrutiny. Let me explain.

The Argument for Mentor Coaching

I know from my own experience as a mentor coach and the experience of other mentor coaches that I respect, that anything that can be accomplished in coaching supervision can and is accomplished by mentor coaches. In mentoring coaches to develop their craft, WHEN NECESSARY there are conversations about how a coach is “showing up” in their coaching. Obstacles to their effectiveness, assumptions they are making about themselves, their clients or the coaching process are uncovered (without reference to psychodynamic conceptualizations). As a result, true adult learning takes place that helps coaches transform into the powerful change agents they can become.

This is done through a developmental (but not psychoanalytic) process. A process that does not incur legal liability for the work of our mentees. It does not blur the line between coaching and psychotherapy and does not pose a legislative and regulatory risk for our profession. These are the reasons I will always be a mentor coach and never a coach supervisor, no matter what status is ultimately assigned to the title coach supervisor.

My final word:

If you are or are becoming a coaching supervisor, you are still my colleague and friend. I support you. But go into this with eyes wide open, for yourself as well as for the coaching profession.

References:

Kohut, H (1971) The Analysis of the Self. International Universities Press.

Krapu, T. M. (2016) Coaching From A Philosophy Of Science Perspective. Philosophy of Coaching: An International Journal, 1 (1), 8-20. http://philosophyofcoaching.org/v1i1/02.pdf)