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Ethics vs. technique

Some of the comments on “A code of ethics for consultants, trainers, and coaches” suggest that the statements in the list may not be self-explanatory. Some of thes points might be worth a longer explanation than will fit into a response to a comment. One example is the apparent confusion between professional ethics and professional technique. The comments in question pertain to ethical standard #11, which reads:

We will strive to enable clients to carry new ideas and techniques forward independently, and avoid creating a dependent relationship with them.

The comments submitted to that post that seem to confuse ethics with technique are:

Coach A says you should coach for no more than 3 months at a client else the client may become dependent; Coach B says 3 months is a joke as you can barely coach a team or two in that time frame and make any meaningful impact beyond those teams. […] Coach A is of course going to claim that spending more than 3 months at the client’s is not ethical — isn’t it introducing dependence?

Here we have a case when two coaches have different opinions about how to avoid creating a dependent relationship with the client. However, both coaches agree on the goal of avoiding dependency. Note that the wording of the ethics statement makes no reference to the duration of an engagement. Every situation is unique, and will call for a tailored approach. Some engagements will have to be longer than others in order to achieve the client’s goals. Some engagements will involve a single team and others a larger portion of the organization. These are not ethical issues; they are a matter of approach, method, or technique.

Professional ethics concern the honor and integrity with which we carry out our work; not the details of how we work. Most professional associations have codes of ethics to which their members are expected to adhere, including (in our field) the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA), the Institute of Management Consultants USA, and the Scrum Alliance. This is how their clients know what to expect from them, and how their members know how they are expected to present themselves professionally.

The reasons I took a personal interest in this topic are (a) I wanted to be explicit about my ethical standards so that clients and colleagues would know what to expect from me, and could choose whether to work with me based on their own values; I think it important that people who work together have a common (or at least compatible) philosophical framework so that they can focus on the work without being distracted by fundamental conflicts in values; and (b) the available examples of codes of ethics, such as those of the organizations listed above, did not seem to be very well crafted. A common problem is that they often mix general ethical standards with statements about approach or technique. All the examples listed above do so, as do many others in our field and in other fields. The fact this sort of confusion is so common may be a reason that some people conflate the two when they are thinking about this topic.

Probably the single most recognized example of a code of ethics is the Hippocratic Oath. Here is a brief excerpt from a translation of a classical version of the Hippocratic oath:

I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice.

I cite this example because it does not suffer from the problem of conflating ethical standards and professional technique. It does not require physicians to prescribe any particular remedy (technique). It only requires that they focus on the needs of the patient according to their best professional judgment; that they will not intentionally recommend treatment that would harm the patient (ethics). A code of ethics for our line of work should maintain the same clear separation between ethics and technique; and practitioners in our line of work ought to be able to tell the difference, too. We need to be able to evolve our technique as we learn from experience, while remaining true to our ethical standards. If the code of ethics strays into the realm of technique, then it will become obsolete as soon as we achieve advances in technique.

Ethical standard #11 in my list does not dictate which remedies the physician must prescribe. It does not help Coach A and Coach B resolve their difference of opinion regarding their approach to the engagement. In my view, this is not a problem; it is at the appropriate level of detail for an ethical principle. As long as Coach A and Coach B are focusing on the needs of the client, and thinking about helping the client become independent of them, then they are both in compliance with the code of ethics.

The reason I included a statement about creating a dependent relationship with clients is that my thinking was influenced by earlier discussions in the community (referenced in the original post). There is a perception that some coaches (and consultants) try to maintain long-term cash flow by making their clients dependent on their continuous guidance. Whether that is a deliberate business model, or even whether it is a real problem or only a perception, I cannot say; but I do like the idea of making it explicit that we want our clients to become independent of us and to carry new ideas forward on their own. It is always one of my goals. Furthermore, it occurs to me that this principle applies not only to coaching work, but also to the other types of work that I and others do: Consulting and training. Most of us blend consulting, training, and coaching activities as needed, and this seems to be an ethical standard that applies to all those areas of service.