Ethical Responsibility and Decision-Making in Supervision

Ethical Responsibility and Decision-Making in Supervision

Described by Aristotle as part of our human quest towards the good, ethics is a system of moral principles that governs a person’s behaviour and how they conduct an activity.  A system of ethics guides us in making decisions and choices between good or bad, right or wrong, congruent or misaligned. 

Despite the strong ethical position of the professional bodies in this field – best represented by the EMCC and Association for Coaching’s joint Global Code of Ethics – the fact remains that the coaching profession is self-regulated and individual coaches must frequently navigate their work using individual assessment of ethical behaviour.  

Coaching throws up many ethical dilemmas that face the client and coach.  There are seldom clear and easy answers to the ethical questions that come up in coaching and it’s this uncertainty that makes it vital that supervision supports coaches to address ethical dimensions in their practice.

In this article, I aim to shed light on how supervisors can support their supervisees to confront complex ethical situations and also attend to their own ethical stance as a supervisor.

Holistic approach to the realm of ethics

To expect a single ethical framework – a professional body’s code of conduct, for instance – to be the source of all ethical decision making would clearly be both simplistic and reductive.  

To rely solely on a supervisee’s own ethical sense-making would be equally insufficient and problematic.  After all, whatever our personal ethical stance as a supervisor or coach, we are also part of an organisation or professional body that has an ethical code and ethical procedures that we feel subscribed to and commit to following. 

As a supervisor, therefore, we need to recognise that ethical practice exists within a series of nested systems and, as such, calls for an holistic approach.

To better understand the idea of nested systems, it can be useful to imagine the Russian doll structure. The smallest doll is the individual’s personal values and conscience which is nested inside a slightly bigger doll. The slightly bigger doll is the ethical framework of their profession, as well as the work context and code of conduct of the organisation in which they work. These two exist within the bigger doll which is the cultural context and laws of the country in which they work. And finally, the biggest doll is a moral, universal human ethical framework which is commonly (but not exclusively) summarised by the Golden Rule (ethic of reciprocity) and suggests that one should treat others as one would wish to be treated oneself. 

It is the presence of these nested systems that can create situations where supervision becomes complex and difficult, confronting ethical dilemmas that have no simple solution. 

To supervise well, then, we need to be ethically informed and equipped to help ensure that a supervisees’ practice is congruent with their own personal values as well as that of the profession, organisation and culture in which they work. 

Ethical responsibilities of supervision

For many people, especially as they enter a new profession like coaching, ethics is about conformity to clear ethical codes. If the code says it is forbidden then it is forbidden; if the code doesn’t forbid it then it is acceptable. Many new coaches focus more on following rules than enriching their experience through experimentation precisely because the adherence to codes offers certainty and clarity.

These codes and frameworks usually contain principles to guide members in making ethical decisions as well as clear, unambiguous directives on what should or should not be done in certain circumstances. 

Although these are a good place to start, it soon becomes clear that, in practice, it is not possible to cover every eventuality in a code of conduct. 

Rather than being a rigid set of rules or laws, ethics serves as an inspiration for higher forms of craft and practice. It is neither a tick-box exercise nor a final destination. It is a journey of developing one’s ethical capacity and flexibility, recognising that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution that can fix seemingly similar ethical challenges. Ethical responsibility of supervision is to use reflection to discover what fits best for this client in this situation. 

In response to earlier editions of Supervision in the Helping Professions, Peter Hawkins recognised the emerging need to address situations where supervision becomes more complex and difficult. As a result, the fourth edition of this book  (2012) introduces a set of ethical responsibilities in supervision to enable supervisors to navigate complex situations ethically and provide some guidance around the ethical dimensions of supervision. 

The four ethical responsibilities are:

  • Ethical Reflection
  • Ethical Maturity
  • Ethical Role Modeling
  • Ethical Decision Making

Ethical reflection

The first ethical responsibility of supervision is to help the supervisee ethically reflect on their practice from both internal and external perspectives, and to consider the way in which their practice matches up against both their internal values and the external ethical values and frameworks of the nested systems in which they operate. 

A lack of reflection is a slippery slope to unethical behaviour  – we fall into habitual and mindless ways of behaving that are neither thought through nor reflected upon for alternative meanings and possible actions.   

By contrast, reflection brings mindfulness, attention and deliberation to the process of ethical decision-making. 

Ethics comes alive in practitioner-client relationships through dialogue and reflection. And although supervision may start asymmetrically (i.e. the supervisee might look up to supervisor), it is the supervisor’s role to empower the supervisee by creating dialogue as the format for the conversations, in which they begin to share power, so that power moves “within” the supervisee. That doesn’t mean supervisors give up their power: they still hold it but move backwards so that the supervisee can take on more and more power (Kees de Vries). 

Ethical maturity

The second ethical responsibility of supervision is to help supervisee not only resolve current ethical dilemmas, but to use these ethical challenges to develop ethical maturity. 

“Engaging with the ethical field is like entering a minefield of uncertainty.”

As defined by Caroll and de Haan (2012), ethical maturity is:

having the reflective, rational, emotional and intuitive capacity to decide whether actions are right and wrong, or good and better, having the resilience and courage to implement those decisions, being accountable for ethical decisions made (publicly or privately) and being able to learn from and live with the experience(s).

Coaches often find they are faced with ethical dilemmas that cannot be resolved within their current frame of thinking.   As Einstein stated so eloquently, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” 

This is where supervision offers a vital space.  But it is often at this point that supervisors can feel acutely the pressure to give advice and come down on one side or other of a dilemma, rather than focusing on how the dilemma can be used to help grow the ethical capacity of their supervisee. 

To use another well-worn analogy, ethical maturity is about teaching a coach to fish, not giving her the fish!

But what does ethical maturity mean in practice?

According to Carroll, there are 5 elements:

  1. Ethical sensitivity: creating ethical antennae that keep us alert to when ethical issues or dilemmas are present
  2. Ethical discernment: being able to make an ethical decision in line with our ethical principles and our values
  3. Ethical implementation: implementing the ethical decision(s) made
  4. Ethical conversation: defending the decision; being able to articulate and justify to stakeholders the reasons why the ethical decisions were made and implemented
  5. Ethical peace: achieving closure on the event and being at peace with it even when there were other possible decisions or better decisions that could have been made. Learning from what has happened and living with the consequences of decisions made.

These five components of ethical maturity outlined above are not stages or steps in a chronological sequence but rather ethical skills that influence one another. 

Supervisors help supervisees make sense of and understand them and, in doing so, they and their supervisees are committing themselves to higher standards and excellent practice by building ethical character – something not attained by simply looking to ethical codes which too often ask for the lowest common denominator (fall below this standard and you are acting unethically). 

Ethical role modelling

The third ethical responsibility of supervision is the ethical practice and, by extension, ethical role modelling of the supervisor. 

One shouldn’t underestimate the power of learning by imitation – the form of learning through which we model ourselves after and imitate others. As parent coaches often say, ‘Don’t teach your kids, teach yourself. They do as you do, not as you say.” So it frequently is with supervision – supervisees watch their supervisors intently and imitate them in more or less conscious ways. Working with ethically mature supervisors will impact supervisees in how they think about ethics and how they make mature ethical decisions (Carroll, 2014).  

Some of the qualities of ethically mature supervisors are:

  • Ability to mindfully respond (vs react) to what has happened in the particular supervision relationship;
  • Ability to see the ‘bigger picture’ from a number of perspectives (i.e. the nested systems);
  • Self-knowledge and self-awareness of one’s personal decision-making ‘style’ and potential agenda;
  • Holistic approach towards ethical decision-making (more on that in the ‘Ethical decision making’);
  • Ability to empathise with others and to have compassion.

Helping supervisees to practise ethically and develop their ethical maturity requires a supervisor to espouse sound ethical principles and to have a mature ethical capacity themselves. This includes being clear about the purpose of supervision as well as its principles and process. 

An important aspect of ethical practice is for the supervisor to manage (and role model) the boundaries of the supervisory work particularly around contracting, stakeholder management and congruent relationships with all parts of the supervision system – avoiding collusion, naming conflicts of interest, challenging behaviour that subvert the client system, and similar behaviours all role model an ethically mature stance.

In summary then, it’s clear that ethical responsibilities in supervision go beyond “mere” rule-following and show how one’s ethical stance is not a destination or a tick-box exercise, but rather a journey of continuously developing one’s ethical capacity and flexibility by being mindful of the nested systems at play and unique circumstances of every ethical decision.

Ethical decision making

There are times when we are morally confused and just don’t know what to do. 

And even when we behave ethically, we are sometimes unable to articulate why we did what we did or explain coherently the processes that went into the decision-making that resulted in our action. In making ethical decisions it is worth noting the difference between intention and action, and the supervisor supports their supervisees to intentionally reflect on what they intend to do and what they actually do, to ensure that their practice is congruent with their personal values and feelings, and not out of alignment.

Sometimes we cannot fully be confident we did the “right thing”.  And even if we are able to connect our actions to the ethical guidelines and standards of our profession,  we might still feel unsure whether we made the right decision. Supervisees will rightly bring to supervision situations that are troubling and which they have not been able to resolve by themselves. They also bring the emotions that emerge from their work which they cannot process alone. 

Hindsight, after-action reviews and occasional rumination keep our previous ethical decisions alive for us and we can easily end up replaying them over and over. Such activity, although potentially useful for some retrospective insights, can feel draining and unsettling so it is important to restore our energy and ensure that our emotional wellbeing and feelings are returned to the state of balance before we can give our best to our clients (read more about the restorative function in supervision here). 

There is a tendency to see ethical decision making as a purely logical process with reason as the main factor in decision making. Immanuel Kant, the 18th century philosopher, was the champion of basing ethical decision making on reason and logic alone. 

The ability to work logically and thoughtfully towards any conclusion and decision, as well as thinking critically, examining and challenging concepts or ideas, is a key feature of being human and one of our best gifts. However, while important, rational deliberation is not the only faculty we can employ to arrive at ethical decision making. To be in touch with our emotions and those of others in terms of what is happening is a further dimension we consider crucial to ethical decision-making (Hawkins and Shohet, 2012).

Awareness of the role of emotions in decision-making in general has increased over the years and insights from neuroscience support the concept that connected to emotion are our intuitive senses where decisions are made unconsciously or using the adaptive unconscious (Wilson 2002). After the emotions have made their decision, the rational circuits in the neocortex are activated to make sense of, and even justify, the decision. People come up with persuasive reasons to justify their moral intuition (Lehrer 2009:165). 

And so, it is the supervisor’s role to not only encourage supervisees to think rationally and give reasoned arguments for their decisions, but also help them trust their intuitive responses, since intuition plays such a large part in ethical decision-making.  

Kees de Vries captures this beautifully by saying, ‘Ethics is not a story from the head. Ethics is about the whole body, head and heart.” (Jo Birch, Peter Welch, Coaching Supervision: Advancing Practice).  

Navigating ethical challenges

Most often ethical dilemmas are just that – dilemmas. And if some cases can be more straightforward in deciding whether a behaviour has been unethical or not, some might require a more careful consideration and, subsequently, the more difficult decision.

The more ‘straightforward’ cases, which might require an immediate response, can be in relation to ‘gross professional misconduct’, such as abusive coaching behaviour, a sexual relationship with a client, or using a client for material gain. Typically, if such misconduct occurs, the supervisor prescribes the supervisee to terminate their work with their client immediately and may pass the case to the ethics committee for further investigation and handling of what can potentially be identified as an ethical breach. In such cases, when the situation requires the supervisor to act immediately, a prescriptive type of intervention (as per Heron’s Six Categories of Intervention) might be the most ethically appropriate way forward, as long as the supervisor then shows an ability to reflect on their own reactivity rather than act from it.

Ethical dilemmas, on the other hand, are not so black and white.  They require the supervisor and supervisee to work through the situation carefully and explore options rather than looking for simple, if-then equations. An example of an ethical dilemma might be a supervisee coaching spouses individually, where a husband has referred his wife to a supervisee.  The danger here is for the supervisee to potentially end up doing “couple coaching” without the actual couple in the space, especially if part of the coaching goal is in relation to their relationship. An ethical risk in this is that the supervisee makes the situation worse by taking the ‘side’ of one client over the other or using the content of the coaching conversations with one spouse in the coaching space with another.

It’s not that the coach shouldn’t coach both partners separately but that he or she should be aware of the ethical risks and challenges posed by the situation in order to be more sensitive to these arising.  This goes back to the idea of the antennae of ethical maturity.

Ethical navigation of complex situations in supervision is no mean feat and can demand, at one and the same time, a strong moral compass and an openness to unseen possibilities. To supervise ethically, there are some vital elements which can help to strengthen one’s moral compass and align it with the ethical frameworks in supervision:

  1. Consciousness – the ability to be aware of what is being done, having some insight into our intentions and being alert and watchful about when ethical issues, problems and dilemmas emerge. 
  2. Ability to make ethical decisions based on not only rationality and logical thinking, but also compassion and empathy.
  3. Seeking supervision for yourself from an ethically mature supervisor (i.e. supervision for supervision) to not only role model and further inspire the ethical behaviour in supervisees but also shed light on how supervisees can serve their clients best with all the ethical frameworks in place.

One article alone will never be enough to capture the depth, breadth and complexity of such a fundamental topic as ethics. In this blog, we have discussed what it means to be an ethical practitioner and introduced a number of concepts, such as the nested systems in the realm of ethics, ethical responsibilities in supervision, ethical maturity and decision-making. As part of “Diploma in Coaching Supervision”, Ethics in Supervision is taught in a designated session within Module 1 and teaches best practices on how to supervise ethically (to check the curriculum, click here). 

Author Details
Kris is a certified life coach, wife and a mum, living in London with her family and a cat called Lady. Having worked in finance for 10 years successfully but unhappily, she then requalified to pursue her dream of becoming a life coach. Through her coaching, she now helps women start a new chapter in their life with a brand new empowered handwriting. Because ultimately, we can start a brand new chapter every single day, but unless we change our handwriting, we are most likely to end up with the same negative patterns and thinking. It’s her absolute mission to help other women who don’t live their life for themselves, to find inner worth and inner strength and ultimately, clarity and direction to become the author of their life.
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Kristina Sheppard
Kris is a certified life coach, wife and a mum, living in London with her family and a cat called Lady. Having worked in finance for 10 years successfully but unhappily, she then requalified to pursue her dream of becoming a life coach. Through her coaching, she now helps women start a new chapter in their life with a brand new empowered handwriting. Because ultimately, we can start a brand new chapter every single day, but unless we change our handwriting, we are most likely to end up with the same negative patterns and thinking. It’s her absolute mission to help other women who don’t live their life for themselves, to find inner worth and inner strength and ultimately, clarity and direction to become the author of their life.
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