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Why Confidentiality Is Crucial In Business Coaching (And When It Should Be Broken)

A top secret stamp in red ink signifying confidentiality

On our business coaching training, we are often asked about confidentiality.

What do the line manager of the person being coached and the organisation get to hear about the coaching?

And how do you manage expectations about the feedback from the sessions.

Confidentiality and expectations setting is something we cover in our new online ILM Level 5 course in effective coaching and mentoring.

And we felt we should also cover it in our business coaching blogs.

Confidentiality is at the core of the coaching relationship, according to expert coach Tienie Loubser.

He says that for the process to be successful, the person receiving coaching needs to feel they are in a place where they can speak freely without reprisals or judgements.

“Coaching is the platform for someone to be able to interact with someone else in a free space,” he said.

“The coach not revealing what is going on in that conversation is paramount for that conversation to be rich and to add value.

“Once you break confidentiality, your credibility is damaged. It is like the Will Smith slap – he built up all this credibility and in 30 seconds lost it with 90 per cent of his followers.

“If people know that, as a coach, you have broken confidentiality, they are not going to trust you to be their coach. And if they offer you information hesitantly because they don’t trust you, coaching becomes a pointless activity.”

But companies will want to know what is going on in the coaching they are investing in. Do they have a right to expect some information?

Tienie says expectations around feedback should be set out at the start of the coaching – ahead of the first session.

He said: “The feedback given from coaching should be based on the performance indicators set out before the coaching starts.

“So, if I was coaching someone else, I would ask the person requesting that coaching what they want to see change in that individual.

“Where do you think their potential sits? Where would you like their behaviour to change?

“I would also have a joint meeting with the person organising the coaching and the one being coaching, so everyone is clear about what we are trying to achieve.

“Then, as we get into the coaching, I encourage the person I am coaching to give feedback to their line manager about the coaching. So, it is not me giving the feedback.

“The other option is to create the feedback with the person I am coaching, so there is transparency about what is going to the line manager.

“You don’t want to have a situation where it seems that things are going on behind the scenes. Everything needs to be transparent.”

Tienie believes it is also vital to remember business coaching is no longer viewed as a remedial activity aimed at improving the performance of underachievers. This also helps remove the need and desire for constant feedback and check-ins.

“If I get called into coach someone by the line manager, I say I’ll coach the line manager on how to performance manage their team,” Tienie said.

“I don’t want to come in as a coach and be remedial for the team members. Why am I coming in to do the work the line manager should be doing?

“As soon as coaching becomes a remedial activity, I would rather coach the person requesting the coaching than the person performing badly.”

I wondered if coaching confidentiality is absolute or whether there are any occasions where a coach thinks a boundary has been crossed and should raise concerns with others in the organisation.

“There are only two reasons why you should break confidentiality,” Tienie said.

“One is if they suggest something illegal. And the other is if they suggest something that could harm themselves, others or the organisation.

“But I’ve not had to break confidentiality in 15 years of coaching.”

What about if the person receiving the coaching views it as a way to get a new job in a different organisation? Should management be informed?

“That’s a bit of a predicament,” Tienie said. “You’re being asked by the organisation to coach this person. But the person you are coaching is asking you to coach them into another job.

“Where does the loyalty lie? How do you manage that?

“The ideal outcome – and what I try to do - is to have a conversation about the fact they have brought this to your attention. And then encourage them to have a conversation with HR about whether you should be coaching them into another job.

“I’ve been in this situation. And the transparency helped the organisation put support in place to prepare that person for their next job."

Find out more about confidentiality and expectation setting on our new online ILM Level 5 course in effective coaching and mentoring.

The BCF group has been helping organisations develop their talent, inspire their people and overcome obstacles and challenges for the past 25 years.

We deliver training that makes a difference. Find out more about our business coaching, management training and interpersonal skills options.

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