The Dark Side of Agile Coaching - are Agile Coaches doing harm?

May 30, 2019  ·  Tony O'Halloran

Recently I’ve heard more and more stories of newly minted Agile Coaches crossing the lines between coaching* and counselling during 1:1 coaching sessions - that shit has to stop! It’s creepy, irresponsible and dangerous - mental wellbeing is not something to play around with.


Since the roles of Agile Coach and Scrum Master came about, many of us struggled to describe what it is we do for a living. Outside of drinking coffee and chatting even my parents have no clue about what I do. Fortunately the ACI created a competency framework for Agile Coaching that helped by giving us a better way to describe our roles and develop ourselves professionally. One of the core skills that we need to have is Professional Coaching.


Coaching is an incredibly useful skill. It allows us to help others unlock their potential and navigate their way through uncertainty. With this comes a duty of care to those we’re coaching (the coachee). As coaches we need to be very careful to draw the boundaries of where we will and won’t go. Coachees put their trust in us to be responsible.


Coaches and therapists employ many of the same tools during sessions (e.g. powerful questions, reflection, framing). When we use these we invite people to open up and inevitably there’s a blurring between the professional and personal domains. Even though there are some similarities between the two disciplines, they are very different in intent and skills required.


We need to know where to draw the line - repeat after me...


"Coaching is NOT therapy in disguise"

"Professional Coaching does NOT involve dredging through the past seeking reconciliation"

"Professional Coaching does NOT include diagnosing anything about anyone’s mental health"

"Professional Coaching does NOT aim to heal wounds from the past"

"Professional Coaching IS about helping the coachee to focus and set professional goals for the future"

The Dark Side of Agile Coaching - are Agile Coaches doing harm?



How can I make sure I stay on track?



1. Learn more


If Professional Coaching is your thing, look for training from a body like the ICF or ICC, or read more about it in Co-Active Coaching, The Coach's Casebook and others



2. Set boundaries


Establish clear boundaries at the outset. Make sure the coachee also knows the difference between coaching and counseling, allow them to hold you to account.


Find out what the topic of the session is up-front. If it’s something that you feel falls outside the boundaries of professional coaching, say so.


Therapists analyse the past by diagnosing illnesses and pathologies, professional coaches help to analyse problems to help the coachee to set goals for the future.



3. Know when to stop


If you feel like you’re breaching the boundary of professional coaching, check in with the coachee and get things back on track. If what they need is counselling, then suggest that to them and support them in finding the help they need.


If anything is discussed that you feel indicates potential harm for your coachee or others you have a responsibility to seek help and report it.



4. Get a mentor


Have an experienced coach shadow you during coaching conversations. Actively seek out feedback around how you created and maintained the boundaries of the session.



5. Share the message


Help your fellow coaches know about the difference between therapy, counseling and coaching. Spread the word!


Many groups are beginning to talk about the ethics of Agile Coaching, why not start the discussion in yours?





* For the purposes of this article, I’ll be talking about professional 1:1 Agile coaching. Although there are other types of professional coaching like life coaching, career coaching and sports coaching (amongst others) - I don’t know anything about them so I won’t discuss them here. Team coaching is also a very different topic, and is not covered.




Also, special thanks to Viktor Cessan for his suggestions and feedback!

Categories: Agile Coaching.