Guidelines and Guardrails

by Esther Derby and Sal Freudenberg

Learning from other disciplines is a source of innovation. The Lean and Agile Coaching community often pulls ideas and techniques from a broad range of areas. This has helped create a wonderfully expansive field mixing many diverse ideas. However, some of these ideas, particularly those emerging from coaching, social work and clinical psychology, were created for use by highly trained and experienced practitioners, based on deep knowledge, and many hours of supervised training within their professional discipline.

These practitioners are amply equipped with the skills and understanding to judge how to use methods and techniques from their own field appropriately and carefully.  They are required to gain consent from clients and to be considerate of the potential for a perceived and actual power imbalance.They have a formal duty of care to consider. They are fully aware that some clients may turn out to be surprisingly vulnerable, and they are educated on how and why these techniques could ‘go wrong’ and what they should do when they do.

Lean and Agile Coaches—with the best of intentions–seed ideas from psychology, social work, and coaching into our community, often without the benefit of similar rigorous training. Some of these tools and techniques are intoxicatingly powerful.

We bring this up because we have seen coaches and home-grown “gurus” practice above their license. We don’t question their intentions.  We do question the wisdom of treading into sensitive areas of another person’s psyche. For instance:

  • A coach “diagnosed” unresolved trauma based on an example used in a conversation. The coach waded into resolving the past issue–in public, and without invitation.
  • A coach openly dismissed the idea of consent, when applying techniques that lead people to reveal more than they might consciously choose to reveal.
  • A coach boasted of putting coachees “in a kind of trance” through their work.

We recognize that we are all adults, that people can say “No,” when they encounter a coach who pushes for one-way vulnerability. We also recognize that it is not always quite so simple.

Some techniques adopted from psychology bring up strong and unexpected emotional responses, which surprise both the coach and the coachee. Some methods reveal more to the person wielding than the person following along. In spite of the rhetoric about peer relationships, there is an inherent status difference in coaching relationships, which is amplified when the coach is well-known, or in a position of formal authority–leading a workshop for example.

However insightful they may be, coaches are not psychologists, clinical social workers, organizational psychologists, or mental health professionals of any kind–unless they are also licensed as such. The fact that someone has undergone therapy or a healing process doesn’t convey the ability to do so for others.

In medicine, psychology, and related fields, there’s a concept of authorized scope of practice. Scope of practice depends on education, licensure, and sometimes supervision. Practicing beyond your license is not only unwise and unethical, it is illegal because it puts other people at risk. You can open up a wound that you don’t know how to heal, or bring up a past event that you aren’t prepared to deal with.

So, be a good listener, help people make more effective use of their abilities, help people reframe situations so they can see more possibilities for congruent action. Know the limits of your expertise. If you come across someone who you believe needs psychological help, suggest they get some. Be helpful, but don’t work beyond your license (you don’t have one).

If you want to do more, put in the study and gain the professional credentials necessary to do so with respect for the safety of those you want to help.

We fully applaud the furthering of knowledge, and expanding our repertoires as coaches.  And, we have a few cautions, based on our own knowledge, observation, and study.

The following questions will help you ascertain, with a little bit of research, whether a particular technique is for you and what guidance is out there if you do decide to use it.

  1. What is the theory base and how rigorous is it? Is it based on extrapolating the work of a single ‘guru’ or is it backed by a well-established field? How many other fields are using this work (including the one from which it has emerged)?
  2. Is the theory well-perceived in the field from which it has emerged? Is it still or has it ever been widely accepted / in use there? Has it been replaced by something else – if so, why?
  3. How was this intended to be used and by whom?  Was the original use in a clinical setting?
  4. How close is the intended use your situation? If the context is very different then is this technique still appropriate in this environment? With individuals? In groups? What additional things might you need to put in place because of this different context?
  5. What could go wrong? Are you prepared to handle a strong emotional response from the person you are coaching?  Or your own strong emotional response?
  6. How would you recognize things are going wrong? How quickly? What remedial measures could you take? What could you put in place ahead of time to increase safety? Is it possible things could go wrong without you knowing? Is there something you could change to avoid this?
  7. How would you recognize that you are out of your depth? What back up plans do you have?
  8. How might participants recognise and indicate that they are out of their depth or are feeling  uncomfortable? What might hamper them from feeling able to either perceive this or to indicate it? What changes could you make?
  9. You just spent X days learning about this method. How long did the person(s) who invented the method spend devising, practicing, refining it?  What was their professional and educational background?
  10. What further support will you have as you go out into the workplace using this? Who could you or your client contact if something went wrong? How quickly could you get help?

We appreciate the work coaches do, especially when they tread with care.



  1. Esther and Sal – excellent piece and advice. It feels abstract and as a result I struggle to know where the boundaries should be placed. As it stands I can’t tell if some of things I do: look for evidenced based work – are helpful; misplaced or downright not good. Perhaps you could provide fictional examples so that no one is harmed?

  2. Is this a commentary on the lack of Coaching Supervision, and/or coaching standards and ethics in the Agile Coaching community? A call to action to bad actors? or to those hiring ‘coaches’?

    Or maybe it is a call to the general agile coaching community to stop using (unspecified) techniques for which they have not received any formal training – or guidelines. If the latter, why not name the harmful technique?

    I don’t think answering the albeit thoughtful questions at the end of this post will necessarily give unaware coaches the right mindset for handling interpersonal conflict professionally – absent some quality training or supervision practice. It may be a good start though.

    None of the three bullet points given as examples appear to meet even the most basic of coaching ethical practices – and it isn’t clear which were examples from which specific techniques.

    Coaches ‘diagnosing’, not asking for consent on some technique that requires vulnerability, and ‘boasting’ are not professional coaching behaviors I recognize from any discipline.

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