Trust and safety in coaching supervision


By its nature, workplace coaching is a rather isolated profession where we can feel ‘out on a limb’ and exposed as we make split-second decisions within sessions. Supervision is a space for coaches to review their practice with the help of a dedicated professional who is specifically trained to quality assure and monitor those decisions, and develop our ability to engage in coaching conversations.

Added on 30 June 2016 by Erik de Haan

Supervision therefore provides an opportunity to learn from our own experience, to process and overcome emotions linked to our practice and to scrutinise the boundaries of our work. Because of the scrutiny and exposure that this implies, there have always been concerns that supervisees may feel ashamed or judged, and as a result may not bring their most pertinent doubts or their most worrying mistakes to supervision, believing that this is the best way to protect themselves.

There is already a body of research which explores these feelings of incompetence and the impact on people’s willingness to bring issues to supervision. I wanted to look at the problem in more detail. Might it be true, for example that supervision does not cover or address the very aspects of practice that it was designed for? Might coaches in regular supervision still not gain access to their very isolation and their most existential doubts? To research this, we set up a web-based survey for executive coaches, where they could, in a safe and confidential way, report about their ‘most concerning/worrying/shameful episodes’ in practice. 

The survey was distributed through my own coaching networks and the professional associations and stayed open for a two month period. It was completed by more than 500 professional coaches (69 per cent women and 31 per cent men) from 32 countries, with mostly more than eight years experience.

The findings seem to suggest firstly that we are witnessing an uptake in the use of supervision in the coaching profession. Earlier research (2006) by the CIPD suggested that only 44 per cent of coaches received regular supervision and only 23 per cent of those organising coaching provided it. In my survey, however, the majority of coaches were taking more than the one hour minimum supervision per 35 sessions recommended by the EMCC. There was a good balance and integration between group and individual supervision: 28 per cent reported only individual supervision while 12 per cent reported only group supervision.

Satisfaction with supervisors was high, with an average rating of 72 on a scale of 0-100. What was interesting was that coaches reported being more satisfied with their current supervisor than with the previous ones.

The study mainly looked at levels of trust and safety in supervision. 85 per cent of coaches said that over the last few years, they had brought their most worrying episode to supervision and had found doing so helpful.

Nevertheless, this does leave still 5 per cent of coaches who had taken their issues to supervision but had found the process unhelpful. 7 per cent said they could have brought issues to supervision but chose not to, 2 per cent did not bring it because they did not trust their supervisor, while less than 1 per cent said they did not raise an issue in supervision “because it was too shameful”.

These percentages are very low but are nevertheless worth noting and suggest that even within a generally positive picture in terms of safety in supervision, there are still negative experiences that will go unreported.

General trust in the current supervisor was very high: on average 86 on a scale from 1: ‘do not trust at all’ to 100: ‘trust completely’. Results for male and female coaches were broadly similar, although women do seem to bring significantly more of their ‘concerning’ or ‘shameful’ experiences to supervision and also report a slightly better experience than men when they bring those issues.

The survey showed there was little difference between those taking up primarily individual supervision as compared with those taking up group supervision, with the first group of coaches being slightly but significantly more trusting and satisfied. One can imagine that individual supervision is indeed safer and more confidential than group supervision – what is surprising here is perhaps that group supervisees are almost equally trusting as individual supervisees.

The survey findings suggest that perhaps the situation for coaching and consulting professionals is more positive than for other clinical professionals and for trainees in the helping professions. Many trainees and clinicians from other professions are under an obligation to attend a certain amount of supervision and they cannot in many cases choose their own supervisor. 

This is not the case generally for workplace coaches, which may mean on the one hand that those who really need strict quality monitoring and supervision are not getting it, yet on the other hand that those who undertake supervision are much more motivated and trusting of their (after all, self-elected) supervisors. 

Another factor that may play a big role here is that many coaches pay or apply for budget to pay their supervisors, so that ordinary market forces play a role in making the supervision safe, trustworthy and dependable for them.

For full details of the survey findings, please contact