‘The Ugly’ – As Coaches, We Are Far More Biased Than We Think

Author : Tahmid Chowdhury

9th July 2021

17th – 23rd May was International Coaching Week, and during this weeklong celebration of all things coaching, we decided to create our own theme for the week: The good, the bad and the (subjectively) ugly in the coaching industry. As part of this we held dedicated discussion spaces for our community to explore the good, bad and ugly that we each see within the coaching profession, as well as inviting them to contribute articles on this theme for a community competition to win a free spot on an Animas CPD.

We received 9 brilliant articles and will be sharing each of them on the blog for you to enjoy. Here’s Animas alumnus and Diversity & Inclusion coach Tahmid Chowdhury’s article.

As coaches, we pride ourselves on our non-judgemental style and client-led approach. Our aim is to ensure that the client comes to a solution themselves. We know the value coaching provides, and how important it is to withhold our own personal opinions on a subject to ensure we do not adversely influence the client.

It could be easy to assume that as coaches we are non-partisan individuals providing a service of reflection and objectivity. Moreover, we pride ourselves as professionals that do not bring bias to the table.

But is that really true?

In many coaching schools (including Animas), we learn the importance of moving away from our own ideas of ‘the right solution’, and instead become far more open minded to the aims of what the client needs. It’s this client-led approach that can be so magical about coaching. I have found it so enlightening how individuals can come up with solutions that I never would have come up with myself.

I would certainly argue that a move towards a coaching approach during conversations is often taking large steps towards eliminating bias. Many negative experiences towards me from a workplace perspective have stemmed from people assuming what I think, or simply telling me what I ‘should’ do. This attitude I have faced can be limiting (‘this is the way we do things here’), and as a BAME person can also feel quite tone deaf to some of the experiences I can face compared to my white counterparts. For example, in feedback I am often labelled ‘curt’ or ‘aggressive’ even though I do far more to ensure a safe space for my colleagues compared to a lot of the people I have worked with!

I have used coaching in my own management style, and it has worked wonders to really get the best out of people; harnessing people’s own thoughts and opinions is a critical part of an open and inclusive culture, and coaching is an excellent tool to really ensure people get the opportunity to genuinely share their own experience.

As you can probably tell, I strongly believe coaching is a force for good. Coaching is a critical way we can make society a more equal and fair one. That being said, that does not mean that coaches, and wider afield the coaching industry, are perfect. I have worked in Government for a number of years, as well as spoken to friends working in liberal media and charities. These sectors, which attract people for a ‘moral good’, can fall into cognitive dissonance, where genuine introspection on issues such as race, gender, disability etc. is not entertained as there is an assumption that we are ‘one of the good ones’ so there is no need to speak about it.

As a coach, you may be thinking that you are as fair and open as you can be. You are keen to ensure your clients have the time and space to speak their minds, and you are actively curious as to their thoughts. You see yourself as someone who assists people in their aims for a particular goal, and does so successfully. And whilst you may give your own reflections during a session, you do so in a genuine spirit of support to the client. From this perspective, you have done everything you can to not impose your own bias on the client. Broadly, you have probably done it quite well too. So how can we possibly do anything further to make us ‘less biased’?

Let’s zoom out a little bit. For those of us who have gone into the big wide world of coaching, we have quickly learnt that there is far more to it than simply ‘doing’ in coaching sessions. Instead, we need to learn more about online presence, pricing, course plans and wider marketing (do we niche or do we not niche?). Suddenly, we need to be far more practical in the way we run a coaching business. What this often leads to is coaches bringing their own specialism into the world, often using their own past experiences. Quickly, the world becomes a prism of ‘ideal clients’ which fit the sort of person we think will benefit from our work.

For me, this has led me to work more towards issues around diversity and inclusion, and leadership. Given my experience developing diversity and inclusion strategies, it would be folly of me to not use this as a hook for my coaching. And yes, within coaching sessions, I have given advice (bordering on mentoring!) on ideas for a successful strategy.

This has meant that when clients have sought me out, they have often been from BAME backgrounds, or people interested in diversity and inclusion more widely – likely due to them having another connection (being gay, disabled or something else entirely).

It didn’t take me long to get philosophical about the question around my coaching. Am I really contributing to a fair and equal society if the majority of people I seem to coach are only BAME people? Am I not being biased myself by giving my own experiences, particularly when I share some of the negative stories I have from the workplace?

One response to these questions is that I abandon my experiences and return to a more pure type of coaching. My aim is simply to be a mirror that helps others with their own issues, and hone my services to be open to anyone and everyone. This arguably means that I can (at least in theory) help everyone towards a fairer society, even if I feel I don’t bring my own values to it.

The other response is to understand that my experience is genuinely valuable, and that what I do helps BAME people in a way others may not. I also understand that I would like to do more around supporting white colleagues around these questions too. I understand I have my own biases, but I work to actively challenge them and make a change in how I behave. For example, I previously would not have felt comfortable speaking to white people around race issues, as I had a genuine aversion to the way they might react. I understood though that for me to really make the change I wanted, I had to overcome this bias, or assumption I had. Likewise, I am still on the journey about learning more on LGBT+ issues, women and disability (as well as many other issues!)

My conclusion is that we are all biased in one way or another. Being a coach does not make that fact suddenly disappear. But the answer is not to gut ourselves of our own experiences and personality – that is what makes us human. Instead, it is to better understand ourselves, and understand where the biases or gaps in our knowledge are, after which we can work to address them and continue our own learning journey.

And I truly believe doing this will help us be better coaches. A key part of our jobs is to effectively empathise with clients; if we do not understand others who come from different backgrounds, we are unable to fully support them. So by further developing ourselves, we can do our best to truly support the client in front of us.

So I would encourage you as a coach to reflect on how you might be bringing biases into your own coaching practice. Let’s actively identify them and talk about it. Because by challenging our biases, we can truly grow as coaches and as human beings to create that fairer society we strive for.

Tahmid Chowdhury

Tahmid Chowdhury

Diversity & Inclusion Coach

Visit Tahmid's LinkedIn

If you would like us to help tell your story or you would like to share your coaching niche, philosophy or agenda in the form of a blog, like this one – contact Sam to express your interest: [email protected]

Categories: International Coaching Week  

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