Coaching Competencies

Behavioural Boundaries in Business Coaching

This article is adapted from Sunny Stout Rostron’s book, Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: Unlocking the Secrets of Business Coaching (2013), which is available from Knowledge Resources (

Best-practice coaching involves the coach acting as a thought partner for a client, helping them structure their conscious thinking around a specific practical issue. This process is based on the assumption that the client is willing and able to engage constructively and effectively in the coaching conversation, and benefit from the coaching process. But what happens when the coach realises that a particular individual is not capable of this? How should the coach handle the situation? Clients with behavioural issues that are clearly problematic are unlikely to benefit from coaching, and the coaching process may well make the issue worse – apart from being very dysfunctional and frustrating for both coach and client.

Help WantedAs Kennedy and Charles (2001:255) put it, in the context of counselling: “It is not unusual to discover – although it is difficult to admit – that despite our best efforts there are persons we cannot seem to help. We fail to reach them or they do not seem able to respond”. This can be a particular source of stress for counsellors, especially those motivated by a liking for people and a desire to help them: “When they meet people who do not like them or with whom they cannot establish a successful relationship, they are frustrated and disappointed. … These people also frustrate other typical ideals of counsellors, namely, the optimistic Western and democratic notions that, with a little effort, we can stand on common ground with almost anybody; that things can be worked out; and that no matter what the difficulty, some kind of a solution is always possible. It is extremely stressful when non-cooperative individuals challenge such basic personal and professional beliefs.”

The same concerns are relevant in business coaching. Several factors may make coaching a particular individual very difficult or completely infeasible by seriously reducing their motivation or cognitive ability or upsetting their emotional balance. These may include a medical problem (such as kidney disease); grief over the recent death of a parent, partner or child; emotional stress due to divorce or separation; severe depression or anxiety; chronic work-related stress; post-traumatic stress syndrome (e.g. due to recent experience of violent crime or domestic abuse); or substance abuse.

Or the client may be suffering from a personality disorder. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fourth Edition, text revision), known as DSM-IV-TR, defines a personality disorder as “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behaviour that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress and impairment” (Kennedy and Charles, 2001:256). Personality disorders have been estimated to affect between 10 and 18 per cent of the US population (Kennedy and Charles, 2001:257), and the proportion may well be higher in South Africa due to the impact of long-term social and political tension, pervasive poverty, and high crime rates.

The DSM-IV-TR defines 10 personality disorders in three clusters (Kennedy and Charles, 2001:261-310):

  • Cluster A personality disorders: paranoid (pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others); shizoid (pervasive detachment from social relationships and a restricted range of emotional expression); and schizotypal (social deficits characterised by acute discomfort with, and a reduced capacity for, close relationships).
  • Cluster B personality disorders: antisocial (disregard for and violation of the rights of others); borderline (instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image, and Alphabet Blocksemotions); histrionic (excessive emotionality and attention-seeking behaviour); and narcissistic (grandiosity in fantasy or behaviour, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy).
  • Cluster C personality disorders: avoidant (social inhibition, inadequacy and hyper­sensitivity); obsessive-compulsive (preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and mental and interpersonal control); and dependent (pervasive and excessive need to be taken care of).

It is important for coaches to have the basic psychological literacy to be able to identify such issues and possible pathology in their individual coaching clients, and be able to recommend that the client seek guidance on any such issues from an appropriately trained and qualified professional. In addition, coaches should know where the boundaries are between coaching and psychotherapy, and not try to play psychologist in the coaching process. Coaching is not psychotherapy. Even if the coach happens to be a professionally qualified psychotherapist, they should not undertake psychotherapy with a coaching client. The two disciplines involve very different objectives and methodologies, and practising both with the same client may cause serious confusion within the client – and possibly the coach as well.

This is why the Code of Ethics of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) requires coaches and mentors to “At all times operate within the limits of their own competence, recognise where that competence has the potential to be exceeded and where necessary refer the client either to a more experienced coach/mentor, or support the client in seeking the help of another professional, such as a counsellor, psychotherapist or business/financial advisor” (EMCC, 2008:3). The same requirement is included in Clause 4.2.5(c) of COMENSA’s (2009:3) Revised Code of Ethics.

Similarly, Clause A1 of the Professional Coaching Core Competencies of the International Coach Federation (ICF) requires that the coach “Refers client to another support professional as needed, knowing when this is needed and the available resources” (ICF, 2008: 1). And the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches (WABC) makes the same point in Clause 1(a) of “Core Coaching Skill-Base” in its WABC Business Coaching Competencies: “Recognise the limits of your own competence, and refer to other professionals when appropriate” (WABC, 2007:4).

The coach needs to know what appropriate professional services are available, and be able to provide details of these to the client. The coach’s recommendation that the client consult such a professional obviously needs to be handled carefully and tactfully, to avoid placing any further distress on the client. At the same time, the coach needs to bear in mind that their noting the possible presence of a fundamentally adverse issue or pathology in a client does not represent a professional diagnosis. Nor does their recommendation that the client consult a relevant and suitably qualified practitioner constitute a “referral” in the way the term is defined in the medical profession, i.e. transferring the care of a patient from one clinician to another in compliance with a specified protocol – it is simply a recommendation. A carefully worked-out protocol, or at least a set of guidelines, for the referral of coaching clients to other disciplines would certainly be helpful to coaches, and coaching bodies could explore this as part of their definition of professional standards and ethics for coaching practice.

At the very least, the coach should ensure that any such “referrals” of individual clients are covered by appropriate clauses in their coaching contracts, so that:

  • the coach retains the right not to have to continue coaching an individual who in their carefully considered judgement is currently unable to benefit from the coaching process, but may (a) terminate the coaching process indefinitely or (b) continue the coaching process on the condition the individual client seeks appropriate professional support;
  • the coach does not have to specify the reason for the referral and possible termination of coaching to corporate management, as this may prejudice the interests of the individual client; and
  • the termination or suspension of the coaching process by the coach may not be used to prejudice the interests, conditions of service, advancement or development of the individual client in any way.

The last point is likely to be of particular significance in the triangular relationship between coach, individual client and organisational client which characterises much of business coaching. The last thing any coach needs is to be held responsible for having prejudiced an individual client’s career prospects by withholding coaching services. In this regard, as in other critical aspects of the coaching process, the coach’s ethical position will be much easier to defend if it has been explicitly defined and demarcated, in advance, in the coaching contract.


COMENSA (2009). Revised Code of Ethics.

EMCC (2008). Code of Ethics. EMCC_Code_of_Ethics.pdf.

ICF (2008). ICF Professional Coaching Core Competencies.

Kennedy, E. and Charles, S.C. (2001). On Becoming a Counsellor: The basic guide for non-professional counsellors. Dublin: Newleaf.

Stout Rostron, S. (2009). Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: unlocking the secrets of business coaching. Randburg: Knowres Publishing.

WABC (2007). WABC Business Coaching Competencies. popups/definition_and_competencies.html.

By Sunny Stout-Rostron Associates

Sunny coaches at senior executive and board level in corporate organizations and educational institutions. She has a wide range of experience in leadership and management development,  business strategy and executive coaching. With over 20 years’ international  experience as an executive coach, Sunny believes that there is a strong link between emotional intelligence and business results – she works with leaders and their  teams to help them achieve individual, team and organizational goals, gaining  wisdom and knowledge through their own experience.

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