Supervision vs Coaching: Why Supervision is Not Coaching the Coach


Most people are accustomed to growing up and later functioning as adults in societies organised in hierarchies of authority. Governments, police, courts and fines/punishments are examples of tools employed in such structures.

Organization power structure. The amount of authority increases with each level higher a person or organization is in hierarchy. The ultimate power remains with the person or organization at the very top of the hierarchy, with that position holding the authority to make final decisions in all matters. 

Why am I writing about this when this article is about supervision, you might ask? The answer is because often coaches apply the paradigm of a hierarchy of authority in trying to understand supervision. It is an unfortunate and well-recognised phenomenon that many coaches mistakenly perceive supervisors to be “a big brother looking over one’s shoulder”, “a coach for coaches”, “a policeman” or someone to offer guidance, advice and experience attained through thousands of hours of their own coaching. These views are grounded in the perception that supervisors are one-up in a hierarchy of authority and it is inaccurate.

As in the societal context, this paradigm in coaching stimulates accountability to higher authority rather than to oneself, colleagues, and clients, a reliance on higher authority to provide thinking and boundaries rather than deepening one’s own capacities in this regard, and a perpetuation of these dynamics with coaching clients.

Beliefs that as coach one must have mastered the very thing one’s clients need, or that one can teach or advise one’s clients to do something, foster a relationship in which the clients rely on the practitioner to provide the thinking for their problems. Adequate coach training and Continuous Professional Development nips this in the bud and instead develops coaching and relational skills which encourage the client to learn new ways of thinking and being, and to have new awareness of their unhelpful patterns of thinking to look out for when they get stuck, all in the pursuit of achieving specific goals.

While coaching and supervision share some competencies and modes of engagement with clients, there are distinct differences.

The context

While coaches’ clients can be part of any organisational system and the coaching work can be done within any context, supervision takes place within the context of a practitioner’s relationships with clients, sponsors and their practice of engaging with other people in personal and professional development. Some phenomena of relevance here are psychological dynamics like games, transference and counter-transference, issues related to multi-party relationships, ethical dilemmas, and organisational themes which covertly impact the coaching work.

Focus of the work

Whilst not the sole focus of the work, supervision places a strong emphasis on the nature and quality of the relationship between practitioner and client, both in the supervision and coaching contexts. Supervision is also responsive to the humanistic and developmental needs of the coach, the resolution of dynamics playing out between coach, client and organisation and wider context through positive parallel process, meta-learning through reflection on the coach’s experience of client, relationship, self and the interventions they have employed, all with reference to theoretical or psychological frameworks. The importance of thinking with reference to a framework is that it simultaneously keeps the supervisor and coach out of the story/circumstances (where they are likely to get stuck, which is often what has motivated the coach to come to supervision) and deepens/broadens the coach’s academic competence proficiency.

The practitioner’s mandate

Whilst supervision functions humanistically (working with the coach as a person) and developmentally (working with the coach as a coach), and applies this inherent learning to the cases brought to the work (and those not), it is imperative that the safety of the practitioner and their client is tended to and ensured. In this regard the supervisor does have the mandate to be directive with supervisees to ensure ethical, professional and safe practice is conducted.

In summary, whilst coaches and supervisors both work in the development of people, supervision pays attention to a wider context, nature of relationship, enriches the coach’s psychological skillset and ensures safety of the parties concerned.

As supervision is a different modality to coaching, not a level of progression within coaching, coaches can and should expect their supervisors to have specific training in supervision, and for the work itself to have a focus on who the coach is within their practice and relationships with clients.

In coach supervision, you can expect to learn more about yourself as a person and professional, and how you can be more effective with your clients.

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