The Role of Trust in Executive Coaching

September 25, 2011  |   Executive Coaching Blog   |     |   0 Comment

This research article on the role of trust is one of a series which explores what it is that creates and maintains the executive coaching relationship.


The big difference is that it provides the perspective of executive coaching clients, and not the views of executive coaching practitioners who write on the subject.


This quote reflects well the fundamental importance of the executive coaching relationship in successful coaching;


The importance of the coaching relationship has been acknowledged from psychology research, commentators on the industry, and management perspectives.  Indeed, in the relevant literature the coaching relationship is viewed as a vehicle of change.  (Gyllensten and Palmer, 2007, p. 168).


It is acknowledged that there is a need to better understand the clients’ perspective of the executive coaching relationship (O’Broin and Palmer, 2006).  This is especially the case, if as suggested, the clients’ view of the quality and strength of the relationship may differ to that of the coach, but provide a better prediction of coaching outcome (Duckworth and De Haan, 2009).


The article is based on a qualitative research study carried out with six executive coaching clients. All of whom were in senior roles and still working with their coach at the time of the research interviews. The names of the research participants and their companies are confidential. In the quotes below each participant is identified by a number in brackets.


Different Aspects of Trust


The research participants explained that one of the most important qualities of the coach that was important to the coaching relationship was trustworthiness. It was trust that enabled them to feel free to be open and honest with their coach:


“If you don’t trust your coach or have absolute confidence in him and are prepared to be totally honest about all sorts of things, you know, there is you know, you are not going to get the optimum out of the relationship.” (P5)


Two aspects of trust arose in relation to the confidentiality of what was discussed in the relationship.  It was important to some participants that they were the prime customer of the coach and that information was not shared with their organisation:


“We’ve got to be honest enough that we can have the honest conversations… which means there might be some stuff which the organisation could never find out about and I think therefore, you know, he’s got to have me as the priority customer, even though I’m not paying the bill.” (P5)


The second aspect of confidentiality that emerged was being assured the coach did not talk about the relationship where he may be working with other executives in the company, for example “In fact he now works with three or four people in [company name] but I never feel that he will break any confidence at all” (P3).  The influence of doubt about this arose in the account of Participant 6:


“…it felt like the um  line on confidentiality had got, he had approached, he had got close to that line…I thought ‘ooh, is that getting a little bit close to the line of ‘did I really want to share that?’ I don’t know.” (P6, 13)


For some participants trust was also related to the skills of the coach to access deeper thoughts and know how to manage what might arise:


“You have to trust the other person, because the ability, if they’re drilling into what you’re thinking, you need to be able to trust them to do that…and also trust in the fact that they’ll know what to do with what you’re saying…” (P4, 25)


Other Research Findings


The central importance of trust in the executive coaching relationship expressed by the participants in this study is reflected in other coaching research on the clients’ perspectives (Passmore, 2010; Alvey and Barclay, 2007).  In these studies trust is most often seen in the context of the executive coaching clients’ expectation of confidentiality (for example see Hall et al., 1999; Wasylyshyn, 2003). In the experience some of these participants it was also important to trust that the executive coach had the skills to manage the in-depth nature of some of the content of the discussion. There is only brief comment about this in the practitioner literature (Bluckert, 2006; Flaherty, 2005).


The Implications for Executive Coaches


The key learning from this research for Executive Coaches is that clients perceive trust not only in relation to confidentiality, but also in their experience of the skills of their coach in managing the content of the coaching discussion. This seems to reinforce the need for coaches to  work with topics and techniques with which they are competent (Rogers, 2008).  A failure to do this may risk damage to the coaching relationship, and is likely to be ethically unsound.



Tony Goddard




Alvey, S. and Barclay, K. (2007) ‘The Characteristics of Dyadic Trust in Executive Coaching’, Journal of Leadership Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 18-27.


Bluckert, P. (2006) Psychological Dimensions of Executive Coaching. 6th ed. Maidenhead: Open University Press.


Dembkowski, S. and Eldridge, F. (2004) ‘The Nine Critical Success Factors in Individual Coaching’, The International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching, [Online]. Retrieved from:


Duckworth, A. and De Haan, E. (2009) ‘What Clients Say About Our Coaching’, Training Journal, August, pp. 64-67.


Flaherty, J. (2005) Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others. 2nd ed. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.


Gyllensten, K. and Palmer, S. (2007) ‘The Coaching Relationship: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis’, International Coaching Psychology Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 168-177.


Hall, D., Otazo, K. and Hollenbeck, G. (1999) ‘Behind Closed Doors: What Really Happens in Executive Coaching’, Organisational Dynamics, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 39-53.


Rogers, J. (2008) Coaching Skills: A Handbook. 2nd ed. Maidenhead: Open University Press.


Wasylyshyn, K. (2003) ‘Executive Coaching: An Outcome Study’, Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, Vol. 55, No. 2, pp. 94-106.





Keywords; Executive Coaching, Executive Coaching Company, Executive Coach, Executive Coaching Provider, Executive Coaching Services, Executive Coaching Research, Executive Coaching Relationship, Trust, Trust in Executive Coaching


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