Coach's motivation and the desire to help

As a coach supervisor, I often hear coaches talk about their reasons for becoming a coach as being the desire to help people (to grow, develop, change things). More nefariously this need leads to them taking too much responsibility for the actions of their coaching clients e.g. the HR Manager performing career coaching, who knows someone who may be able to help the client or has access to certain resources and can overdo the helpfulness, by rescuing their coachee. Of course, sometimes this is appropriate, especially in a mentoring capacity. It’s when it becomes a default and gets in the way of the relationship, maybe creating dependency, that it needs to be reflected on as part of a coach’s CPD.

Hawkins and Smith (2000) postulate “that it is essential for all those in the helping professions to reflect honestly on the complex mixture of motives that have led them to choose their current profession and role.”

They make a distinction between “helpers” and “a channel for help”. In a professional capacity helpers can be: Coaches, mentors, consultants, counsellors, and clinicians, HR Managers, Line Managers, and Clergy etc.

They suggest that no one acts exclusively out of pure altruistic motives. Often the darker the motives the more most people cling to the idea that they are being solely objective in their approach. Attending to our “shadow side” (and we all have one) is constant vigilance. The shadow side can involve our unconscious lust for power and a way of meeting our own needs by ostensibly helping others.

Motivations and Shadow Side of the Coach.

There can be unsaid expectations placed on a helper. By over identifying with this role we may need to make the other person helpless or a victim, to justify our helping them. The client can be influenced by the helper’s behaviour to take on the role of being helpless.

As coaches, we are good at espousing the client’s ability to make changes and take ownership and that their progress is down to them and should be celebrated as such. Secretly most of us, (me included) are hoping for an ego stroke that we had some part to play in their achievements!

How Coach’s Use (and Misuse) Power.

This word has strong connotations for most that can make one shrink from it and say “but that’s not me”. However, it is often a hidden need and we may surround ourselves with people worse off than us in order to feel like a helper. As coach’s we are often employed for our expert power (e.g. we may “know” tools and techniques on how to build self-confidence with someone aiming for promotion) or our personal power (we use the relational aspects of coaching to build rapport and trust).

We are meeting our needs by doing this kind of work even though it seems selfish or indulgent to think this. But isn’t this why we become coaches?

Robin Shohet (2000) put this elegantly “My needs are never absent. I could not do this work did I not need this work…. just as the person who comes to me needs me for help, I need him to express my ability to give help”. 

Please Me, Please You

In Transactional Analysis, the Please Others Driver is one seen in both coaches and their clients. If they are both in the same room it can become quite a dance with the coach wanting to meet the needs of the client in order to meet their own needs, and the client wanting to please the coach to also meet their needs. The problem with a Please Other Driver is that you get subsumed by the very pressure you have created to meet other’s needs. The need to be liked and seek approval is strongly driven here. Hence feeling underappreciated, stressed sometimes if people are less than effusive about everything you have done for them! It could also be said that the Rescuer role in Karpman’s DramaTriangle (Persecutor, Victim, and Rescuer) plays an important part in the dynamic here. The Rescuer role has a tendency to take away responsibility from the other person and can push them into victim mode. The Rescuer mode looks like the nicer role(being a good person) to have in the Triangle, and on training courses I notice a lot of people will stand in that corner when asked to select their most likely default position, probably because the Victim and Persecutor roles look less attractive. Make no mistake though; the Rescuer is more manipulative than it looks.

So, what can we do about all this? Not much really. Awareness is the starting point.Denial is the danger. Being aware of our shadow side (it’s not good or bad; just is) allows us to have less of a requirement to make others into parts of ourselves that we cannot face. We will be less driven by some over powerful urge to change others or the world, when we cannot even change ourselves. Regular supervision with someone experienced enough to help you (that word again) take a meta position on your own behaviour, is crucial. Otherwise you may not spot it all by yourself.

If we acknowledge that we have these needs, shadows, lusts then we can notice them in ourselves (and others) so that they are not unconsciously running the show. It helps us not to use others for our own needs or turn our clients into parts of ourselves we cannot face. 

Are you the sort of coach prepared to look at your needs shadows and lusts? If so, contact me about one to one coaching supervision and take your coaching capability to the next level.


Julia skilfully provided the right mix of challenge and support, giving insightful feedback to individuals and the group. Kim Davies, Senior OD Business Partner, Staffordshire County Council

Coaching and Training Accreditations

Spark Coaching Accreditations - Accredited Master Coach, Association of Coaching Supervisors & EMCC Member