What you don’t know can hurt you: why choosing your own coach is a bad idea


Published on: August 2021

In recent years, the coaching market has continued to make major advancements in how to scale coaching for the many. It is commonplace to see small-group coaching, learning circles, peer to peer coaching, bot coaching, self-paced coaching, asynchronized coaching, and even instant coaching, with a live person at your fingertips. It’s easy to believe that innovation in the science of mindset and behavior change knows no borders.

So, what’s the problem here? With such advancement, what could possibly jeopardize the quality and integrity of coaching today? It might be different than what you think. Yes, much comes down to the coach themselves, their experience, and how they are resourced to do their work; but with more qualified and well-equipped coaches out there than ever before, this is less of an issue. The problem lies in the pivot towards selecting your own coach, and the challenge is ensuring you make an unbiased choice.

Swipe left to reinforce your bias

Today, choosing your coach is as simple as swiping left. Aided by apps modelled after unregulated dating platforms, employees can select their coach by scrolling or swiping through a list of options. These dating apps appeal to some of humanity’s most rudimentary motivators, such as physical attraction and affinity bias (defined below). Instead of matching with the best fit, Coach selection processes are becoming riddled with the same biases towards race, gender, and sexual orientations that most organizations are working hard to eliminate.

There are two main biases emerging in this approach to coach selection:

  • Affinity Bias: Affinity bias, also known as similarity bias, is the tendency for people to connect with others who share similar interests, experiences, and backgrounds.
  • Confirmation Bias: Confirmation bias is the inclination to draw conclusions about a situation or person based on your personal desires, beliefs, and prejudices, rather than on unbiased merit.

These biases lead to two common coaching traps:

Coaching Trap #1: Many scaled coaching organizations today use dating algorithms (think swiping left or right) to assist in coach selection. At first, an employee will only see a coach’s photo and would need to click on their image to see further details. While this is a fun and inventive way of enabling the employee’s speed to coach selection, as exposure to someone’s face only further reinforces basic biases; based on psychology, employees are more likely to choose the person that looks like them.

Coaching Trap #2: Across the globe, there is a strong bias towards both a specific set of educational institutions (the Ivy League) and certain levels of academic achievement (graduate degrees, whether in medicine, law, or other fields). Thus, graduates from lesser-known institutions and bachelor’s degree-holders may be considered less valuable. When selecting a coach, this bias frequently plays out with the perception that coaches with rarefied educational backgrounds will deliver better results.

By enabling coach selection in this way, employees are almost encouraged to reinforce their own biases, which include ageism, sexism, racism, name bias, beauty bias, cultural bias, and more. These biases are the ones that companies are working hard to disrupt via policies on rewards, hiring, employee lifecycle, and in society. Despite this, recent studies show alarming trends, even in early careers:

One study of high school students found that females considered to be attractive earned eight percent more than those who were not considered attractive, and men of below-average attractiveness made 13 percent less than other men who were considered attractive.1

In another study, White-sounding names received 50 percent more call backs for interviews than Black-sounding names. Even with a higher quality resume, there is still a strong bias towards White-sounding names, which elicit 30 percent more call-backs. For Black-sounding names, the increase is much smaller. Applicants living in better neighborhoods also receive more call-backs, but this effect is not impacted by race.2

So, here’s the problem: the coach you think you need could not be the one you actually need. Just because you feel comfortable with a person or “see yourself” in them doesn’t necessarily correspond to effective change. Many people reflect on their coaching experiences and find that the coaches or people in their life that they’ve learned the most from are very different from themselves.

In a time when everyone is working together to eliminate bias and encourage equity, this is one more area where we need to lead change.

What’s the alternative?

To ensure quality coach selection, you need to follow a few key principles in your approach:

  1. Make sure your coaching approach and initiative are aligned to strategic outcomes, a change agenda, and your organization values. This can be used to simplify and focus your pool of coaches based on experience, industry knowledge, specialties, and organizational or individual need.
  2. Ahead of time, ask your employees to reflect on what they believe is important to them in a coach. This will normally result in them naming some of the higher order needs based on past experiences, current needs, and context.
  3. Your coaching partner should have a “Coach Talent Director” role or similar. This person should know all there is to know about how to maximize their coaches’ talent and match it to yours. Invest in this relationship, carefully scoping out how this person can you be your guide on the side in getting the fit right for your organization.
  4. Allocate a coach to each employee based on their stated needs. Take pulse checks along the way from both parties to check in on how the match is going.
  5. If the coaching match isn’t working, or the chemistry isn’t there, make it easy for people to change without judgement or impediment.
  6. If choice is a key requirement, introduce the coach selection only after working with the Coach Talent Director to select the information that is critical for employees to know. This information should be designed to help employees make an unbiased choice – qualities such as coaching style, approach, experience, and industry background are appropriate, but photographs and names should be avoided.

So much effort to reduce bias has been implemented into hiring, promotion, succession, and performance management processes that it would be a mistake to ignore biases in coach selection. To continue moving the needle on equity and inclusion – which not only delivers business results, but also makes our society better as a whole – it’s essential to take a critical look at your coach selection process. You just might be accidently helping to reinforce bias by encouraging employees to swipe left on a coach in an app.


  1. Gordon, R. A., & Crosnoe, R. (2013, December 10). In school, good looks help and good looks hurt (but they mostly help). Council on Contemporary Families. https://contemporaryfamilies.org/good-looks-help-report/.
  2. Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2003, July 28). Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor Market Discrimination. NBER. https://www.nber.org/papers/w9873.

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