Avoiding prejudiced AI systems in executive coaching

AI versus CoachOur good friend David Clutterbuck has written an open letter on diversity in coaching (shown below). He discusses how AI systems tend to inherit existing biases in areas such as gender and race. The next phase of our evolution is likely to be driven by those who can successfully harness the benefits of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. The major FAAMG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Google) technology players are racing to entrench their assistant offerings as essential parts of our everyday lives.

The good and the bad in AI

In his letter, David highlights shortcomings of systems such as these and wonders how we can help them avoid the pitfalls we have already encountered. He illustrates how non Anglo-Saxon thinking may work more effectively than typical western approaches such as GROW. Where do you stand? Do you think pushing for more diversity amongst our coaches will be sufficient to provide the volume of unprejudiced experience AI systems require to learn to be well-balanced members of our profession? Read his letter below and leave your thoughts.

Facing up to the diversity challenge in executive coaching

A recent Sunday Times[1] headline ran:

Q: How do you end up with AI that’s white and male?

A: Let Google design it

The article went on to explore the dangers of designing AI systems that carry the biases of their creators, when those creators are insufficiently diverse. Classic cases include the AI sentencing system that wrongly classified black (persons of colour) defendants as likely repeat offenders, compared to whites.

AI is already starting to make inroads into the world of coaching, through coachbots. True AIs are only a short way behind. If coaches are going to be working alongside AI more and more, how can we have confidence and ensure that these algorithmic assistants do not come with built-in racist, genderist or other biases that will affect who and how we coach?

It’s not just an academic question. We already have the seeds for prejudiced interactions built into the structure of the coaching profession. While there is a reasonable balance of gender at all levels of professional coaching, on just about every other significant variable of diversity – from race and culture to the autistic spectrum – coaches are overwhelmingly white and middle class. There are, of course, thousands of coaches around the world, who don’t meet that description. But when we observe from the perspective of voice – who is listened to and has influence on the development of the profession and the technology that goes with it – the diversity diminishes rapidly.

The recent WBECS initiative to create a coaching capability in Ethiopia last year was one of the few truly innovative initiatives to address the diversity issue. Riza Kadilar, President of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council, has publicly announced his own and the council’s commitment to promoting greater inclusion and diversity in the profession.

Having greater numbers of coaches will undoubtedly help – but only to a point. Corporations across the world still struggle with breaking the glass ceiling that prevents women and disadvantaged racial groups from getting to the top. Coaching has much the same problem – high status in the profession is a white preserve. The good news is that it is no longer a male preserve. Indeed, if you discount the pioneer generation, the influencers at senior levels in the profession are more female than male.

What’s lacking is a chorus of influential voices from cultures other than Anglo-Saxon. In some cases, the barrier is mainly one of language. France has a rich history in this field, for example. In other cases, the problem is a hubris that assumes that the Anglo-Saxon perspective of coaching is the only one. A few months ago, I was given an insight into some of what this myopic approach causes us to miss. A coach in supervision explained how his Chinese client would not arrive with an issue. Instead they would talk around what was on the client’s mind until the issue emerged. And by that point the solution was also clear. The Anglo-Saxon model, typified in simplistic terms in GROW, starts with identifying the issue and working towards a solution – and this often misses much of the context that might provide a better solution. Both perspectives have validity, but the assumption of automatic superiority of the stereotypical Anglo-Saxon approach is an impediment to mindful, genuinely client-centred coaching.

Artificial intelligence can either support much greater diversity of practice and voice in coaching; or it can exacerbate the existing cultural dominance. If we – the professions, individual coaches, educators, corporate buyers of coaching and other stakeholders – do nothing, then the second of these scenarios will occur. And that would be everyone’s loss.

One of the key steps we can collectively take in preventing that second scenario and promoting the first is to invest in the development and visibility of experienced coaches from outside the Anglo-Saxon world. For example:

  • Educators can ensure that curriculum development includes advisors from multiple cultures
  • Internal coaching and mentoring programmes within corporates can engage with user groups to design initiatives that are genuinely multi-cultural
  • In designing new research projects, academic-practitioner partnerships can extend beyond “the usual suspects” to include contributors from, say, developing economies.
  • When writing books on coaching, co-authors from other cultures can provide valuable different perspectives.

Within the past year or so, there has been a significant and welcome shift in thinking amongst leading coaching influencers that raises hope we may at last be taking this issue seriously. More and more respected voices in the field are saying we must tackle the issue, even though how we do so is still largely unclear.

Hence this open letter to all of the coaching professional bodies and a straightforward challenge. How are we going to work together as a profession and with our stakeholders to create a truly inclusive world of coaching?

David Clutterbuck, 2019

[1] April 28 2019

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About Lis Merrick

Lis Merrick is Managing Director of Coach Mentoring Limited, the ISMCP Accreditation Chair (European Mentoring and Coaching Council International Standards for Mentoring and Coaching Programmes), a Visiting Fellow of the Coaching and Mentoring Research Unit at Sheffield Business School and she was the EMCC (European Mentoring and Coaching Council) UK President from 2015 to 2018.

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