May 15, 2020
Teaching the Enneagram in the business world has given me immense appreciation for how transformational it can be for individuals and teams. In this context, the Enneagram offers a framework to understand motivations, behaviors, and personality dynamics. It provides a common language to articulate the nine basic temperaments or ways of operating, and how to work most effectively with each one. Bringing the Enneagram to a team clears the way for a deeper level of conversation than they’ve ever had before and unlocks profound insight, even for teams that have been working together for decades. It helps people understand their natural strengths, potential “trouble spots,” and likely opportunities for growth. Most importantly, it cultivates real trust and empathy by shedding light on where other people are coming from.
Yet, “with great power comes great responsibility.” The Enneagram is an incredibly insightful and powerful tool, and its use in organizations can be transformational when used with its true purpose in mind. Because of this, it’s imperative that people hold it as an avenue for self-understanding and personal growth, rather than “just another personality system,” a simple typology, or a party trick – which can be unproductive at best and destructive at worst. While we’re all human and we may slip up from time to time, a gentle reminder about what the Enneagram is truly about can help teams stay aligned to its real purpose.
In my work with organizations, I’ve observed a general learning curve characterized by the following stages:
This learning curve is completely natural for organizations (and individuals) as the deeper layers of understanding are peeled back. It takes time for the Enneagram to sink in enough to use it in the ways outlined in the later stages – but the payoff is immense. I’ve observed teams use it to hash through intense discussions with conflicting perspectives – conversations that wouldn’t be possible without the common language offered by the Enneagram. The key is to not get stuck in the earlier stages, where various problematic tendencies can show up.
The most common misuse of the Enneagram I’ve observed happens when people strongly identify with a certain personality type and its average-level behavior. As Russ Hudson (co-founder of the Enneagram Institute) likes to say, “The Enneagram isn’t about putting you in a box. The Enneagram shows you the box you’re already in – and how to get out of it.” The problem is, at least some percentage of people who learn the Enneagram are quite comfy with the box they’re in and are strongly identified with it. One of the things they enjoy about the Enneagram is that it’s normalizing and it explains their quirks and “bad behaviors.” Armed with the language of the Enneagram, they start to lean on it as an excuse:
The thrust of all of these examples is “That’s just how I am. Deal with me.” The problem with this is not only are people digging their heels into their self-defeating Ego-driven tendencies, they’re completely missing the point of the Enneagram. The true purpose is to look at Ego-driven behaviors, understand where they’re coming from, and learn to shift out of them. For example, true growth for a One is letting go of the little mistakes – focusing on the most important areas for improvement and not being nitpicky, period. For Threes it’s actually taking a break, not talking about taking a break and explaining away how hard it is to take a break by pinning it on their personality. For Sixes, it’s trying out spontaneity, letting go of the compulsion to always have a plan.
Challenging the behaviors, rather than identifying with them, is where true growth happens. Something I remind the people I work with is, “If you ever catch yourself explaining away your behavior with an Ego-identified statement, take a pause, a deep breath, and then look at what you’re explaining away. It’s quite likely a key growth opportunity for you.”
As mentioned previously, most people immediately turn to others in their lives (e.g., “I wonder what my husband is! I think he’s a Nine. He never wants to have hard conversations.”) They want to determine the Enneagram types of the people in their world, so they focus their energy and reflection on that question. The problem with this is multifaceted. First, rather than using the Enneagram for self-reflection and self-exploration, they’re turning it outward and analyzing other people’s average or unhealthy behaviors. This can not only irritate those on the receiving end, potentially closing their mind to the Enneagram, but it can also distract from the true purpose of personal growth. Second, people usually aren’t as adept at “diagnosing” other people’s types as they think they are. Over a thousand conversations about Enneagram assessment results have given me appreciation for how difficult it can be to help someone find their dominant personality type without an in-depth conversation of why they do the things they do.
For example, Threes and Sevens can look very similar in the business world, but their motivations are vastly different. How could one divine another person’s motivations without psychic abilities? When I meet with people to discuss their assessment results, I always tell them “I’m not here to ‘diagnose’ your type. You’re the only person inside your head, so you’re the only person who can determine what personality type is home base. The purpose of this discussion is facilitated self-exploration.” When I observe people trying to guess what other people’s types are, I gently remind them of this and encourage them to focus the spotlight inward.
Granted, it’s quite tempting to try to figure out what type people are (especially for new students of the Enneagram). When leaders learn the Enneagram, for instance, they often want to know the types of their direct reports. My guidance in this situation is to extend an invitation to their team to look into it, rather than to issue a directive that every member of the team take the test and reveal their type. Many people are, as identified in the learning curve stages, initially wary of the Enneagram and may wish to keep their experience of it private (especially in a business context, where the concern can be precisely about all of the misuses identified here).
While it can be useful to know other people’s types, especially in close relationships, I strongly believe that people have to come to the conclusion of their type on their own. If both parties in a relationship can do this and are willing to have the conversation about how their types interact, the Enneagram can offer transformational insights. If, however, it’s one-sided and a person is operating from a judgment of what the other person’s type is, the dynamic will be fraught with peril. Not only might they get the other person’s type wrong (and consequently engage with them in a completely ineffective or even destructive way), but analyzing the other person in this way can damage the trust in the relationship.
It’s quite natural to have type biases, especially when first learning the Enneagram. These biases are informed by experience – for example, when people say, “You know, I just can’t deal with Eights,” it’s likely coming from an experience (or multiple) with an average- to low-functioning Eight. These powerful memories influence how people relate to all people of a given type, even though each type has amazing gifts and capacities at high Levels of Development. The key here is to 1) recognize biases and 2) find a highly functioning person of the type(s) you think you don’t like to expose yourself to the high side of the type. Saying things like “I just don’t like Ones. They’re so judgmental!” isn’t productive or useful – and also, who’s being judgmental with that statement? Again, the purpose of the Enneagram is to empathize with where people are coming from, so remember what the person is really going for (the essence quality).
The Enneagram is gaining popularity, and with that comes both good and bad. The good is that more and more people have access to this incredibly powerful and insightful tool. The bad is that many content creators on social media and the internet (both of which have enabled this proliferation) reduce the Enneagram to a simple typology and a system of stereotypes. Having only a surface-level understanding of the types as described by their average-level behaviors has led to many stereotypes, such as “All Nines are total doormats,” “Fours are just hopeless romantics,” and “Sixes are worry-warts.” Not only do these stereotypes point to the Ego-driven behaviors at lower Levels of Development, but they fail to acknowledge the beautiful complexity of personality. Taking the combinations of Type, Wing, Instinctual Stack, and Level of Development yields over a thousand possibilities. Add to that the influence of nurture and it becomes obvious that every person is unique, regardless of his or her Enneagram type. The purpose of the Enneagram isn’t to generalize and say that all people of a given type are the same, or that they’ll all be prone to the same bad behaviors. People of a given type will share thought patterns, motivations, coping mechanisms, and things they pay attention to, which will be predictive of their behaviors – but stereotyping about common lower-level behaviors is an unfortunate mistake.
There’s a fine line between using the Enneagram as a tool for understanding and relating to others and using it to manipulate other people. For example, my partner is a Two. I know that it’s important to him to be appreciated when he does things for me, so I bring extra awareness to something that is ordinarily in my blindspot (as a One, I don’t need appreciation the same way Twos do). I make a conscious effort to acknowledge and appreciate his giving, and I express my appreciation sincerely. If I were using it to manipulate him, I could provide insincere “Thank you”s and pats on the back because, perhaps, I want him to keep doing things for me and putting my needs first. In my work with teams I observe this much less – usually people aren’t coming from a place of ill intent. However, it’s something to be cautious of for people who are savvy with it as a framework for understanding personality.
Ultimately, the Enneagram is a tool for self-understanding and personal growth. While I’ve identified here the main pitfalls I’ve observed in my work with teams, there are certainly other potential misuses (e.g., to tease other people). The gut check on how it’s being used is to ask the question, “Are we using the Enneagram to support our own development and to understand and empathize with others?” If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track.