So, you’ve bought into the power of the Enneagram as a tool for your executive team or your company. Knowing your type has helped you develop self-awareness around your default patterns of thinking and behavior. You have stretched to learn about the other types and those motivations. You’ve begun to use the system actively at work. And you’re seeing profound results in the effectiveness of your communication. And then, you spot a risk you might have seen coming: misuses of the system.
The Enneagram can become a simplified mental model into which you can fit any person. You can forget that people are unique, that they have history. You can discount their life experiences, or the parents and teachers who have modeled behaviors, set expectations, or profoundly impacted their assumptions about life. They (and you) become “just” their personality types.
There are three common mis-uses of the Enneagram. If you catch yourself doing any of these, Stop! Breathe. Remember that each type is trying to get something wonderful — the essence quality the type — and that all people are more than a personality number.
When people first learn the Enneagram, typing others can be used as a party trick. “I’m going to tell you all about you.” People become like animals at the zoo: you’re a chimpanzee because you have hair. You’re a giraffe because you have a long neck. Rather than asking good questions to have people reveal the motive behind their behaviors, in this misuse, you look just to the behaviors and determine a type. “That person is successful, they must be a 3.” Or, “I heard that person doesn’t like roller coasters, they’re most certainly a 6.” If the other person hasn’t shown any curiosity, don’t type them. You’re usually wrong.
In this mis-use of the Enneagram, people start using the Enneagram as an accusation. “Of course you asked for more information; you’re just a 5.” Or, “You don’t really want to help, you’re just doing it because you’re a 2.” This invalidates the legitimate pursuit of the person (you may need data for an accurate report; they may derive meaning from helping). This simplistic explanation for behavior can also prevent them from growing. “You’re not going to plan in advance, I just know it because you’re a 7!” Or, “You’re just going to jump in and control this because you’re an 8.” If someone is doing something that is completely true to type, you can invite them into an inquiry about how their type may be showing up (“How does it feel to be sharing authority on this project?”), but as soon as it’s an accusation, curiosity is usually replaced with defensiveness.
The most common way that I see the Enneagram misused is as an excuse. It becomes the scapegoat for behavior, rather than an invitation to notice and choose a belief or behavior that is a healthy way to respond to or navigate a situation. For instance, it is a misuse of the Enneagram for a Type 1 to say, “You should just expect me to be nitpicky, harsh, judgmental and find fault in everything you do – perfectionism is just the way that I am.” A Type 4 could say, “I’m working to distinguish my work product from my identity and sometimes I struggle,” as a very helpful communication and interaction cue for a co-worker. However, it’s a misuse to say, “I am a creative; you’ll just have to deal with my moods.”
While using it poorly turns it into a source of resentment, distance, and a limiter on self-development, using the Enneagram for teamwork involves self-reflection, catching the default beliefs and behaviors of the personality types, and stretching to spend more time at your best.
To learn more about all nine Enneagram types, and tools to bring out their best, take the Online KWK Enneagram Course. For a personalized exploration about how to bring out your best, choose an option with coaching.
Thanks for this topic idea to Conscious Leadership Coach and Facilitator Sue Heilbronner.