The Enneagram – the first step in personal mastery

by Barry Ahern (from “First Train” October 2006, Vol. 1 Issue 2)

Imagine you suddenly received a road map that gave you profound psychological insights into how you thought and felt and related to other people. How do you think you would react if you were willing to be open to the experience?

Such is the accuracy of the Enneagram in describing nine personality styles, each of which illustrates a distinctive pattern of thinking, feeling and behaving that a common response is to describe the experience as being ‘so real that it’s eerie’. You can be taken aback, overawed or pleasantly surprised by the reality of discovering a description that is so much part of your way of being.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is fast becoming the greatest indicator of success in every occupation and every industry worldwide, surpassing IQ (Intelligence Quotient) and on the job experience. This is especially true in leadership. The Enneagram, a psychological system with ancient roots, is fast becoming the most powerful and insightful tool available to help you develop your EQ. The Enneagram describes the starting point each of us take when dealing with information, our colleagues and our work environment.

Much attention nowadays is given to the importance of giving and receiving feedback, which, together with lack of performance expectations and lack of skills, lack of feedback has been recognized as one of the top three barriers to effective work performance.

Probably our first objective encounter with ourselves is when we hear our voices on an audio and/or visual recording for the first time. Most of us react negatively to the experience. However, if the exercise is repeated it can be a useful way of getting to know an aspect of ourselves and, based on that experience, we can sometimes adjust or change what we project out to others. The Enneagram can enable you to meet yourself at a level that makes sense and enables you to get to know yourself profoundly.

Is it not rather limiting to start putting people in a box?

The fact is we are already in a box. It is part of human nature to categorise things as helps us understand our world. The idea of the nine point personality system is to assist us in ending narrowness and limitation by getting out of the box we’re in and being more open and receptive to seeing reality as it actually is. At the same time we are all uniquely different from each other.

So what is this nine point personality system about?

The Enneagram is a dynamic system of nine personality types that offers insights into the nine different ways people organise their patterns of perception. The types are numbered from one to nine and none are better than the other. Each of the personality types has a distinctive pattern of thought, feeling and action. Each type is rooted in a specific viewpoint or belief structure that largely determines what is important to you and how you interact with the world to fulfil your hopes and ambitions. In short it looks at the driving force that motivates you in everything you do.

For example, type Three, often called the Performer, is dedicated to achievements and being rewarded for them. They want to be seen as good doers. They believe that the world rewards winners and that runner-ups get nothing. They are goal oriented, their days are crammed with activity, cutting as many corners as possible and the fear of failure keeps the momentum moving forward. Slowing down is threatening especially if you have to talk about feelings. There is the belief that you can make anything work if you can throw enough energy at it.

What they don’t realise is that others don’t see things that way and that they’re only seeing a narrow version of reality and to be really effective one has to be open to going beyond the box you find yourself in.

Before meeting any group each participant is asked to look at descriptions of nine workplace interactive styles and choose their preferred options. Each of the descriptions outlines a particular world view in snapshot form. I never cease to be surprised at how quickly participants can discover something very quickly about their own motivational experience that they have never encountered before and yet seems so familiar to them.

When they meet others during the training and share their preferences it can be quite startling to them to discover how much they have in common with some people and how strikingly different others are and yet it all makes sense. It can suddenly throw light on the motivation underlying behaviours which previously caused misunderstandings.

Doesn’t it all sound suspiciously simplistic?

The real effectiveness of the system is most accessible to those who have a healthy level of emotional intelligence and have the capacity to self-observe their own behaviour. For these individuals it can be a fast-track road to an advanced level of self-management.

The system is open to scientific verification as the descriptions have been distilled from the direct experience of thousands of individuals who have observed their own patterns and self-identified what makes sense to them.

When we look at people in public life such as politicians and others in the public gaze it is interesting to note how some observers and commentators form a consensus as to their traits. What they are noting is that there can be predictability about their behaviour at times.

For example, commentators have observed that the present Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern seems to procrastinate when it comes to making decisions and prefers to sit on the fence. You might remember that when asked if schools should close for the funeral of the late Pope he said it was fine by him but that the schools themselves should make up their own minds.

His consensual style has served him well over the years but it also has it’s limitations as was revealed when he has to make a decision as to who should be appointed to a vacant junior ministry a few months ago. He was open to meeting all the likely candidates in the hope that it would be amicably sorted but left the final decision to the last minute much to the exasperation of those around him.

In one sense his response was predictable and I’m sure those who work closest to him as well as some of the public have seen this pattern repeatedly over the years.

The possible profile that might illustrate this is type Nine, (I use this example reservedly as ultimately it is up to individuals to identify the profile that makes sense to them) commonly known as the Mediator. The Nine illustrates the psychological laziness of one who shies away from an interiority that will allow them to discover their own agenda and put it on a par with others. The case history below will illustrate this further.

Tom: the consensual leader – a case history

Tom is European director of a large corporate hospitality and event management group. He is well liked in corporate circles and had a reputation for setting up major events that ran smoothly. Everyone on Tom’s team felt comfortable and knew that he was always available for a hearing should they need to contact him either by phone or in person.

Tom is a type Nine, commonly called the Mediator. Nines approach the world with a view to keeping whatever environment they’re in calm and comfortable. They like to ensure that everyone is included in decision making. They listen to others without including their own opinions and judgements. There is a desire to avoid conflict at all costs as this would invite them to take a stand, something they dread.

Arriving at a decision as to what action needs to be taken can take a long time. What is going on internally is a constant weighing up of different points of view in order to ensure a solution that involves no-conflict. Ironically, sitting on the fence hoping that things will work out of their own accord often invites what is most dreaded i.e. conflict, as, if decisions aren’t being made, sooner or later someone gets angry.

The upside of this is that these people can be marvellous team builders and excellent leaders as they have a great capacity to give everyone a fair hearing.

Claire is Tom’s second in command and has been working closely with him for the last five years. In the early stages of their working relationship Claire enjoyed working with Tom. She found him easy going and supportive of her work and she was given a wide berth. She had a great capacity for attending to detail and ensuring that if there were any mistakes looming or someone was failing to carry out their responsibilities, these were dealt with.

However, Claire noticed over time that Tom avoided dealing with people whose delivery of services was not up to standard. She’s rarely seen him take a firm stand on difficult issues. She reported the failings of outsourcing contractors regularly and thought that some of them should be let go. However, this usually resulted in no action being taken. She would become very irritated by this as it meant that she often took on the responsibility of working long hours to ensure that everything was up to standard.

She thought some contractors took advantage of Tom and delivered an inferior service and she decided she couldn’t tolerate this any longer and was planning to leave the company right in the middle of one of their biggest projects ever.

The issues that brought this to a head was when she noticed one of their main sub-contractors nearly caused a disaster for their major client and only for her intervention in calling in another contractor to remedy the situation it could have caused a major headache and lost a lot of goodwill. This was totally unacceptable in Claire’s mind and she decided that the contractor had to go.

Tom too, unknown to Claire, had noticed the contractor’s failures over a period of time. He knew it was serious this time and that he should do something about the contractor but kept postponing it in the hope that it would work out in time. The last thing he wanted was any discord in the camp.

Claire is a type One on the system, sometimes called the Perfectionist. From the perspective of this profile everyone needs to put one hundred percent effort into everything they do. For the type One standards are paramount and their attention is geared towards righting that that 5% or so that isn’t up to standard. They often present a correct and formal demeanour and have an orientation to duty rather than pleasure. They can be particularly demanding and critical towards themselves which is often hidden from others behind a smile and a tight jaw. Sometimes this can spill over to others.

How can the Enneagram model help in this situation?

The first task in using the Enneagram is to self-identify your own pattern of attention. This involves being honest with yourself which isn’t easy for anyone. For the type Nine it means being prepared to identify how much attention is paid to the agenda’s of others to the neglect of one’s own and how much energy is spent in avoiding conflict. A major growth edge for this type it to act on their own behalf and that this might involve learning to tolerate conflict and disagreements at times.

For the type One it can mean looking at how much attention is being paid to error and what needs to be put right. The growth edge is coming to a realisation that there is more than one right way.

When all the parties concerned begin to understand where the other is coming from – major shifts can occur quite rapidly and people can begin to support each other in dealing with their blind spots. It is most rewarding hearing how groups can begin to thrive as the process can be very freeing as new possibilities open up and provides and real personal mastery.

“People with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. They never ‘arrive’. Sometimes, language, such as the term ‘personal mastery’ creates a misleading sense of definiteness, of black and white. But personal mastery is not something you possess. It is a process. It is a lifelong discipline. People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, their growth areas. And they are deeply self-confident. Paradoxical? Only for those who do not see the ‘journey is the reward.” (Senge 1990: The Fifth Discipline)

Barry Ahern

 Barry works as an Enneagram specialist with individuals, corporations, community groups, politicians and health care workers etc. on key issues that have included: teambuilding, leadership development, decision making, communication styles and stress. He directs his own business: Enneagram Solutions. He has a background in education, counselling and publishing.