Beware the Halo: What to Watch Out for When It Comes to Enneagram Training

Linus Pauling was one of the most brilliant scientists of all time, and the only person to be awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes (one in chemistry and one for peace). There will always be a cloud over his legacy, however, because Pauling made the mistake that many brilliant people do and stepped outside of his domain of knowledge and experience with his assertions regarding vitamin C.

Pauling became obsessed with what he perceived as the benefits of taking vitamin C in reducing the effects of the common cold and after a few preliminary studies (which have since been demonstrated to have been flawed), started promoting the use of megadoses of C in an effort to not only reduce cold symptoms but to fight cancer. Because of the “halo effect,” the tendency of people to assume that someone who is good at one thing is good at all things, the vitamin boom of the early 70s was launched as people said, “Well, if Linus Pauling says it’s good to take lots of vitamin C, it must be a good thing to do.” 
We now know that taking large doses of C is, at best, a waste of money since the body simply excretes the excess. At worst, it can lead to vitamin C poisoning if the doses are too large for the body to excrete and such poisoning can prove fatal.
The damage is done, however; there is money to be made selling vitamins and people still refer to Pauling’s naive and discredited work in order to make a buck off the uninformed and credulous.
What does this have to do with the Enneagram?  
Like the vitamin industry, use of the Enneagram is unregulated. The Enneagram community has always seen its share of instant experts–people take a weekend workshop and start promoting themselves as Enneagram teachers with depressing regularity. This behavior is an annoyance and, yes, it does diminish the Enneagram community by making it difficult for the uniformed to separate the wheat from the chaff of Enneagram teaching. More pernicious, however, is the tendency of people who are well-informed in one area to feel that they can simply transfer that knowledge into domains in which they have no expertise or experience. I have to admit, as an executive coach with 15 years of experience using the Enneagram in large organizations, it particularly saddens me to see people take the Enneagram and try to apply it in some “bold new way” when that

bold new way is based on a hypothesis dreamed up in an ivory tower rather than on actual experience in working with organizations.

“How to consult with the Enneagram” programs are popping up in many places these days. Since the halo effect can reduce our ability to think critically when evaluating new theories, I’d like to provide some food for thought for people who are evaluating training programs in general, but particularly programs about applying the Enneagram to the business world.
Beware the halo effect. Expertise in one domain does not necessarily indicate expertise in another. 
Beware of those who start with a theory and then look for evidence to support it. It is tempting to see the Enneagram as a magical symbol that provides all of the answers to life’s questions. It is not and it does not. The Enneagram can be a useful heuristic (i.e., mental model) for developing competency models (something I’ve done myself), but heuristics need to be held lightly because they may work in some situations and not in others. Any serious consultant knows that no single tool, model, or process (including the Enneagram) works in every situation for every need. Any theory related to the management of organizations should be based on years of experience in how organizations really work, not on a thought experiment conducted in an ivory tower. It is not uncommon for people to develop a theory about how organizations should work based on something they learned in or adapted from another field (I think of Otto Sharmer’s Theory U or some of Peter Senge’s ideas, for example). Sometimes, such theories stand the test of time; other times they don’t. However, I believe that the best approaches are built from the ground up, such as Edgar Schein’s process consultation or Peter Drucker’s ideas. In these cases, observation and experience in the field inspired models that were tested and then built upon incrementally until a robust theory was developed. 
Beware of grandiose claims. Consultants and would-be organizational-development (OD) theorists love to claim that their revolutionary methods will have profound and lasting effects on organizations. They find a guinea-pig organization to experiment with and, sometimes, they do see some change. Often, however, what they are seeing is the Hawthorne effect–the tendency of a group to make short-term changes due to the simple fact that they know they are being observed. Those who work in organizations professionally know that large-scale changes of culture or performance are both difficult and rare. Rarely do they stem from the implementation of a single system or process; they are driven by experienced leaders working from the inside who understand both the culture of the organization, how people act in organizations, and how business really works. Consultants can guide and advise, but rarely is an externally implemented model or process successful in creating substantial change at the macro-level. 
Beware of vague claims. When I began consulting I worked with a consultant who always talked about “healing” and “changing” “corporate America.” I would ask him what that meant, exactly, and how he would measure such change or healing but he could never tell me. He is gone; “corporate America” is still pretty much the same. If someone says they are going to “heal,” “revolutionize,” or “revitalize” an organization, ask them precisely what they mean by that and what metrics they use to measure success. Ask them what observations of organizational dynamics they’ve based their model on and what evidence they have of their model’s success.  
Beware of complexity. Organizations are complex. Some processes, by the nature of the subject they related to, are complicated (Six Sigma comes to mind, for example). However, to paraphrase Einstein, a model should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. Any model or system that makes the grandiose claims mentioned above and purports address all the needs of an organization would be a remarkable model indeed. It would probably have to be very complex. However, organizations abhor complexity, which is why culture or behavioral change usually occurs through a small group of change agents prescribing specific, simple-but-elegant solutions for specific situations with the whole system in mind. A single, complex model hoping to cure all ills will be very hard to implement in today’s fast-moving, ever-changing, short-attention spanned business environment. Simple tools, used with precision and disciplined execution will always win over complex and complicated models.
There is a lot of great work being done by people all over the world on how the Enneagram can be used in organizations. When choosing whether or not to attend a training program, put your critical-thinking hat on, and watch for some of these problems. As Carl Sagan said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; get proof before you spend your money.


Leave a Reply