Thoughts on Using the Enneagram in Organizations

Mario Sikora
Oct 23, 2012

Recently, a Facebook friend put out a general call for advice for people who want to start using the Enneagram in organizations. Below is the guidance I gave. 

Dear ______,

This is a great topic and one I have a lot of opinions on; hope you don’t mind me sharing them here. I’ve been using the Enneagram in my work as an executive coach since 1997, and I also do team building on occasion.

Just this week, for example, I did an offsite with 10 members of a senior leadership team running a $900 million division of a $14 billion company. Their goal was to improve communication on a relatively newly formed team. The Enneagram was a perfect tool for such an engagement. We focused first on the instinctual biases of the team members and then on the Enneagram types. I like to think that the instincts shape which problems we are inclined to address and the Ennea-types represent our strategy for solving those problems. Understanding both the strategy and the instinct gave the team members great insights into each other and we were able to use those insights to create team communication structures and processes to help a group of very aggressive and task-oriented individuals act like a team.

Here are some points I would emphasize regarding such interventions:

1. Make sure the Enneagram is an appropriate tool for the engagement. The Enneagram is not the answer to everything and should not be relied on as such. It is useful in some circumstances but not in others.

2. Keep your model of the Enneagram simple. While some executives fall in love with the Enneagram and want to learn all about it, most of them don’t want to be Enneagram experts. They want useful tools that they can remember and apply. Thus, I teach the Enneagram as a system of nine “strategies” with each type “striving to be” something particular, such as perfect or connected or outstanding, etc. This makes it easy for people to remember their type and the types of others and they can infer a lot of information from a simple phrase—if they know a colleague is, for example, “striving to be perfect” (Ennea-type One), they can infer a lot about her without having to memorize a list of traits and details. For this same reason, I don’t teach wings, triads, centers, etc., to my corporate clients; more is not always better. I find that a solid understanding of the strategies and the instincts will help you address 95% of team-related issues and adding additional elements usually shows diminishing returns—adding complexity for a very small benefit.

3. Be careful with assessments. I used to use online or written assessments but found them to be problematic. Even the best were only about 70-80% accurate. It never failed that someone would take an assessment and believe he or she was a type they obviously were not because the assessment told them they were. Because the test told them they were a particular type, they would fall victim to a confirmation bias and not be able to see their true type. I find it is best to meet individually with participants prior to the team session and help the person come up with a working hypothesis on their type, which we would then continue to explore during the team session. It is also important to hold the assessment of a client’s Ennea-type very lightly. People starting out with using the Enneagram in organizations tend to place too much emphasis on quickly “getting it right.” You are better off always acknowledging that any assessment of type, including the client’s self-assessment, is a provisional hypothesis and subject to change as new data comes in.

4. Be careful with interventions. Enneagrammers love to say, well, he’s an Eight, therefore he needs to work on (fill in the blank). Any intervention should be data-driven rather than Enneagram-driven. The Enneagram should be a tool to help with the resolution of a problem; it should not determine what intervention is called for independent of other data. Yes, an Eight may need to work on, say, being nicer to people, but that may not be the most critical thing for him or her to focus on. I have seen situations were an Eight was about to get fired for not being proactive or assertive enough. This was revealed through feedback from key stakeholders–bosses, peers, subordinates, customers, etc.–and thinking “Enneagramatically” would never have led to this diagnosis. I always do a team diagnostic (unrelated to the Enneagram) before developing an intervention for a team and I always do a 360 assessment (unrelated to the Enneagram) with my coaching clients before giving them action plans.

5. Caveat emptor. The Enneagram is a system that lends itself to a lot of theorizing and speculation. It is not uncommon for people to create Enneagram-based organizational interventions that are based on abstractions rather than “in the field” experience. Enneagram-based interventions or applications should be based on experience rather than speculation. I encourage anyone seeking training or insights to explore what experiences those programs are based on and where they have been tested in the real world.

Most of these comments focus on using the Enneagram with a group. This link describes how I use the Enneagram in coaching individuals:

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