How NOT to use the Enneagram at Work (or anywhere else)

During a week-end workshop on Hornevian and Harmonic triads I taught last week, after we explained about the Harmonic triads, and seeing that there were no Positive Outlook individuals in the 16 people who were attending the course, one of the participants said: “So, if I was running this team, I would try to hire some people in the Positive Outlook Harmonic triad, right?” Wrong!

Part of her thinking came, I believe, from my assertioHarmonicsn that in individuals it is important to be aware of our biases and our automatic tendencies, and to look for ways that will allow us to re-consider what is the best response mode – in the case of the Harmonic triads – to the actual situation, instead of being automatically pulled into the Reactive, Competency or Positive Outlook framework that is actually driving us. So, one of the basic aspects of the work is to be aware of our bias, and to work towards a more balanced approach. This implies finding ways to consider what is the most appropriate response to the situation at hand. Earlier, when we had spoken about the three triads (Gut, Head and Heart), we had spoken also about how to invoke the other centers in our behavior, our decisions, etc.

I had also drawn a parallel between individuals and groups: In the same way that as individuals we have personality, as groups we have “grouponality” (a made up term, folks!). A grouponality is analogous to a personality in that it has a specific bias – that is, a tendency to repeat a particular form of imbalance – (or rather: a particular form of misinterpreting the situation, or at least what the situation actually requires from the group right now). This bias colors everything, including how we tend to interpret situations as a group, and what sorts of response are most likely. For instance, if we have a group where most of the members are Competency based, it is true that problems will most likely be addressed and “solved” quicker than if it was not the case. However, it is also true that some issues will be “solved” which were not very important, or maybe not even problems at all, but merely inconveniences. In other words, we might be putting resources (time, money and effort) to solve inexistent problems. Thus far, the analogy between groups and individuals.

However, it is very important to realize that, in the same way that it is not particularly preferable to be a One than to be a Seven (neither makes my life easier or better), we are not particularly better off by hiring people with one type of compulsion rather than a different type of compulsion. If we are to use this sort of knowledge in choosing people with whom to work, what we should be looking for are individuals who are a little bit less under the sway of their compulsions: i.e. with a bit more of emotional maturity and flexibility, and that can adapt their behavior better to what the situation requires.

If we use Harmonic groups as an example, for individuals, there is a practice we can carry out which consists of asking yourself: What would happen if I looked at this from this other point of view (taking one or another of the other triad tendencies)? This is a very simple, but extremely powerful, exercise to come closer to a more balanced approach to frustrating situations. It is not easy, for instance, for a Competency biased person to let things go unattended, but doing so may help to teach us that, in spite of what we do or do not do, the Universe continues turning. Life goes on in spite of that minor inconvenience. Even more difficult, perhaps, having Positive Outlook types look straight in the eye at the most “dire” consequences of the situation, might cause them to feel what they could consider undue stress, but might help to balance their tendency to look only to the positive with a more sober and realistic appraisal of the situation.

Following the “grouponality” analogy, what we need, then, as a group, is to include a measure of awareness regarding our current biases, some idea of what would be a more balanced and flexible approach, and institute practices, checkpoints or methodologies to help us ensure that we are actually seeing things from a broader perspective. For instance, in a mostly Competency team, we could agree to always ask, before actually starting to work on a solution, whether this is really a problem that needs attention – which is probably best addressed by the question: “What would happen if we did nothing about this?”. This would give us a more measured perception of whether or not this is an issue that needs to have resources assigned to it. For instance, if all we can say is that it would make us feel uncomfortable to have this issue unsolved, perhaps we can wait a bit before we assign resources to it. We could also include in our analysis some sort of check-in regarding how people in the team are feeling about the situation (is it causing frustration? are people really not too bothered?). This little exercise might be helpful in rationalizing what battles we actually get into: we don’t need to fight every battle.

So, while filling in the missing blanks (i.e. hiring people in the “category” least represented in our group) seems to be the logical outcome of analyzing the group tendencies, the easier route, as is often the case, may be the route to hell: we would certainly not be any better off if we include happy-go-lucky individuals in our team, since it is not a question of mixing an equal proportion of imbalances hoping for a middle-of-the-road end-result. As in the case of individual work, the answer lies in increasing awareness of our biases and to work to keep them in mind in our day to day activities. It might also be interesting to have a think about the reasons why some teams tend to have biases: are we hiring people with an unconscious bias so they are similar to us or to the corporate culture?

I think it is important enough to re-state: using Enneagram type, or any other Enneagram characteristic, to select individuals for specific positions is NOT an appropriate, ethical, nor logical way of using the Enneagram. Using the Enneagram to increase our individual and collective awareness is.