About the Enneagram (And How It Can Help You)
By Mario Sikora
(At Awareness to Action International, we are the world’s leading innovators in the theory and application of the Enneagram to business. You can download our brochure here, or watch these videos to learn more about our approach to the system.)
People with all sorts of personalities can be successful at work. There are successful introverts and successful extroverts, successful optimists and successful pessimists. Our personality style doesn’t determine our success, but while it is often the source of many of our strengths, it can create blind spots and obstacles that can hold us back.
The value of personality models is that they give us a framework for leveraging strengths and more-quickly recognizing blind spots and obstacles. A good model can also provide us with roadmaps for overcoming those blind spots and obstacles.
No model of personality styles does those things better than the Enneagram. This article gives an overview of the Enneagram model, which we use extensively at Awareness to Action International in our executive coaching and team building programs and which is at the heart of our “Personalities at Work” program. (See a short video about our “Personalities at Work” program here.)
Over the course of my 20 years as an executive coach and consultant I’ve encountered a lot of personality models; none of them come close to the Enneagram in terms of real-world applicability and usefulness. That is why it has become such a central part of my work—it helps get the results my clients expect.
“Enneagram” literally refers to a diagram with nine intersecting lines creating nine points enclosed in a circle (“ennea” is Greek for nine, “gram” for drawing). This diagram is used to represent nine personality styles and the interrelationships among those styles.
There are two dimensions of personality described by the Enneagram. The first is our inherent system of instinctual values—what we habitually focus our attention on and what is important to us. The second dimension is the strategies we use to satisfy those values. In other words, the Enneagram helps us understand what is important to people and how they go about getting those things that are important to them.
(Note: Most approaches to the Enneagram focus more on the nine strategies—thus the “ennea”—and view the instinctual values as a secondary matter. At Awareness to Action International we understand that both dimensions are important and focus equally on both of them.)
Before we explain each of these dimensions further, we should take a moment to understand a bit about the way the mind works.
The brain requires an amount of energy that is far out of proportion to its mass. That three pounds or so between your ears requires about 20% of your energy expenditure. In order to minimize the energy it spends, the brain has evolved ways to make our lives easier. One important way it does this is by habituating behavior—taking behaviors that work well and making them automatic—and by relying on patterns of behavior that can be repeated in as many situations as possible. This is why we have personality “styles”—they are one of the brain’s techniques for applying the same pattern to multiple situations in an effort to save energy and increase efficiency.
Thus, when we talk about dimensions of personality styles we are talking about habitual patterns that, somewhere in the past, some part of our brains decided were effective. There is nothing wrong with having habits—they can be very effective in helping us get through life without having to face every situation as if for the first time. But we can also find ourselves falling into behavioral patterns that worked in the past but might not be quite right for a particular situation we face today, sometimes even causing more harm than good. Working with the Enneagram helps us recognize when we are using outdated or ill-suited patterns and it helps us develop the flexibility to free ourselves from them.
Dimension 1: Three Instinctual Biases
Dimension 1 of the Enneagram personality model is the three instinctual biases. The instinctual biases are deeply ingrained tendencies to find certain aspects of life more important than others and to focus our attention accordingly. These instinctual concerns fall into three broad domains. We all pay some attention to each of these domains, but we tend to focus on them unequally and we are biased toward one of the domains noticeably more than the others.
Those domains are:
- Preserving: focused on “nesting and nurturing” and on ensuring that fundamental survival needs are met for things like food, water, clothing, shelter, and overall safety from harm.
- Navigating: focused on “orienting to the group” and on building alliances, creating trust and reciprocity, and understanding how oneself and others fit into the group.
- Transmitting: focused on “attracting and bonding” and on passing genes, beliefs, values, interests, and worldview to others in order to make them carriers of that information.
What we value influences what we focus on at work. These instinctual biases have a dramatic effect on how we interact with coworkers, how we lead, how teams function, and more. (See, for example, the list of leadership tendencies in Table 1 at the end of this article, and find out even more here). People of different instinctual biases will focus on different tasks and objectives and we are often surprised when people place their priorities somewhere other than where we do. Such value discrepancies often a significant source of miscommunication and conflict in the workplace. Understanding the influence of the instinctual biases can help us reduce them.
Dimension 2: The Nine Strategies
There are nine distinct adaptive strategies for satisfying our instinctual concerns (again, the “Ennea” in “Enneagram” means nine). The strategies are consistent patterns of feeling, thinking, and doing that influence our interactions with the world around us (and the people in it). As with the instinctual domains, we use each of the nine strategies to a greater or lesser degree, but we use one of them more than the others. Because of the habitual overuse, we call this the “preferred” strategy. Each point on the Enneagram drawing represents one of these strategies.
In Enneagram parlance, the different personality styles are referred to by the number at which their preferred strategy is placed. Thus, someone whose preferred strategy is “striving to feel perfect” is referred to as an Ennea-type One; someone “striving to feel connected” is an Ennea-type Two, etc. (See Table 2 below for a very brief overview of the nine strategies. You can find much more at our website.)
When we combine the instinctual biases with the preferred strategies we get three distinct versions of each Ennea-type. For example, an Ennea-type Three has a preferred strategy of “striving to feel outstanding,” but a “Preserving Three” will non-consciously emphasize feeling outstanding in the preserving domain while a “Navigating Three” will emphasize feeling outstanding in the navigating domain.
It might seem simple, but understanding both dimensions provides profound insights into our own fundamental motivations and tendencies and those of the people we work with.
Because of its combination of simplicity and depth, the Enneagram is at the heart of many of our programs at Awareness to Action International.
We use it to help our executive coaching clients understand the self-imposed obstacles that can impede their personal effectiveness and to help remove those obstacles and develop new skills and competencies.
We use it in our Awareness to Action Teams program, helping team members not only see themselves more clearly but develop a better understanding what drives and motivates others, greatly enhancing their ability to communicate and collaborate.
We also use the Enneagram in our signature program, “Personalities at Work,” a comprehensive introduction to the Enneagram and how it can be beneficial for individual contributors, managers, or senior leaders, helping to resolve conflict, improve communication, and enhance team collaboration and efficiency.
Contact us today to find out more about how we can help you move from Awareness to Action through the use of the Enneagram model of personality styles. We have associates throughout the world who can deliver our programs or help you customize a solution that meets your specific needs.
Common Leadership Traits of Each Instinctual Bias
- Good at preserving the “nest”: ensuring their own security and the security of co-workers and subordinates they are responsible for.
- Good at playing Devil’s advocate and challenging ideas that may not be fully thought-through. However, can be risk-averse, resistant to change and new ways of doing things.
- Good at ensuring that administrative issues are in order and that procedures are being implemented and followed.
- Comfortable in organizations that need stability and order; they may struggle in a fast changing environment.
- May be too introverted: focus on tasks rather than interpersonal issues.
- May lack charisma; can seem detached rather than inspirational.
- Naturally drawn to issues related to group dynamics and interpersonal communication.
- Track group cohesion and status changes.
- Attuned to organizational politics, intuitively knowing which levers to pull in order to move projects around obstacles.
- Ability to instinctively read the pulse of the group, build the consensus, and know who needs to be pushed, who need to be nurtured, and who the influencers are.
- Good at the “forming” stage of team dynamics, where the group is finding its identity and ways of working together.
- Good at big picture and strategic thinking.
- Can be too focused on the political dynamics of the group, spending more time on the politics than on the organization’s ultimate business goal.
- May have poor administrative capabilities.
- Less comfortable in difficult individual interaction and personnel decisions (e.g. addressing underperformance, firing, reprimanding).
- Often charismatic and bold.
- Good at articulating a goal or vision and moving others toward it, seducing some and driving others as necessary.
- Intuitively understand the mind of the market and the customer; persuasive seller of the products, company or dream.
- Good at building relationships with customers, channel partners and strategic allies.
- Highly competitive (alpha male or female of the group).
- Good at the start-up phase of a business, when the workforce needs an inspiring vision to rally around.
- May place too much focus on themselves, their accomplishments and their desirable qualities. May neglect career development of subordinates.
- Self-focus may seem to put own interests before company/employees.
The Nine Ennea-Type Strategies
Ennea-Type One: Striving to Feel Perfect
They are often models of decorum, clear logic and appropriate behavior. They focus on rules, procedures and making sure that they are always doing the “right thing.” When they overdo their Striving to be Perfect they can become critical, judgmental and unwilling to take risks. Under stress, Ones may fear that if they have too much fun they will become irresponsible.
Ennea-Type Two: Striving to Feel Connected
They are often selfless, caring and nurturing. They focus on helping others meet their needs; they build rapport easily and enjoy finding a common bond with others. When they overdo their Striving to be Connected they may fail to take care of their own needs and end up becoming emotionally dependent on others. Under stress, Twos may fear that if they are not closely connected to others they will become isolated.
Ennea-type Three: Striving to Feel Outstanding
They work hard to exceed standards and to be successful in whatever they undertake. They place high value on productivity and presenting an image of being a winner in whatever environment they are in. When they overdo their Striving to be Outstanding they may become attention seeking and may value image over substance. When stressed, Threes may fear that if they are not making great efforts to be excellent they will become mediocre.
Ennea-Type Four: Striving to Feel Unique
They generally approach their lives creatively, in fresh and interesting ways. They gravitate toward things and experiences that are elegant, refined, or unusual. When they overdo their Striving to be Unique they may feel misunderstood, and they may withdraw from others and become isolated. When stressed, Fours may fear that if they do not put their own special touch on their world and their experiences their individuality will become repressed.
Ennea-type Five: Striving to Feel Detached
They are observant, logical and generally reserved. They focus on problem solving, innovative ideas, and data gathering. When they overdo their Striving to be Detached they can end up being dull—out of touch with their experiences and emotions. When stressed, Fives may fear that if they do not remain detached and guarded they will become uncontrolled.
Ennea-Type Six: Striving to Feel Secure
They find security in being part of something bigger than themselves, such as a group or tradition. They are careful, responsible and protective of the welfare of the group. They focus on maintaining consistency, tradition and cohesion. When they overdo their Striving to be Secure they may fail to take the risks necessary for high performance and settle for mediocrity. When stressed, Sixes may fear that if they relax their guard they will be vulnerable to possible dangers.
Ennea-Type Seven: Striving to Feel Excited
They are upbeat, enthusiastic, optimistic, and curious. They focus on possibilities and options and keeping others entertained. When they overdo their Striving to be Excited they may fail to follow-through, become easily distracted, and act irresponsibly. When stressed, Sevens may fear that if they do not fill their heads with many thoughts they will miss out on something.
Ennea-Type Eight: Striving to Feel Powerful
They are action-oriented self-starters who love to be in charge. They focus on getting things done and overcoming obstacles that may lie in their way. When they overdo their Striving to be Powerful they may not adhere to the rules or norms that others expect them to follow and their behavior can become uncontrolled. When stressed, Eights may fear that if they become too connected to others or experience their own emotions too deeply they will become dependent on others.
Ennea-Type Nine: Striving to Feel Peaceful
They are calm, pleasant, and charming. They focus on maintaining a sense of inner harmony by minimizing their own needs and concentrating on the needs of others. When they overdo their Striving to be Peaceful they can become passive, relying on others to make decisions for them. When stressed, Nines may fear that if they place too much importance on themselves they will be seen as attention seeking.