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Using the Enneagram to Develop a Positive Work Culture


Several years ago my grad school advisor, and all-around incredible researcher, thinker, and educator, Dr. Barry Garst shared with me a phrase that I hold onto today: “Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast.” To me, this Peter Drucker quote conveys that while the way we draw and structure organizations and teams is significant. Having strategic action plans can create clear goals and metrics for how we measure success. But none of that work matters if our teams are not connected and clear on our individual and collective purposes – our ”why.”

What the Studies Show

We must be clear about our values and what is important to us. Creating that kind of clarity is often challenging and murky work. Data from the Pew Research Center looking at the Great Resignation in 2021 suggests that employees left organizations for reasons that are technical (or “hygiene factors,” for the Herzberg fans out there) like low pay (63%), insufficient employee benefits (43%), or because of home-life concerns (48%). But, employees also left because of culture-related issues. Things like feeling disrespected (57%!) resulting in burned out employees and organizational symptoms like a toxic culture. Toxic culture, which Forbes suggests is the top reason employees left jobs in 2022, can be defined as “anywhere that employees do not feel safe, supported, or heard.” 

Positive Culture Building Interventions

If a big part of our problem of losing people comes back to our culture, then we need culture-building and -sustaining interventions. We must create places where people feel safe, supported, and heard. To enable that, we have to create a culture of trust.

In the Five Dysfunctions of a Team Model, Patrick Lencioni offers that the first stumbling block for high-performing teams is a lack of trust. The type of trust we seek is not that we know the behaviors, likes/dislikes, and interests of our coworkers. Those we can put into nice, neat, little predictable boxes. Rather, the type of trust we want to build in teams is that we can show the parts of ourselves that are in development. We need our team to appreciate and accepts us for those things. Employees need to know that others won’t use those glimpses of human-ness against them. We must know in our brains and in our bodies that our coworkers are not going to intentionally harm us.

Lencioni offers a few interventions for teams facing a lack of trust. These include experiential team exercises, 360-degree feedback, and personality or behavioral profiles. You know them. Tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), DiSC, StrengthsFinder, or the Enneagram of Personality. For this post, I won’t be going super in-depth into The Enneagram of Personality, but will instead focus more on why you might use it as an organization culture-oriented intervention, especially as a trauma-responsive tool.

Introduction to the Enneagram of Personality

If you’re unfamiliar, the Enneagram is an ancient oral tradition that tracks patterns in human behavior and motivation, as well as in the natural world. The Enneagram has often been relayed as a set of nine distinct personality types, or perspectives and motivations in the world. Each type is designated by a number, one through nine. While each of us holds a multiplicity of motivation and understandings of the world, there is generally one of the Enneagram types that stands out as being closest to your core. (It might be helpful to think, “Which of these descriptions hurts most to read?”) Most Enneagram authors and practitioners agree that we are each born with a dominant type. Caregivers and our context growing up also shape our needs and how we meet them. Meaning it’s both nature and nurture.

Head, Heart, and Gut

Within the nine types, there are three knowledge centers. The head center (types 7, 6, and 5), the heart center (types 4, 3, and 2), and the gut center (types 8, 9, and 1). The dominant action for head-centered types is thinking, and the ruling emotion here is fear. Each 7, 6, and 5 has a unique relationship to fear. For the heart center, types 4, 3, and 2 connect most to shame or sadness. The action here is feeling. The gut types (8, 9, and 1) each have a unique connection to anger. They are driven towards doing.

Why the Enneagram?

For us to build teams where people feel safe, supported, and heard, it takes the team coming together with curiosity and a willingness to value each other. The ways each of us feels safety, support, and validation is going to look differently based on our own lived experience. As a faculty member for the Center for Trauma Resilient Communities, I often return to our paradigm-shift questions. These are: “What happened to you?,” “What’s happening to you?,” and “What’s strong in you?” Holding onto those questions, I have found it insightful to connect our adult behavior and personality to the entirety of our childhood (including genetics). Your Enneagram type – your core motivation in the world – connects directly to what has shaped you. It connects where our bodies seek to break reenactment cycles and heal wounds living within our cells. 

From a brain science perspective, there have been some exciting recent connections made by folks like Dan Siegel (of Hand Model of the Brain fame) to outline brain-based awareness building strategies for each type. They also connect neurobiology to those fixations of the head (fear), heart (shame), and gut (anger) center. Working with integration and the stress/growth patterns of the Enneagram also aligns really well with what we know about neuroplasticity and the brain, connecting the Enneagram tradition to modern resilience-building practices.

enneagram and positive work culture

Employing the Enneagram at Crossnore

I have been using the Enneagram as a tool for my own self-understanding and development for about 10 years. I’ve been using it with teams at Crossnore for the past five. I identify most with the self-preservation type 4, sometimes referred to as “long-suffering.” Those who see me in a facilitation capacity might identify a lot of the type 7 coming through in my humor and in my gregariousness. While I can definitely relate to the 7 motivations, it is an energetic source that I can pull from to get people excited, joyful, and in a spirit of abundant possibility and connection (which is my core motivation – to feel safe through connectedness). Other times, I can come across very much like a type 9, or a type 2.

With this knowing, I can practice better self-awareness to understand how I’m feeling and operating in any given situation. And I’m better equipped to show up with my entire self. In order to be a part of a team where I am safe, supported, and heard – it is important for me to be able to show up authentically as myself.

An Example

Let me give you a little example of what this looks like in my team. My colleague Peter, who we believe to be either a 5 or a 9, and I have to do a lot of collaboration and complimentary work for Miracle Heights Adventures to be a smooth operation. One of our guides, Patrick, fairly and accurately described the two of us as the alchemist (me) and chemist (Peter). I am regularly dreaming about what’s possible, seeking to create teams with high levels of vulnerability and psychological safety, and generally feeling internally frustrated because my idealism gets the best of me. Meanwhile, Peter is an absolute technical whiz-kid and can analyze a problem and surface an array of well-thought-out solutions. He takes the intangible and puts flesh to it. I pull our team into the realm of possibility and imagination. Peter keeps us grounded in realism and action.

Using the Enneagram to Build Up

With any personality or behavior profile, we must remember why it’s being used to build culture. What’s its purpose? When we use these profiles to box people in or enforce assumptions, we’ve lost the trust-building purpose. Rightfully, some people push back on personality profiles because of this. And some models lack substantial and reliable scientific data to support their claims. Not to mention, some of the history of personality testing is worrisome. As the Enneagram continues to be an oral tradition, it will be important for practitioners to keep it alive, while also avoiding the foibles of other personality tests.

How Can I go Deeper with the Enneagram and My Team?

In a few short months I will complete my specialist certificate Enneagram Essence Embodiment from the Enneagram School of Awakening. I am excited to begin offering the Enneagram in our menu of options at Miracle Heights Adventures. If you are interested in learning more about how you and your team can engage with the Enneagram, or you generally want to talk about what the Enneagram means, drop me a line! For me, the Enneagram has opened up a lot of understanding, curiosity, and space to be myself, and I hope it can offer the same to you and your team members.

You can contact Andrew at 336-721-7600 or by email at aflorence@crossnore.org.