Neurons that fire together wire together. That’s a favored refrain of therapists and mental health practitioners, among others, but also the scientific theory at the core of neuroplasticity—the understanding that the brain’s intricate web of neural networking is malleable.
We know that brain function can be altered by external forces like medication and physical trauma. Many of us also attempt to retrain our brains by changing thought and behavior patterns through outside help, meditation, and self-examination tools like the Enneagram. The idea that we’re able to direct the brain’s malleability, versus letting it naturally react to external forces, can be a game-changer for those of us seeking to better ourselves personally or professionally.
Figuring out whether you’re a 2 or a 9 on the Enneagram chart might simply be a fun exercise for the curious (or bored), but more and more people—including business leaders—are finding its insights to be a useful tool for analyzing behavior and rewiring themselves. “You can use the Enneagram for entertainment, for information, or for transformation,” says Deni Tato, a certified Enneagram teacher in Cincinnati and founder of Corporate Consciousness, which focuses on coaching in business settings. “I am about transformation.”
Utilizing self-help tools in the workplace isn’t a new concept. Companies will do team-building days and host Myers-Briggs typing sessions so their employees can better understand themselves and each other. Tato says the Enneagram’s emergence in the business world reaches beyond simply measuring behavior to revealing hidden motivation. “Other personality typology systems are oriented to your observable behavior,” she says. “The Enneagram isn’t focused on what you do, but more deeply on why you do it.”
Tato’s roster of business clients is robust, with perhaps the biggest name being Procter & Gamble. Kelly Vanasse, senior vice president and chief communications officer of P&G’s Beauty, Grooming, and Health division, was introduced to the Enneagram at a conference Tato presented in Europe in 2012. “As Deni took us through the foundational elements of it and all the different types, it became obvious to me that this was different than anything else I had experienced,” says Vanasse. “In the course of my work over the years I’ve experienced Myers-Briggs, Strength Finders, and other tests, which all provided something useful, but what they really focused on was behavior and preference. Once we understand why we get angry, why we seek approval, or fill-in-the-blank, we’re better able to be more objective about intervening where we need to intervene. That to me was the aha! moment about Enneagram.”
If Enneagram sounds a little out there, well, you aren’t alone. Tato was wary when introduced to it in the early 2000s. “At that point it was still to a large extent in church basements and things like that,” she says. “It wasn’t really in the corporate world, certainly not in Cincinnati, so I thought, I’m just going to go make a push for this. It’s been the most incredible ride. When I introduced it back then, it was like, What is this? Is this like devil worship or voodoo?”
Nine personality types comprise the Enneagram (ennea is Greek for nine, gram for a written record), ordered numerically around a circle. They reflect distinct habits of thoughts, emotions, physical actions, and behavior and are arranged in three centers: body (8, 9, 1); heart (2, 3, 4); and head (5, 6, 7). Numbers to the left and right of a type are called “wings”—the 7 wings are 6 and 8, for instance, which means a 7 can also have traits of both the 6 and the 8.
Each type has a name that can vary according to the site or teacher, but are basically synonymous across the channels. Tato’s website lists them as 1. The Assessor, 2. The Giver, 3. The Achiever, 4. The Individualist, 5. The Thinker, 6. The Inquirer, 7. The Enthusiast, 8. The Protector, and 9. The Moderator. Leslie Hershberger, a certified Enneagram teacher and graduate of Xavier University’s Master of Theology program, uses these titles: 1. The Perfectionist, 2. The Giver, 3. The Performer, 4. The Romantic, 5. The Observer, 6. The Loyal Skeptic, 7. The Epicure, 8. The Protector, and 9. The Mediator.
“Everyone has only one type,” says Leslie Hershberger. “You can’t change your type, but you can become a healthier version of it.
For this story, I underwent a typing session with Tato. I’ve dabbled in the Enneagram before, taking any number of free online tests and discussing what type I might be with my Enneagram-proficient friends. They thought I’m a 7, which the free tests also indicated.
Tato uses the comprehensive iEQ9 test, with 175 questions addressing self-identified patterns of thinking, action, and feeling; self-identified hurdles; worldview; core fears; gifts; and blind spots. Skeptics might say that’s a lot of navelgazing, but it feels more integral than superficial since the Enneagram is meant to awaken and lead to self-awareness.
The test confirmed that I’m indeed a 7, which the iEQ9 describes as an adaptable, optimistic personality with future-oriented enthusiasm and a core fear of being limited or restricted. I can attest to the truth of the assessment, which came in a 23-page personalized report from Tato and an attendant hour-long session to review the findings. “Everyone has only one type,” says Hershberger, who is also a 7. “You can’t change your type, but you can become a healthier version of it. Each type has a trajectory, a kind of map for personal growth and relationship growth.”
That trajectory can be found in the chart’s arrows pointing off each type to two others, representing moments of integration or opportunities for growth. A 7, for example, in the Enneagram vernacular, “integrates” the features of a 5 at times of thriving and a 1 at times of stress, meaning the 7 can resemble the 1 when she’s stressed out, cranky, or low-functioning in terms of cognitive selfawareness. I know I can be obsessed with rules when I go to a 1 in times of stress (like deadlines), and I’m reflective and better connected when I go to a 5 in peaceful times. “The Enneagram’s integration lines and influence wings are where the magic is,” says Tato, who is also a 7. “You can’t will yourself to the other points. How you get there is by absolutely welcoming and accepting all parts of you and your dominant type, and then these integration points open up to you. I don’t believe you can make a long-term sustainable change in behavior by focusing just on the behavior. Your perceptions create your beliefs and your values, your beliefs create your thoughts and your feelings, and your thoughts create the behavior.”
Unique to each type are the underlying motivations. Examining and identifying the moments in your life when certain existing neural pathways were formed can be stressful and deeply uncomfortable. “Enneagram is really fantastic compassionate self-awareness,” says Vanasse, who is an 8. “We are not our personality types. Our personality type is the way we show up to the world, our armor. It’s how we came to believe we needed to function in this world.”
Vanasse was so taken with the Enneagram’s potential that she had members of her P&G global communications team typed by Tato. “When you become more aware of who you are and you’re able to accept who you are and ultimately love who you are, you’re able to love the other,” says Vanasse. “That empathy creates connection, which then builds trust. For work teams, trust is fundamental to people bringing their full selves to work, to getting work done quickly. I really believe the company has been so successful through COVID-19, when all of us are working from home, because we as P&Gers fundamentally trust each other and are able to get things done.”
Hershberger, too, has business clients, but she trends toward smaller companies. WriterGirl, a Cincinnati-based content creation company for the healthcare industry, has its new employees typed by her. “It’s just a fabulous tool for loosening the strictures of type,” says CEO Christy Pretzinger. “I now understand that as a 7 my greatest strength is also my greatest weakness. I learned I have a quick mind but can also make decisions too quickly without thinking through things.”
Pretzinger had worked with Tato for years before she was introduced to Hershberger through the local chapter of the Entrepreneur’s Organization, then brought in Hershberger for workshops with WriterGirl staff. “The people I work closest with represent the head, the heart, and the body,” says Pretzinger. “I’m a 7, which is the head type; my chief operating officer is a 2, that would be a heart type; and my chief financial officer is a 1, and she’s the body type. So we represent the three centers. We discussed our three types with Leslie and talked about how we each interpret things differently, and it was so unbelievably revealing.”
Interpersonal understanding can lead to greater productivity and empathy, but is any typology system a silver bullet for the workplace? And is it fair, or right, to know so much intrinsic information about an employee? If a 7 tends to ideate broadly but have trouble executing those big plans, would that person be less likely to be hired in a workplace that utilizes the Enneagram?
“It’s voluntary in my work group, which is really important because in a business setting I would hate for anyone to feel they’re being forced to do this,” says Vanasse. “And it’s also really important that the typing is not weaponized in any way. It’s easy to say, Oh, she’s such an 8, look at her trying to control everything. We are more than our number.”
The Enneagram has broken through to a broader cultural awareness over the past several years, especially as the concept of self-care has become so prominent. The meme-ification of the nine types is at a peak, as evidenced by a steady stream of often-superficial Instagram accounts and pop culture quizzes. “People say, Oh, isn’t it so great that everybody knows the Enneagram?” says Tato. “I’m happy they’re familiar with the word and know a little bit, but it isn’t about which type buys all the toilet paper at Kroger, you know. That’s so superficial.”
It can be easy to put on a clay face mask and call it self-care. There are entire aisles of retail stores dedicated to pampering products you can use in your very own bathroom. Self-care has become a catch-all for any behavior that’s even vaguely therapeutic, from a scented candle to an online shopping spree.
Not all face masks need to be life-changing—sometimes they just feel good—but the opportunity for truly retraining your brain and changing your life is ever-present. “What I work with is developing the capacity for self-observation,” says Hershberger. “The first thing I do is observe your thoughts, emotions, and body sensations. Then we develop pause practices and work on one thing at a time.”
She incorporates physical work into her practice, teaching clients how to create moments of pause, where they turn thoughts fully inward, understanding where they manifest or are centered in the body to achieve a connection between the mind and the body. It can be similar to mindfulness. “Psychology is delving into your story, which is important,” says Hershberger. “Spirituality is saying, Let go of your story. Let go of the narrative. I work with psychospiritual integration with people, because there are times your story is important to be told, until it becomes kind of tenacious and gets in your way.”
The philosophical origins of Enneagram are ancient, rooted in oral tradition and the concept of inner work, examination, and understanding that’s existed for thousands of years. Religion and the Enneagram both try to bring order to the chaos of the human condition, but the former isn’t always a champion of the latter. In 2003, the Vatican published a study in which Pope John Paul II warned against the “return of ancient gnostic ideas under the guise of the so-called New Age.” The study says the Enneagram “when used as a means of spiritual growth introduces an ambiguity in the doctrine and the life of the Christian faith.”
Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, published The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective with Lutheran minister Andreas Ebert in 1989. Rohr, who founded the New Jerusalem Community in Cincinnati in the 1970s, believes the Enneagram is compatible with the Christian tradition of spiritual counseling and human leadership as well as with secular psychotherapeutic approaches, and “can build bridges between spirituality and psychology,” he writes.
Rohr’s approach has spawned a number of recent books connecting religion and the Enneagram, including The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. Cron has hosted the popular Typology podcast since 2017, and on his website says the Enneagram “provides a framework for how we can begin to live into our most authentic selves, and also reveals the wisdom and gifts that each personality type can offer to the world.”
Another best-selling writer connecting religion and the Enneagram, Chris Heuertz, increased Enneagram’s awareness in a different manner recently—through cancel culture. In June, an article published on Medium and signed by 33 women and men alleged spiritual and psychological abuse by Heuertz, who had a number of ties to Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation, including coproduction of the Enneagram Mapmakers podcast. The Center has paused collaborations with Heuertz, and the Christian media company Zondervan is suspending promotion of two books and a documentary film associated with Heuertz. “Everybody’s been taken with him in the Enneagram world, so the allegations just kind of rocked us all,” says Tato.
Interest in the Enneagram continues to build, despite the occasional negative news coverage. Self-discovery and selfcare might be vulnerable work, but it’s also freeing. Humans love our familiar patterns, though at a certain point repeating past harmful behaviors becomes detrimental. “Our brain takes between about 20 and 25 percent of our body’s energy to manage,” says Tato. “If you have a way of thinking, feeling, and behaving that works for you, in order to save energy, what will your brain do with that pattern? Repeat it. That’s the issue.”
We are much more than those patterns of detrimental behavior, Tato says. “We’re not a type or a number on a chart. That’s just kind of home base and what you do well. The most powerful part of the system is in the connecting lines, which imply the developmental strategies.”
Perhaps the Enneagram can also be interpreted as a metaphor for the wider world, because fully exploring it is a holistic practice. All nine types comprise the tool, and each type is necessary for a holistic understanding of how people behave and interact. “Utilizing Enneagram has transformed me,” says P&G’s Vanasse. “It has made my life really that much more peaceful.”