Three levels of learning - with the Enneagram

By Peter O’Hanrahan

As a tool for professional development, the Enneagram of Personality has the great advantage of flexibility - it can be used by people in business at different levels of interest and involvement. While the Enneagram is a complex psychological system, its application doesn't depend on intensive study. A one-day workshop can offer important new learning that helps people become more effective in the workplace. With further study and practice, the Enneagram can serve as a roadmap for continued learning leading to increased professional success and personal mastery.  

We can look at three different ways that people can learn to apply the Enneagram. In his book "Masterful Coaching," Robert Hargrove describes three levels of learning: incremental or single loop, reframing or double loop, and transformational or triple loop. This model, based on the work of Gregory Bateson, Peter Senge, and Chris Argyris, is useful for understanding how the Enneagram and other training programs help people develop.

The first level: Incremental or single loop learning.

Once people have identified their personal style, they have immediate access to a short list of specific suggestions that will empower them in the workplace. They don't necessarily have to be enthusiastic about the Enneagram or understand the entire system. We can say: "If this is your style at work, here is how you can become more effective in your communication and decision making. These are your natural strengths, and these are your potential blind spots." At this level we focus on external behavior, in effect suggesting: "Try to do more of this and less of this." This means trying on new skills and behaviors.

For example, Perfectionists (Type One) can practice giving positive messages to balance their tendency to be critical. It's simply more effective to speak to other people in this way! Performers (Type Three) can achieve better productivity by slowing down at times to listen to what other people have to say. Observers (Type Five) can make their knowledge and expertise more available by letting people know when and how to contact them (and when not to disturb them). Instead of relying on teaching communication techniques or leadership skills in general, the Enneagram makes it very personal. It doesn't take a lot of theory, or a lot of time, to provide clear directions for each type. 

The second level: reframing or double loop learning.

Reframing is the process of understanding, and beginning to shift, one's habit of attention and point of view. This is the point at which the knowledge of the Enneagram starts to become internalized. People carry it with them in the form of greater self awareness and self observation. What this means is that in all kinds of situations, we are able to reflect and question our assumptions and reactions. Instead of behaving in the same old pattern, we have more flexibility and greater choice in how we respond. We begin to see how our personal style impacts the people around us in both positive and negative ways.             

For example: Protectors (Type Eight) can observe their tendency to come on strong and assert themselves and decide when this is effective and when it's not. They can adapt to the situation at hand, sometimes stepping back to allow others to take the lead. Givers (Type Two) can notice their need to win the approval of other people by being empathetic and helpful. As they learn to set limits on moving toward others, they achieve greater balance and staying power for the long run. 

The third level: transformational or triple loop learning.

At this level people are engaged in a process of personal transformation. This means that they are willing to examine and change their deepest assumptions and habits. They learn to see themselves in a new light which is not based on a fixed position or identity. They are have committed themselves to continual learning and growth. Instead of avoiding feedback, they welcome it. Personality is no longer a bottleneck. Intellectual curiosity combined with emotional openness enable all the personality types to collaborate with others in the pursuit of a shared vision. 

Peter Senge suggests that "personal mastery" depends on the ability to see ourselves and the events around us accurately and without distortion or bias. The Enneagram provides the practical tools for individual awareness and professional development that make such personal mastery possible.  

For example: When Mediators (Type Nine) are willing to step out of their comfort zone and let go of their attachment to harmony at all costs, they unleash the higher potential of their type. They can set priorities, tolerate conflict when necessary, and exert a style of grounded, fair minded leadership that brings people together for effective action. Loyal Skeptics (Type Six) have sharpened their perception and problem solving ability in large part as a solution to fear and doubt. As they develop their courage and ability to trust they have the capacity to inspire others - they are "encouraging" rather than "discouraging." Instead of using their formidable intelligence to shoot things down, they can create the strategies and visions that are the hallmark of enlightened leadership.