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Nine words to avoid when using the enneagram in organizations

I have long thought that we need to be careful about the language we use when we bring the Enneagram into organizations so that we don’t create a false understanding and perceptions that are not really aligned with what the Enneagram is all about.

This first occurred to me over 15 years ago when I attended an IEA session in which the presenter proposed that certain types made better leaders because they were more “assertive;” he was, in this case, saying that 3s, 8s and 7s made the best leaders. Not only is this faulty thinking (and I told him so at the time, but had no impact on him!), but think about the implications: if organizations actually believed this, we would be encouraging leadership-cloning, fostering hiring decisions based on type (a lawsuit ready to explode), and doing damage to people and to organizations.

Compliant, Withdrawn, Dutiful
Recently, this same issue has come to my attention with colleagues who have used the words compliant, withdrawn or dutiful to explain certain types and groupings of type. Specifically, a leader of a company (an 8) was vexing about how two of his managers were not stepping up to the leadership job. The 8 leader’s conclusion was that since these two managers were “withdrawn” types, in the future he should never hire leaders of these types (5 and 9). The sad part of this story is that, in reality, these individuals did not like or ever want to be in leadership roles because they either really like the technical aspect of the work or like rolling up their sleeves and being close to the action. But this doesn’t have anything to do with type; many very competent individuals simply prefer not to be in leadership roles at certain times in their lives or sometimes ever, and this is not type-based.

Although these words – compliant, withdrawn and dutiful – might be useful to people learning and using the Enneagram for their own personal development, when used in organizations, these same words can be harmful and damaging. In organizations, these words have different connotations than how we use them in “ennea-speak” (a new word is now coined!). In “organization-speak,” compliant means being passive, easily pliable, and accommodating: certainly not leadership material! Withdrawn in “organization-speak” means remote, contracted, and not engaged. Who would want a leader like that? Finally, there is the word dutiful. Organizations like loyal leaders and employees, but dutiful means this to them: submissive, subservient, meek, and docile. Who would want an employee like this, much less a leader?

So when in organizations, please be careful to refrain from “ennea-speak,” because even if you explain the Enneagram-based meanings of certain words, people will be making their own mental translations no matter how well-developed the explanation.

Healthy – Unhealthy | Evolved – Unevolved | Developed – Undeveloped
When looking at these sets of words together, it may (or may not be) obvious why using this language in organizations is fraught with problems. The dilemma for us as Enneagram professionals in the workplace is that we need a language that communicates that individuals of the same enneatype can be very different based on their level of development or self-mastery. To not make this clear is to not teach the Enneagram in a way that promotes a deeper understanding of not only our type but our developmental aspirations.

However, the words often used for this path are extraordinarily judgmental, and teaching the Enneagram in a way that fosters a high-level of judgment does not align with psychological or spiritual development, which is what the Enneagram is all about. When people become more conscious, psychologically and spiritually, we are taught that it is important to be and often discover that we naturally become far less judging and increasingly more accepting.

At the same time, as we grow, we become more discerning and more respectful of our reactions. Discernment is not that same thing as judgment, although the difference can be subtle. Discernment is sensitivity to nuance, insight, perceptiveness, and this can lead to wisdom. Judgment is the formation of an opinion or an evaluation in which two things are compared and one of those two items is considered better.

So let’s use discerning language in teaching the Enneagram rather than judging language. The former aligns with the Enneagram’s values; the latter does not. Level of development is more discerning as is self-mastery level. Healthy – unhealthy, evolved – unevolved, and developed – undeveloped do not.

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8 years ago

What if we use Moving Towards (compliant); Against (assertive); and Away From (Withdrawn).  sounds more neutral right?

8 years ago

Great article. The other part about language is that you don’t give people an additional hurdle to get over in embracing the Enneagram,  you meet them with the language that they use. You gave an example for levels of development. How do you speak about triads?

8 years ago

See the recommendation below: I think this language would work really well. Two hands (mine) are clapping!

8 years ago

Karen Horney it is then – thx

Tom Hattersley
8 years ago

OK.  It’s my duty.  I’ll follow your lead and comply.  (Maybe I should withdraw that last comment.)
Seriously, would you consider, instead, helping organizations understand that assertiveness and compliance are not opposites?  Duty and stepping up to lead can go hand-in-hand.  There are times when withdrawal is the strongest leadership move.  The defense mechanism of splitting life into the black and white of powerful and weak blinds leaders to the effectiveness of using power in a  modulated way.
I don’t mean to be dramatic, but dumbing down our material to accommodate common misconceptions seems fatalistic.


[…] In ‘organization-speak’: • Compliant means being passive, easily pliable, accommodating • Withdrawn means remote, contracted, not engaged • Dutiful means docile, meek, submissive, subservient. Who would want employees like this, much less as a leader? (More…) […]

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