Using the Enneagram for Decision-Making

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Stephen Covey said, “I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.” And, wow, do we make a lot of them! The average adult makes about 35,000 per day—or “roughly one decision every two seconds.”

Most are nominal: Hit the snooze button or hit the shower? Loofa or washcloth? We’re barely aware of this category.

Others have a bit more significance: Golf or yardwork? Android or iPhone?

Others carry huge consequences: Do I take that job transfer? Do I propose marriage? Is it time to rebuild my sales team?

Most fall somewhere in between: Should I continue reading this blog?

Simple or complex, micro or macro, decisions make us who we are—and who we are determines how we make decisions. If that sounds circular, let me explain….

“To Thine Own Self Be True”: How the Enneagram Affects Decision-Making

Like many of you, I’ve done StrengthsFinder, Myers-Briggs, and plenty of other psychometric tests. I’ve gauged my emotional intelligence and self-awareness. Each evaluation has helped me grow relationally and professionally.

But the most helpful self-assessment tool I’ve personally used (and have facilitated with several of my clients) is the Enneagram.

If you’re not familiar, here’s a primer: The Enneagram is a personality mapping system that identifies 9 different personality types. It helps identify our core motivations, abilities and desires. Equally important, it reveals our weaknesses, blind spots, and stress triggers. Each number (1-9) is linked to a primary strength and a primary struggle that emerges in insecurity or unhealth. Knowing our unique personality type—our internal dynamics—helps us understand how we approach decision making.

Decision-Making by Enneagram Type

Just for fun, imagine a conference table with all 9 Enneagram types seated around it. Suddenly, the CEO walks in and announces an important decision that needs to be made.

Here’s how the 9 different types might react to the same challenge:

  • Type 1 – The Perfectionist: “Just follow the rules and do what’s right.”
  • Type 2 – The Giver: “But what if people get upset?”
  • Type 3 – The Achiever: “What’s the quickest and most efficient choice?”
  • Type 4 – The Individualist: “I really have to ponder this…”
  • Type 5 – The Investigator: “First, I need the facts. Show me some data.”
  • Type 6 – The Loyalist: “Hmm. What are all the risks involved?”
  • Type 7 – The Enthusiast: “This could be one heck of an adventure!”
  • Type 8 – The Challenger: “Just go for it; act from the gut.”
  • Type 9 – The Peacemaker: “I’m good with whatever you guys decide.”

The meeting would not likely result in a unanimous decision!

4 Tips for Applying the Enneagram to Decision-Making

We all struggle with making decisions. There are two reasons for this:

  1. First, we focus too much on the decision itself, without thinking about how we’re going about making it.
  2. Second, we simply don’t have a good process in place for making decisions. As a result, we’re often too random or reactive.

The Enneagram system offers solid insights that we can apply any time we need to make a decision, including the following four tips.

1. Consider Your Triad

As you may recall, the Enneagram has three triads: the Head (thinking), the Gut (instinct), and the Heart (feeling). In making decisions, we tend to lead with the triad we’re in.

For example, I’m a 6. That puts me in the Head triad. I’m always thinking (and thinking and thinking) before deciding. But what if I were to stop and ask myself, “What is my gut telling me? What am I feeling in my heart about this decision?”

My decision-making process (usually skewed by over-analyzing) would benefit from adding my instincts (Gut) and emotions (Heart) into the equation.

In real life, the triads overlap. Like you, I operate in all three—I think rationally, react viscerally, and feel subjectively. But I tend to lead with my center of intelligence—especially if there’s pressure—and ignore the other two.

Takeaway: Recognize which center of intelligence you lead with and stretch beyond it.

2. Consider Your Stance

The Enneagram has three “stances.” Your stance defines your social style: how you get what you want and how you move through the world (toward, against, or away from people) to get your needs met.

Those with the Aggressive stance (types 3, 7, 8) are bold, assertive and quick witted. They push their own agenda and tend to ignore others.

The Dependent stance (types 1, 2, 6) tends to overthink and doubt themselves. They gravitate to people with compliant solutions to get what they need.

The Withdrawing stance (types 4, 5, 9) tends to not follow through. They feel like their presence is insignificant. They want to be seen but prefer not to engage.

As a 6, I take the Dependent stance. I tend to overthink, trying to come up with solutions that benefit everyone. I need to ask myself, “What if I summoned the courage to believe in myself, boldly make a decision, then go forward with it confidently?” Chances are I’d make more decisions, faster and more effectively.

Takeaway: Evaluate how your stance is subconsciously affecting your decisions.

3. Consider Your Orientation to Time

Where we focus most of our thoughts and attention is called our time orientation. Enneatypes are identified with one of three dominant orientations. Types 4, 5 and 9 focus on the Past. Types 1, 2 and 6 fixate on the Present. Types 3, 7 and 8 tend to lean hard into the Future.

As a 6, I’m preoccupied with the Present. When a decision involves the Future, I need to deliberately set aside today’s concerns (momentarily) and intentionally think forward in time. For those of us oriented to the Present, deliberate Past and Future thinking will help avoid getting trapped in the moment.

If you’re a Past oriented person, choosing to fully experience the Present moment (carpe diem) or planning Future goals will be healthy practices. If you’re a Future oriented person, actively reflect on your Past (success and failures) and how you can learn from those experiences, while being truly Present in each moment.

Takeaway: Discover your time predilection, and adjust your inner calendar.

4. Consider Your Core Motivation

Each of the 9 Enneatypes has a prime motivation. It drives the way you think, feel, and interact. How you do life. What you’re passionate about. We often need to balance it out in order to make wise, impartial decisions.

For example, as a cautious Loyalist (type 6), I’m preoccupied with safety and security. I want to be prepared for all contingencies. To make a more balanced decision, I need to ask myself, “Am I playing it too safe? Am I being too cautious?”

Each core motivation has a potential downside that can hamper a person’s ability to make objective decisions. Here are a few examples…

  • The idealistic Perfectionist (type 1) wants everything perfect before moving ahead and making the call. Their focus on following the rules begs the question, “Am I being too strict with myself and others? Should I loosen up?”
  • Not surprisingly, the affable Peacemaker (type 9) wants to keep the peace. Because their nature is to go with the flow, they need to ask, “Am I too passive or too afraid of the ripple effects to make a tough decision?”
  • The self-reliant Challenger (type 8) never wants to be vulnerable or powerless. They need to ask themselves, “Am I too focused on controlling my environment to make the best decision?”
  • If you’re an ambitious Achiever (type 3), your motivation is to be successful and admired by others. Ask yourself, “Am I too worried about my public image? Am I overly fearful of failure?”

Takeaway: Check your core at the door while you tap into other input, too.

Five Ways to Shift Your Thinking When Making Decisions

With the Enneagram as background, let’s examine a new framework for decision making. It’s not so much a step-by-step process as it is a set of paradigm shifts to incorporate. I first heard these concepts from the gifted author Emily P. Freeman.

  1. Start again. When we say, “I’m starting over,” it feels like we’re going all the way back to the beginning. That’s self-defeating. But when we rephrase it as, “I’m starting again,” we’re putting ourselves in a place of new possibilities and new opportunities. Instead of mentally positioning you behind the eight ball, the term “starting again” locates you on the brink of something new!
  2. Name what’s true. Ask yourself consistently, “What is the truth?” Surround yourself with people who can answer that question accurately. Too often, our decision making is affected by misconceptions and shaded perspectives. In reality, there is only one set of true facts about any given situation. We need to identify the truth externally (the circumstances) and internally (what’s going on inside of us). Getting your most honest thoughts and feelings — “Truth is, I’m scared to death about this decision” — out and on the table is invaluable.
  3. Replace experts with advisors. In your search to get input from outside sources, don’t rely strictly on experts. I love thought leaders like Pat Lencioni and Ken Blanchard. But they can’t possibly know your situation intimately. Trusted advisors who know you personally and have a vested interest in your success are better suited to counseling you on key decisions. Because of the relational connection, advisors are able to give more relevant guidance and greater clarity than a mountain of articles you download from Google.
  4. Dump the “pros and cons” methodology. Often, the pros and cons cancel each other out, making choices even more muddled. A very effective way to rate an activity or occupation instead is by asking: Is it life-giving or life-draining? Ask yourself, “Does it energize and rejuvenate me? Or does it sap my strength and kill my joy?” For example, suppose you’re deciding between your current job or a new career elsewhere. Look at your existing position and list all the “life-giving versus life-draining” aspects. If it’s not too overloaded with life-draining elements, then consider if making some minor tweaks to the negative list would allow you to leverage more of the positives. Either way, it will be a more informed decision.
  5. Do the next right thing. Some folks like to travel without any set plans or hotel reservations. But most of us are more comfortable with a complete itinerary and a guaranteed bed each night. Same for decision making.

We’re inclined to want the entire game plan listed out. But it seldom happens like that! We’ve got to be okay with simply taking the next right step (singular). When we do, the remaining steps will usually begin to fall into place. I love this slightly irreverent quote by Lee Iacocca, “So what do we do? Anything. Something. So long as we just don’t sit there. If we screw it up, start over. Try something else. If we wait until we’ve satisfied all the uncertainties, it may be too late.” (By the way, Iacocca was an Enneagram 8 — a “Challenger.” No surprise there.)

When you’re making a decision, don’t become emotionally immobilized by waiting for all the details. Just focus on doing the next right thing.

Want to Learn More About the Enneagram?

Hopefully, this was helpful. But there’s a lot more to the Enneagram than what’s in this post. As we saw, it can help us understand why we make the decisions we do, and help us improve our process. But it also explains what can cause us to spiral out of control sometimes and what can keep us healthy and on track.

If you’d like me to guide your team through the process, drop me a note or just click here for more info on my services. I’m a certified Enneagram coach and facilitate workshops to businesses and nonprofits nationwide.

Remember, we’re always just one decision away from totally changing life’s trajectory.