The Enneagram in startups: finding your type
Updated: Aug 27, 2018
The Enneagram is a personality typing system that I’ve found useful in evaluating founders and teams. It emerged near the 4th century but has gained recent popularity in companies for understanding personal and team dynamics.
Like any personality assessment, it’s not science. Yet it’s a useful tool in understanding your and other people’s tendencies in order to anticipate conflicts and harmonies in relationships.
In it, everyone has a primary personality number from 1 to 9, with a secondary wing to either side of it. E.g., you can be a 9/1 (“9 with a 1 wing”) or a 9/8 (“9 with an 8 wing”), but not a 9/4 (“9 with a 4 wing”).
My friend and coworker introduced me to the Enneagram a few years ago when we worked at the same startup (thanks, Isabella). It spread quickly around the company and gave us a set of shortcuts for how people might react and why they’re behaving in certain ways. Andy would be talking about politics again because he’s a 1, Ingrid would disappear into her designs for hours because she’s a 9, and Gina would want to organize spur-of-the moment excursions because she’s a 7.
Since I’ve moved onto venture capital I still use the Enneagram almost every day, although now it’s more to assess cofounder teams. Many of our decisions in early-stage investing center on the people: are they founding this company because they truly care about solving a problem, or because of the money? (Note that the former is the only correct answer). Are they rigid and perfectionistic, and thus may not react well to the ups and downs of startup life? Do they motivate through fear, inspiration, or friendship? All of these tendencies are reflected in the Enneagram.
Each type has a characteristic role, giving a quick high-level description of their tendencies:
So how do you find your type?
Below I’ve tried to give a visual glimpse into the key characteristics, motivations, and fears of each type. It’s designed to give you a quick overview of each so you can begin to hone in on which one fits you.
However, the most accurate typing method is to skim through the Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery book referenced on the final slide. If you have a decent idea of what your primary type is, read the sub-sections in the book. For example, if you think you’re a 1, read the specific section on the 1/9 and the 1/2 to see if either speaks to you.
Often people may relate to a type but it’s not until they read the specific sub-type information that they feel a true sense that the description is accurate.
Common reasons for mistyping yourself
Successful people tend to think they’re 3’s because 3’s value achievement. But plenty of high-ranking people span all Enneagram types.
Women get overtyped as 2’s because they tend to inherit caretaker roles. That’s not who they are; it’s what they do.
People type as they want to be, not as they truly are. Be honest with yourself.
Wings have significant influence. Donald Trump and Elon Musk are both type 8s, but Trump is an 8/7 and Musk is an 8/9. Big difference.
Key characteristics of each type
If you distill each type to its most obvious (both bad and good) traits, you get this:
Often it’s recognizing what you do when you’re stressed or in low health that tells you your type:
What drives you in your actions?
My attempt to type famous tech CEOs failed at finding a 4 and a 2, so please tell me if you know of a fit:
And if we’ve come this far and you still don’t know, maybe these Disney princesses will help you:
I’ll admit this was a little forced, but here’s my thinking: Sleeping Beauty’s kind, empathetic, and in often her head (9). Belle likes the pursuit of knowledge and sticks strongly to her values (1). Snow White is a natural caretaker, immediately falling into that role with the Seven Dwarfs (2). Cinderella overcomes all adversity to climb the societal ladder (3). Alice is dreamy, abstract, and artistic (4). Elsa is cold and physically isolates herself to be alone (5). Mulan is loyal above all else to family (6). Ariel seeks new experiences and is afraid of missing out (7). Jasmine is aggressive and says what’s on her mind, discarding convention (8).
Integration and disintegration
The lines on the Enneagram show where each type goes when a person is healthy or unhealthy.
If you are healthy, you move in the direction of integration and take on the good characteristics of the type to which you move. If you are unhealthy (i.e. extremely stressed), you move in the direction of disintegration and take on the bad characteristics of the type to which you move.
For example, healthy 8s move to 2 and become more focused on others, selfless, and heroic. Unhealthy 8s move to 5 and become reclusive and obsessive about hoarding knowledge and resources.
The triads are a bit much for a simple typing exercise, but for our purposes, understand that certain groups of types act in similar ways.
Decisionmaking: 8s, 9s, and 1s act on instinct. 2s, 3s, and 4s act on feelings. 5s, 6s, and 7s act on thinking.
Instinctual reactions: 8s, 9s, and 1s get angry. 2s, 3s, and 4s feel shame. 5s, 6s, and 7s feel fear and anxiety.
Now that you’ve gotten the summary, what do you think your type is? What about your subtype? How can you use that knowledge to improve your interactions with other people?
If you want to delve deeper
Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery, by Don Richard Riso with Russ Hudson
InsideOut Enneagram: The Game-Changing Guide for Leaders, by Wendy Appel
Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator Test (RHETI) (costs $12 to take online and is a about thirty minutes of either/or choice questions)