Dr. Jim Bailey
Guiding You to Work that FIts

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The Enneagram and Career Coaching

I’m often asked, primarily by friends in their 20s, if I use the Enneagram in my Career Coaching. My typical answer is that “I’m familiar with the Enneagram but it isn’t very useful for what I’m trying to do.” That is, it doesn’t allow me to help clients accurately assess how they’re wired so that we can determine the characteristics of a job that will fit them as well as those from which they should stay away.

There are two important ideas in that last sentence: Accuracy and Job Characteristics. Accuracy is important to me for a variety of reasons but the most important is that I’m committed to give my clients accurate information, so they can build a career plan that truly fits them. To the many admirers of the Enneagram the idea that it may not be accurate is laughable. They’ve taken the test, or read through the type descriptions, and determined which type number best describes them. They’ve found that the type description fits them, sometimes very well, and that gives them a sense of peace that someone understands them. To them, the assurance that they aren’t strange or odd and a general explanation of what motivates and works for them is sufficient.

The foremost challenge to using the Enneagram for Career Coaching is simply that it wasn’t developed for use as a scientific tool, so it can’t be counted on to give accurate and reliable information for that purpose. What do I mean when I say it’s not accurate and reliable? Well, someone who is trained to research on human beings is taught to look for two characteristics of any test – validity and reliability. Like many of the words we commonly use, validity and reliability as they are used in the world of science and testing are not the same things we use in everyday conversation. To a scientist or researcher the results of a test (in this case a personality test) are said to be Valid if it actually measures the thing it’s designed to measure. Similarly, the questions in that same test are said to be Reliable if they consistently get the same types of responses each time the questions is posed, even if it’s posed in very different forms.

In order for a test to be both Valid and Reliable the person or people who design it have to think very carefully about how they word their questions and also take into account the kinds of things that may inadvertently influence how someone might answer the questions. Developing a Valid and Reliable test is a challenging and time-intensive process that can take years. But, if it’s done right then you can count on the test to accurately measure the thing you set out to measure and to get similar kinds of responses every time a person takes it.

There are lots of Personality tests out there, each with higher or lower Validity and Reliability levels. The ones that have higher levels were typically developed by someone who understood the accuracy and consistency needed for use in scientific research. Some, however, weren’t developed with these in mind but, rather, as a way to have a better, but still general, understanding of some aspect of the human condition. The Enneagram falls into this second category, but the tests I use need to belong to the first so I can ensure that my clients get accurate information they can apply in their career search.

That last sentence often makes people uncomfortable, usually because they are comfortable with the Enneagram or fond of their Enneagram type description, but the Enneagram wasn’t developed to be scientifically accurate and consistent. (The origins of the Enneagram are actually somewhat disputed. We know those ideas are old and from the ancient world, but how old and from what part of ancient religion and mysticism is actually debated.) It was only in the last 30 years that people began to use the Enneagram to try and understand human personality. The works of Father Richard Rohr and author Chris Heuertz in particular, have popularized the use of the Enneagram among evangelical Christians. But, scientific research on the test hasn’t shown it to be a Valid and Reliable way to measure human personality. In fact, Chris Heuertz acknowledges the fact that the Enneagram approaches human personality from the Christian perspective that all human personalities are inherently distorted by the presence of Sin in the world, such that the nine (9) Enneagram types are mutated into the means by which human beings seek to fulfill needs that only God can fill.

Regardless of the “truth” within this theological perspective it, again, muddies the waters when using test results to provide accurate assistance in career discernment. More importantly, this lack of scientific accuracy makes it very difficult to use when counseling people about what types of work and work environments will fit them, why these will fit them, and what they should avoid. I spend a good amount of time helping a client sort through their personally-held ideas about work to discern the distorted and accurate notions they hold about themselves in the workplace – ideas driven by truth and distortion – so that they approach their search in a healthy way, but I’m not their spiritual advisor.

Several years ago I found myself locked in a heated conversation with a good friend and colleague. We’d just left a setting where nearly one hundred participants had been given a personality test that has low validity and reliability. My friend had heard me mutter my evaluation that giving these people the test was irresponsible and misleading. (In point of fact, I’d said something like, “What a crock of excrement”.) My frustration was driven by my concern that people could be given results that could lead to bad life decisions.

She, on the other hand, thought that test was perfectly fine and that any tool that helped people understand themselves had to be a good thing. She was put off by my arrogant position that using the test was unconscionable. To her, it was only a “matter of opinion” as to whether the test was good or not.

In hindsight I should have offered her the idea of what type of test one would want to use to accurately diagnose a brain tumor. X-rays, MRIs and PET-scans are all ways medical professionals can examine your head. X-rays are excellent for determining cranial fractures and general symptoms of a concussion and PET scans are fantastic for understanding electrical functioning in areas of the brain, but if you want to know the size and location of a possible brain tumor then you are best served by having an MRI. The MRI will do the best job of accurately and reliably depicting the location and nature of a brain mass.

The Enneagram is a fine model for gaining a general understanding of human personality, and it easily lends itself to theological explanations of our behaviors. But, when you are looking for information that will accurately tell you the things you should consider and exclude in your career discernment process, you would be wise to ask for tests that were designed for those purposes. Those are the only types of assessments I use with my clients because they’re trusting me to give them accurate, reliable guidance, and I want to be sure their trust is well-placed.

James Bailey