A man approached me some years back at the IEA conference in Atlanta and complimented me on the book I had recently coauthored. He then asked me to read something he had written and handed me three typewritten pages.
“I know Eights don’t read—my wife is an Eight—but it is short and shouldn’t take you long,” he said.
“I’ll see if I can find someone to read it to me, my lips tend to get tired easily and it’s been a long day,” I replied, tossing the pages in a trash can after we parted ways.
At the time, I was shocked by the claim that Eights don’t read, but I have come to recognize it as one of the stereotypes in the Enneagram world—Eights don’t read; they are anti-intellectual (or if they seem to be intellectual it is only a ruse to further abuse or dominate people); they are gut types who don’t think, they act; etc.
You would think that someone talking to an Eight who had actually coauthored a book might think twice before saying that Eights don’t read, but people make such statements all the time. We say these things because of the mind’s remarkable ability to minimize cognitive dissonance, the mental stress caused by the presence of two competing ideas or beliefs—our mind causes us to ignore data that challenges a comforting or strongly held assumption. If someone strongly believes that Eights are anti-intellectual and don’t read or has an emotional investment in that belief, they will likely be unable to see contradictory evidence or they will rationalize that which they do see.
(I had an experience of this in a discussion on Facebook this week, which is why the issue is fresh in my mind. I’ll also point out that my own reaction to the man who approached me in Atlanta is an excellent example of cognitive dissonance at work—I assumed that someone who could say something I thought was so silly could not possible write anything worth reading; I may well have missed out on three pages of brilliance, but I’ll never know.)
The rejection of contradictory beliefs is not a conscious decision—we can be blind to evidence that causes dissonance and some mechanism in our psyche shields us from the discomfort it causes.
These tendencies—rejecting information and non-consciously striving for artificial consistency—have two results that are relevant here: they can undermine our understanding of the Ennea-types and they can keep us from changing.
Stereotypes abound for all the Ennea-types: Ones don’t know how to have fun; Twos are never selfish; you can’t trust Threes; etc. As with all stereotypes, they lack nuance and ignore the complexity of the real world, but they give us a false sense that we understand the world. Once our stereotypes are in place we don’t have to think anymore and we can go back onto autopilot.
But while they may be comforting, our stereotypes are dangerous—they devalue the people around us and rob us from truly seeing reality.
A good practice for overcoming some of the biases that cognitive dissonance can cause is to become conscious of our assumptions about the Enneagram types and then look for counter-factual examples: If we believe that Ones don’t know how to have fun, for example, we can look for Ones who do know how to have fun. If we find one, how can we revise our assumption so that it better reflects reality?
Our natural response to cognitive dissonance makes it difficult to change, as well. One of the reasons we don’t change is because we tend to do what we do for a reason. It may not be a good reason, but it is usually a reason deeply rooted in our psyche. Attempts to change cause cognitive dissonance, or what Robert Kegan calls “competing commitments” in his “Immunity to Change” work. If we give in to our normal way of dealing with cognitive dissonance and seek artificial consistency, we will simply reject change.
If we want to change we have to stay present to the dissonance and resolve the competing commitments (or conflicting beliefs or values) in a coherent way that makes the new behavior non-threatening to our deeply held beliefs.
Often, Enneagram teachers will tell people that they need to simply reject their ego-rooted behaviors and do Behavior B instead of Behavior A; they have to stop being so much like their Ennea-type and start being more like some other Ennea-type. This is not a recipe for change; it is a recipe for stasis that, to use Kegan’s term, creates immunity to change. If we want to change we have to identify the competing commitments and resolve them in a coherent way that works with our values rather than against them.
The beauty of the Enneagram is that it zeroes right in on the heart of the dissonance so we know exactly what dissonance or conflicting beliefs we have to resolve.
Here’s an example:
Steve, a Six, was an engineering director for a tech company who was receiving criticism from his bosses for being too risk averse and attempting to shield his subordinates from what he saw as the inordinate demands of his bosses. In fact, the demands were not unusual, but Steve saw it as his job to protect his people by keeping them out of the spotlight. He felt that if they weren’t seen and if they didn’t make mistakes they wouldn’t be fired. He wouldn’t look for ways to highlight his team’s achievements, and he didn’t always communicate his boss’s expectations to them. Instead, he would tell them, don’t worry, the bosses think you’re doing fine.
I was brought in to work with Steve as his executive coach as a last attempt by his bosses to save him and his team. I was told that if they didn’t start taking more chances, aim for higher targets and become more visible and interactive with other parts of the organization that Steve and his key lieutenants would probably be let go or demoted.
It quickly became obvious that as a Six, Steve’s preferred adaptive strategy was “striving to be secure” and, in his mind, security was rooted in invisibility. Over the course of a few conversations we discussed the (il)logic of his assumptions, how his actions were actually undermining his job security and that if he continued behaving the way he was he would lose his job and those of some of the people that reported to him. He began to realize how his actions were bringing about the result he feared. We discussed how by being more assertive and making the contributions of his team more public he could actually increase his security rather than undermine it. Once Steve was able to resolve this competing commitment in a way that honored his desire for security, it was relatively easy to create and execute an action plan for change.
The key to change is to recognize cognitive dissonance when it happens and identify its cause rather than ignoring uncomfortable ideas or facts. We need to understand how our Ennea-type embeds in us a preferred adaptive strategy and how our limited or outdated understanding of that strategy can be stopping us from changing. We can then revise the strategy from a maladaptive pattern to an adaptive pattern and change our behaviors accordingly. This allows us to reduce cognitive dissonance in a healthy and deliberate way rather than in a reactive way, and create the behavioral changes we need to create.