How using the Enneagram transformed this tech leader into a better people manager
Lukman Low Kian Seong often raises eyebrows when he tells people that he uses the Enneagram to manage people.
For the uninitiated, the Enneagram is a personality typing system - you have probably encountered other popular ones like Myers Briggs, Rorschach and DISC. The Enneagram describes people in 9 distinct personality types and gives you insight into their personality, strengths, behavioural patterns and triggers.”
“Personally, it helps me find a common language that I can use to talk to people depending on their Type. The bigger the team you lead, the more useful this tool is because you don’t have a lot of time and you need to talk to a lot of people daily.”
How the Enneagram Works
For example, the tech industry attracts a lot of Type 5 (The “Investigator”): curious, analytical, innovative people who are able to develop complex ideas and make decisions based on facts. Famous Type 5’s include Albert Einstein, John Nash, Stephen Hawking and Vincent Van Gogh.
“Knowing this person is a Type 5 who is driven to find out how things work, I don’t go touchy feely with them, because it’s really going to turn them off. So I approach them with data and facts, rather than opinion and feelings, and after laying out as much detail as possible, I ask them, so what do we do?”
In short, the Enneagram cuts short the time you need to read people, engage with them, and align with them, especially when you hit a brick wall and can’t figure them out. “In tech terms, I would call Enneagram a way of debugging people.”
Finding his niche
One of the most powerful motivators for Low in using the Enneagram is its ability to shed insight that helps people find their true calling.
Sharing a story from two years back, he says, “Malek was a new hire who showed promising talent, a very gregarious and happy worker. But after we promoted him to a developer position, his productivity tanked. His team was unhappy with his performance.”
Low had several talks with him but Malek wouldn’t open up. At wit’s end, he asked Malek to do an Enneagram assessment. Low assured him it was nothing to do with his job; he just wanted to find a better way to talk to him.
What Low discovered was revealing. “Malek was a Type 2, the supporter who is energised by helping people. In his current position, he was working mostly alone and couldn’t find meaning in his work. Armed with this knowledge, we put him into a Level 3 software support position where he could see exactly where his code fixes went and helped people directly, while having the potential to scale his technical skills. In just two weeks, he started being active and participatory again. You could see the light shining back in his eyes.”
In another situation, using the Enneagram helped him to gain crucial insight into how his inherent personality and tendencies could impact his employee.
He recalls, “We had a star developer who insisted everything was hunky-dory. Upon digging deeper, we found out that he was having conflicts with people and hiding a lot of issues. We talked to him and assured him there was psychological safety but he just wouldn’t open up. When confronted, he tended to blame other reasons. He eventually left the company.”
Wondering if he could have done better, Low deep-dived into the talent’s Enneagram results to seek clarity about the root of the issue.
“He was a Type 3 like myself - highly image-conscious, ambitious and goal-driven. He was afraid to own up his mistakes because Type 3’s think that if they reveal that they are weak somewhere, they are nobody. I could relate to this because when I was growing up, my father was very result oriented - you have to get no 1 in school etc. I tend to associate result with love. If I’m producing result, I'm loved. If I’m not producing results, I’m not loved.”
The struggles that his employee faced became clear.
“Knowing this, I should not have challenged him so much during our one-on-ones. That way, he would have opened up more, which would allow me to get close and find out what was troubling him, what help he needed. Ironically, the type you normally find hardest to deal with is your own type because you are on the same journey to better yourself.”
Crucially, Low might have assured him of psychological safety, but his actions did not match his promise. “In hindsight, I failed him on numerous occasions. I kept injecting my own views and stories. I was asking him questions but deep down I wasn’t really interested in his answer, just waiting for him to arrive at an aha moment and reach a consensus with me. Even while he was talking, I already had formulated the solution in my head instead of listening, really listening.”
The importance of learning better
Although the second story has a less than happy ending, there was a bright side: the experience put Low on a path to becoming a more thoughtful and compassionate leader.
And the first step was to become a better listener.
“It’s not so easy. When I say listen better, it’s not about keeping quiet and parroting the words you hear back to yourself. You have to pay attention to people’s body language, voice inflection, facial expressions and mood. A big part of being a better listener is also about not trying to formulate a solution in your head while people are talking, and letting them find their own way.”
Low believes leaders should never be seen as a solution provider. “When you give your people solutions, you rob them of the chance to learn. What leaders should do is use our experience, skills and tools to guide our people along the path and help them find solutions [through gentle probing, elicitation and feedback]. But before that can happen, an employee must feel psychologically safe to openly share their hopes, fears and struggles.”
Once Low consciously became a more empathetic and mindful listener, he found he was able to achieve significant inroads. He says, “when your team members sense that you are paying attention and attempting to understand what matters most to them, they trust you more, share more and let you represent them because they know you care and have their best interests at heart. My team members are just like my sons and they tell me everything. Of course, the downside is when they are looking for other jobs they also tell me!”
Jokes aside, Low shares that he now makes a big effort to foster an environment of psychological safety for his team members. “Normally, a healthy team is one that is very verbal. From what they eat to the latest gadget they bought online, they share a lot and all kinds of stuff. I’m inside of my SCRUM team’s Whatsapp chats but I am quiet. I am just there to observe. If they have the psychological safety to share openly in the group without feeling they are being judged all the time, most probably the idea generation process will be just as dynamic.”
The benefits of profiling
Of all the popular personality profiling methodologies, why did Low gravitate to the Enneagram?
He says, “because of one fundamental difference: Enneagram offers paths for growth and improvement, whereas other typing tools don’t provide as much flexibility for people to change.”
“Each of the 9 personality types is flanked by subtypes called “wings”, i.e. the two Enneagram types found on either side of your primary type,” he explains. Using himself as an example, Low is a baseline 3 (The goals-driven “Achiever”) and his Wings are a Type 2 (the people-oriented “Helper”) and 4 (The creative “Individualist”).
“Since a Type 2 is all about interpersonal relationships, I can channel energy into building relationships with my team members which then helps me in my mission to perform and achieve my goals.”
In short, the Enneagram model posits that we can all work to integrate strengths of the other types to be more balanced and effective.
The Enneagram isn’t quite mainstream yet in Malaysia, so how do Low’s peers and leaders feel about it?
“Some people look at me like I’m some new-agey bomoh,” he admits laughingly. “As the years progress, I learn how to read people better. I just bring it up in a normal conversation and see how they react. If they are open to the idea, they would ask me to share more. If they just brush it aside although I’ve brought it up once or twice, then it’s probably something I should limit to my team and share the result rather than name-drop the method.”
Whether you choose to use the Enneagram or something else, Low believes that a system that helps leaders develop self-awareness and cultivate compassion for others can be a powerful tool in creating a healthy and thriving organisational culture.
The Enneagram even helped him out at home, Low notes with a laugh. “My wife is a Type 1 (the perfectionist “Reformer”) and I used to feel hurt when she was critical of my flaws, but once I understood that she was a perfectionist who wanted to leave things better than she found them, and pointing out room for improvement was her way of showing love, the energy between us softened. Enneagram has created a more harmonious home environment for me, which is a win!”
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