A conversation with a senior executive, highlighted a frustrating situation of uncomfortable banter between three male directors and herself. “It was sexual in nature and whilst playful in tone, left her feeling awkward and frustrated. It is a frequent style of their interaction. “It’s just the way they are, she said, thats how they build relationship and communicate, they really nice people, they just have this joking side to them. I explain it to others in the team when they look shocked or offended in a meeting by what was just said”. “Do you feel offended” I asked. “Yes” she said, “but I’m just used to it because they do it all the time and I’m sure they don’t mean it”.
After further discussion, asking a few questions and gathering more context, I cautiously, and with gentleness (I hope) I asked what role she perhaps played in the continuation of this dynamic. She looked at me, paused in reflection, and then said – “maybe I actually make it seem ok by letting it continue and acting like it doesn’t offend me and setting the tone that it shouldn’t offend others”. Perhaps I said.
Last month I wrote about the difficulty of being the lone voice and the complexity of being a single representative when you need to raise an opinion that may feel contrary to the norm. You can read about that here . In some ways, this Exec’s situation resembles these complexities. There are gender nuances, biases and power hierarchies in the corporate workspace that enable these types of situations to occur but there is also a personality component that contributes to the complexity. This exec is a perfectionist – she has high work standards and values, she prioritizes order, respects hierarchy, keeps things within control and delivers exceptionally good work much to the satisfaction of her directors. She is an Enneagram 1.
There is a part of her personality that values the sense of order and control to the extent that she runs the risk of suppressing her own emotions, especially emotions of dissatisfaction, for the overall good of not disrupting the environment, especially her superiors. But it is this very aspect of her personality that leads to her inability to voice her anger. The result: her not saying anything normalizes the pattern of behavior of her male directors and leaves them very unaware of the offense they causing. This is not about blame- it is about insight. It is not her job to develop their self awareness, but, she can explore her own response in an attempt to understand how she contributes to the continuation of this uncomfortable dynamic.
As humans our patterns, or ways of being the world, become entrenched over our life time. They start as healthy defense mechanisms and submerge themselves into unconscious behavior, sometimes helping us and at other times, hindering us.
Howe- Murphy’s (2007) work with the Enneagram show us that each personality type has specific engrained patterns of relating that can be unhelpful in achieving personal goals. Take the Enneagram 1 for example, if their goal is to establish a sense of Calm and Peace (control), they often engage in a pattern of behavior that tries to ‘fix things’ because they feel responsible to making sure everything is in order. When their environment is in order they can find peace. This pattern of relating appears healthy but actually causes quite high stress levels as their environment is vastly out of their personal control and their attempts to restore order can ironically become self sabotaging. In the example of the executive, her attempt to “fix” the situation of the awkward behavior of her Directors in front of other colleagues results in her explaining away their behavior and in doing so, normalizing it. What is hard for the enneagram 1 would be leave the situation to unfold in the awkward messiness that may ensue. Consequently someone else at the table may then voice that the behavior is not appropriate and a shift in the situation can (slowly, over time) start to develop. But allowing a situation to get that ‘messy and potentially chaotic’ goes against the core values of a Type 1 personality.
Howe-Murphey refers to the need to be aware of the entrenched behavior and then actively try shift this pattern as ‘Making a U-Turn”. This is helpful language in highlighting how extremely difficult it to make a 180 degree shift, and a push back on what feels like your normal way of acting/ thinking or relating. Here are some further goal examples, the normative pattern of behavior and the developmental work for each of the Enneagram types.
How are you perhaps unknowingly contributing to your situation of frustration? If you are interested in understanding yourself more contact us for an Enneagram assessment and consultation.
Howe-Murphey, R. (2007) Deep Coaching, Using the Enneagram as a catalyst for profound change. Enneagram Press.