Whether you use growth mindset or enneagram to frame personality, neither tool paints the whole picture of a person’s development.
By Rob McKenna, Ph.D.
Neither growth mindset nor enneagram is particularly new, but for whatever reason, both concepts are back in vogue. And while they share a common theme of a necessity for self-awareness and discovery, they present a fundamental and critical tension that’s so often ignored.
It’s practically and philosophically inconsistent to maintain a growth mindset while overstating a typology or label. In fact, the research on a growth mindset might go so far as to suggest that labeling a person as this or that actually undermines a person’s capacity to learn, for their sake and the sake of others.
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Giving ourselves or others a label outside of a more thoughtful discussion of the multiple variables we know that impact a person’s interaction with their world risks turning our coworkers into castes, our children into robots, our bosses into villains, and ourselves into “I’m just being me” narcissists.
I know that’s overstated, but without tempering, that’s the danger.
Telling your child they’re a number or personality type leaves them believing the number is true, and their future spouse and coworkers are at the mercy of the label you gave them. That’s what the growth mindset research would suggest we’re risking. And it’s just not the whole story.
While I understand most enneagram experts would likely suggest the numbers allow for nuance, the language we hear across our culture suggests otherwise. As soon as we say, “He’s an 8,” we’ve just risked fixing an individual to a type that may or may not be true. Without getting into the importance of research behind the validity of any tool or concept involved in the psychology of self-discovery (and there’s a lot to say here), let me explain.
As a professor of industrial-organizational psychology for 20 years, nothing has captivated the attention of my graduate students more than Carol Dweck’s research paper back in 1986 on the power of a learning orientation. They love her work because it gives them a research-based way to escape the performance orientation that has plagued them all their lives. Like me, it gave them another path to seeing themselves beyond the competition, the anxiety, and the emphasis on either being a winner or a loser. It provided us a way to reframe our reality toward a world of growth opportunities, and not simply successes and failures.
What I’ve emphasized with my students is that Dweck’s work is about something even deeper than performance and learning. It was about the way we see ourselves: as either good or bad, smart or dumb, good at math or bad at math, and fixed or editable. If we can change our mindset toward growth and away from things that don’t change, all kinds of positive outcomes emerge.
Why is the concept of a growth mindset so attractive? Because it:
a) Unsticks us. A growth mindset gives us permission to see ourselves as changeable.
b) Redefines us. Voices in our past that labeled us as smart or not, able to be something or not, or able to change or not, are replaced by voices that encourage us to work just as hard at learning from our failures as well as our successes.
c) Opens us. We’re no longer boxed into either being good or bad at something. Our minds can be opened to the possibility that we could learn something—and continue to learn over our lifetime.
Maybe equally popular in our current cultural context is the enneagram, often described as a system of personality typing that describes nine different patterns in how people process their world and manage their emotions.
Strong statements have been made about the enneagram from those who believe in its power for personal insight—that we’re born with a dominant type, that people don’t change types, that no one type is better or worse than others, and that there aren’t differences between populations of people because the enneagram is gender-, race-, and context-neutral.
Without getting into the details of the types (because that’s not the point here) it’s based on the assumption that labeling ourselves as a one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, or nine will give us insight into ourselves and help others deal with us.
And why is the concept of a “type” so attractive? Because it:
a) Labels us. We love shortcuts and even need them sometimes. Without some intentional common language, self-awareness is like a funny house with confusing and distorting mirrors all around that provide little actual insight into who we are.
b) Validates us. Face validity is a powerful thing. Things that make sense to us about ourselves or others when we read them draw our attention. Anything that causes us to say, “How did it know to describe me that way?” is really attractive. Whether it’s a personality test or a horoscope, if it sounds like us, it must be us.
c) Simplifies us. Humans are complicated beings. We’re made up of a lot of different variables, with traits (factors that are relatively stable over our lifetime) being one of them. Anything that simplifies our complexity is attractive as long as it confirms our existing biases or requires less work.
Decades of research would suggest both a growth mindset and personality or typologies are important informants in our search for increased self- and other awareness. The challenge is that traits—as unchanging characteristics of a person—call out what’s fixed in us, and a growth mindset is all about unfixing our fixed way of thinking.
Choose Integration Over Simplification
Fixed aspects of ourselves and our development will always occupy a necessary tension—especially if we’re to be responsible developers of other people’s talent, gifts, and selves. So what’s the compromise?
Strategy #1: Change Our Language
Labeling our children, spouses, coworkers, or bosses as numbers is reckless. And, according to Dweck and other researchers on growth mindset, the way we speak matters.
If we label someone a certain number, IQ, color, or type, we risk encouraging a fixed mindset, which not only will confine them to a box they might not need to occupy, but also confine everyone around them to that same label. It encourages a way of thinking that says, “Just deal with me the way I am,” without consideration of who we could become.
When referring to personality, attractive typologies, strengths, or traits, use more nuanced language that gives a nod to things about us that aren’t likely to change, while also leaving open space for learning. Saying “She’s an eight” is vastly different than “She’s more extraverted than other people on the team.”
Strategy #2: Integrate Traits and Development
Research suggests personality and traits make up about half of who we are, leaving the other half up for grabs. Any tool or concept that reduces a person to a label or type without a deep dive into their context and their open range for development is missing half the point.
While personality and types are helpful in the larger context of a person’s learning and growth, it’s the interaction between what’s not likely to change about us and what’s spinning around us that makes us so interesting.
As an example, more or less “openness to experience” (a statistically stable trait over our lifetimes) certainly impacts a person’s capacity to learn from experience. At the same time, that openness may also be predictive of some being more susceptible to buying into the latest and greatest self-development movement. It’s not until we get to the experience that we realize how our traits are going to play a role in that experience.
The fundamental tension between nature and nurture is always there. Recognizing that tension and avoiding the temptation to simplify ourselves into easier types takes more work, but it’s real.
Strategy #3: See Development as a Process
Development is a process of learning across our lifetime—not a destination. Arrivals matter, but when we get there, we usually start again. For most of us, a truer connection to our reality involves the power of moments of completion alongside moments of continuation.
Learning is like that. It’s the mysterious lifelong process of moments, motivations, inspirations, experiences, and learning that make us so interesting as human beings. Traits play a critical role in that process, but when overstated, push us toward a fixed finish line that misses the point.
The personality “typography” that’s been studied the most and with the greatest level of validation work behind it is what’s called the Big 5. And, even with the Big 5, I’d always suggest we be very careful about leaning too heavily on it for labeling people. It’s the combination of insights drawn from our unique type and our experiences that more accurately reflect the developmental reality of us.
While my desire would be that we be extremely cautious when using tools we label as personality or types that have little research to support their validity, I know we’re drawn to certain typologies for whatever reason. I know many of us also don’t care as much about validity as long as what we’re reading or consuming makes personal sense to us—but that doesn’t make it best for us.
No matter what tool or book we use to frame personality, our most responsible path is to be mindful of the language we use, see personality and traits as one part of a person’s developmental story, and reframe development as a process rather than a destination or a type.
There’s likely some truth to our “type,” but we’re more than a number. So are the people in whom we’re invested.
Rob McKenna, Ph.D., is the founder of WiLD Leaders Inc., creator of the WiLD Toolkit, and chair of industrial-organizational psychology at Seattle Pacific University. His latest book, Composed: The Heart and Science of Leading Under Pressure, focuses on the specific strategies leaders can use to stay true to themselves and connected to others when it matters most. McKenna was recently named one of the top 30 most influential I-O psychologists.