Out of the Box Coaching and
Breakthroughs with the Enneagram, Mary R. Bast, Ph.D. 
Copyright 1999. All rights reserved. Revised: October 26, 2014


Transformational Change in Organizations
(More about this in Chapter Two of Out of the Box: Coaching with the Enneagram)

In Masterful Coaching Robert Hargrove distinguishes between "incremental learning" (single-loop), "reframing" (double-loop learning), and "transformational learning" (triple-loop). These distinctions (based on the original work of Gregory Bateson, and extended by Chris Argyris and Peter Senge) are important in business settings.

Executive coaching takes place mostly at the incremental level (embody new skills and capabilities), sometimes at the level of reframing (reshape patterns of thinking), but seldom at the transformational level (a shift in context or point of view). Hargrove articulates the goal of transformational learning:

"...empowering people to transform who they are and reinvent themselves by helping them to see how their frames of reference, thinking, and behavior produce unintended consequences... to surface and question the way they have framed their points of view about themselves, others, or their circumstances with the idea of creating a fundamental shift" (p. 22).

While change at the incremental and reframing levels is quite common, I've found transformational change to be more of a challenge. Among the many reasons,

  • it's difficult to see implicit patterns that underlie our human systems,

  • seeing these patterns "unmasks" us, shows how what we've been doing isn't working, and

  • we resist facing up to anything at odds with our self-image.

The Enneagram is a powerful tool to help people break through their own resistance to change and open themselves to transformational learning. The following explanation of the three levels of learning is illustrated with an Enneagram Six, Three, and Nine at each stage of potential change (new skills, shift in attitudes/behavior, shift in point of view):

Incremental (Single-Loop) Learning refers to learning new skills and capabilities through incremental improvement, doing something better without examining or challenging underlying beliefs and assumptions. Let's say a Six is concerned because his boss sees him as "negative," and he agrees to practice a creative problem-solving technique. Instead of saying, "That won't work because it will take too long," he learns to incorporate his concerns into a solution statement such as "I think that could solve our problem. Let's talk about how we can shorten the production time." His boss compliments him on being more "positive" and the Six is glad he's no longer being criticized. He may still tend to look at the negative side of things, but he knows how to cope with that behavior in a way that keeps him off the hook in his job.

Reframing (Double-Loop Learning) occurs by fundamentally reshaping the underlying patterns of our thinking and behavior so were capable of doing different things. This level of learning often enfolds single-loop or incremental learning, but goes beyond it. This is the level of process analysis where people become observers of themselves, asking, "What's going on here? What are the patterns?" It's still largely an act/react cycle, but it can get the underlying psychological superstructure to start wobbling. This is where most individual and/or organizational change takes place. This is also where the Enneagram can provide a powerful roadmap for what to observe.

The Six executive mentioned above, for example, might become aware of his general tendency to focus on what could go wrong, to look for hidden agendas. So, in addition to learning how to approach problems with solutions, he begins to see how his pattern of thinking tends to leave out "what could go right." Now he's able to step outside of himself a bit and notice how he filters out the positive, typically doesn't even consider it. He's no longer defending himself from his boss's criticism he "gets it" that in this way, he is negative.

When he finds himself focusing only on the negative, he might take out a piece of paper, write down all the negative possibilities in the left-hand column and counter these with positive possibilities in the right-hand column (a "single-loop" skill applied in a "double-loop" context).

If he notices and responds to this behavior consistently over time, he may find he spontaneously notices both sides of the equation and this, in turn, shows up naturally in his language and in his problem-solving capabilities. If so, the experience of reshaping his thinking and behavior has automatically taken him to the next level of learning: the "transformational" or "triple-loop" level. In this one respect he is no longer the same person that he was. He now experiences himself and his environment differently.

Transformational (Triple-Loop) Learning is a shift in our context or point of view about ourselves, what I refer to as a "seismic shift." Something we thought and felt (and had manifested in our behavior) has come into question. We may feel exhilarated, stunned, shocked, humiliated, disoriented, and/or depressed at points during this process; the change may happen gradually or all of a sudden; but in this particular context, we will never be the same (there are other contexts by which we operate and which are still open areas for exploring assumptions, etc.).

Our Six executive, for example, may have felt embarrassed to "own up" to his negative focus because he's always seen himself as optimistic. If he can continue to observe this habitual pattern as it occurs, he'll find he eventually notices it without judgment, and even beyond that will see things differently, as indicated above. Or, he might worry about it for days, putting himself in a tailspin because his self-image is suffering. If he stays stuck in this place, he won't make the shift from reframing (double-loop) to transformational (triple-loop) learning. He might conceivably even deny the validity of the feedback he's been given and shift back to the level of single-loop learning, still able to use the new techniques he's learned, but accusing his boss of being unfair, or defending himself from the possibility that he isn't who he thought he was.

Some people have the tenacity and guts to hang in and incorporate these heretofore unknown and unwanted aspects of themselves. For those who might otherwise get stuck, it helps to reassure them that what they're feeling is natural because they're letting go, in part, of an idealized self-image that has helped them cope since childhood. This difficult part of the passage can be reframed in a positive light: You might say, for example, "This is great. This means you've really shaken up a part of yourself that served you well in the past, but has been keeping you from using your full potential. You wouldn't be feeling so bad if there weren't some major developmental shifts going on in your unconscious. Your whole view of yourself is changing, and this is exactly where you should be. I'm touched that you're able to move forward with such courage. Youll find that how you perceive the world and how you feel about yourself will begin to shift in a very positive way."

I always hold it as my goal in development work to encourage transformational learning. I even show my clients Hargrove's visual representation (p. 28) of the three levels of learning. Rather than marketing "The Enneagram," however, I market leadership potential and bring in the Enneagram as a tool to aid in the process. I always emphasize its practicality, describing my own experience, and giving anonymous examples of how other clients have benefited. By introducing the Enneagram in this way Ive never had clients question the process of analyzing and interpreting their own and others' behavior. People are eager to learn more about themselves and what makes other people tick, so they can reduce their frustrations and make their work more fulfilling. So it's fairly easy to achieve double-loop learning.


What are the results in terms of transformational learning? One of my most successful consultations occurred with a One whod earlier been described as "driven without knowing what drives her," as someone who "wants to do the right thing but comes off as inflexible and intolerant," who "runs out of patience, judges people, and loses her temper using a tone of voice that leaves people feeling hurt, blamed, and sometimes degraded." Here's a summary of this client's follow-up feedback six months after the initial consultation:

(From her boss): "She's been totally transformed she's 180 degrees from where she was before. She empowers her people now, so that even the ones who weren't used to being responsible before have grown. She took over a project for me and her organizational skills were top-notch the whole process was flawless."

(From peers): "She has a great attitude, a willingness to talk things over." "She openly and routinely discusses business decisions that can affect us." "She's easy to talk to and non-defensive." "She's very open to feedback."

(From subordinates): "We enjoy the freedom to make decisions we didn't make before. She's interested in our opinions, shows clear appreciation for our efforts, and looks out for our interests." "She's very supportive when there are glitches, very willing to sit down and talk, and to help." "Her biggest plus is her sense of humor she's great to work with because she'll give and take and joke." " She's absolutely one of the best people I've ever worked for."

In another organization (owned and led by an Eight), a reasonably open environment was created through a combination of individual coaching and team workshops (over a period of several years). His company is not without problems, but their continuing commitment is to understand and discuss their relationships and how they help or hinder their teamwork, particularly how to stand up to the Eight (at his request).


As I indicated before, long-term change requires tenacity. But if leaders are committed to doing the work required, and if they engage their teams in the same effort, its possible to create an environment of non-defensive openness to feedback. As the organizational theorist Chris Argyris wrote, systems that are self-renewing and evolving are those where people seek valid information so they can make free and informed choices, and where there is commitment to these choices as well as to ongoing monitoring (continuing feedback) of their implementation. This creates an environment of high personal responsibility, joint accountability (mutuality), and an orientation toward growth. An organization (or a relationship) cannot fail when members openly and frequently test and confirm (or disconfirm) their assumptions.

This work can be frustrating, even with such an exciting tool as the Enneagram. After about a year of coaching an executive, for example, we changed his operations function in a large corporation from "heavy-handed" management (very militaristic) to a more collaborative environment. This occurred over the period of a year through a combination of coaching key managers and wide-scale training. Unfortunately, after another year his company was acquired and his new boss subscribed to the old methods, so all our efforts for the better part of three years went down the drain within weeks. The good news is that what goes around comes around: several years later my client's boss was replaced with someone whose values were more compatible with my client's, and he was able to regain some of his earlier progress.