How the four tendencies changed our workplace

In our recently launched podcast How to Change the World, I often ask our guests about a pivotal moment in their life – something that happened that altered the trajectory of their life, how they see the world, or what they knew they were capable of. It doesn’t have to be a huge event; sometimes pivotal moments are seemingly insignificant at the time.

One of mine is just like that. It was last October and I was listening to a podcast while tidying up my bedroom. It featured an interview with Gretchen Rubin, the well-known author of The Happiness Project. She was talking about her new book, The Four Tendencies.

As I was listening to Rubin describe the different ways that human beings respond to internal and external expectations, I recognized so much of myself in her words that I stopped cleaning and just sat on my bedroom floor, listening.

In the days and weeks that followed, I listened to every interview with Rubin talking about The Four Tendencies that I could find. I bought and read the book, I made my team (and many friends) take the quiz, and preached to them about what this meant for their lives. There has been no other book that has influenced my self-understanding and approach to management as much as this book. If you know me, chances are I have twisted your ear about The Four Tendencies in recent months.

To summarize, The Four Tendencies has to do with how we respond to internal and expectations and divides us into four groups: Upholders, Obligers, Questioners and Rebels.

An Upholder finds it pretty easy to meet external and internal expectations. Let’s say an Upholder decides they want to go to the gym every morning. They’ll find it fairly easy to do that. Once they’ve set the goal, they are internally motivated to meet it. If you ask an Upholder to get you the report by 5pm on Friday, they will do it.

An Obliger will also get you the report by Friday at 5pm, as you asked. But if they decide to go to the gym every morning, they might go once or twice before falling back into pressing snooze on the alarm. Unless they are meeting a friend at the gym. In that case – they’ll be there. This is because Obligers respond to external expectations and not internal expectations. Obligers are the largest group amongst us, and they make the world go round. They get along best with the other three tendencies – whether in work or personal relationships. In our team of ten people, we have one lone Obliger. Her life is definitely the hardest.

A Questioner responds readily to the expectations that make sense to them. They will go to the gym every morning if that matches with their goals and view of the world. They’re not going to get you the report by 5pm on Friday if they know you won’t look at it until Monday afternoon. What sense does that make? Questioners don’t respond to arbitrary rules or doing things because that’s the way they’ve always been done. Questioners don’t love traffic rules designed for the masses instead of particular situations and circumstances.

And then there are Rebels. Rebels reject all expectations. A Rebel will not get you the report by Friday at 5pm, simply because you asked for it on Friday at 5pm. They struggle to commit to things like morning gym sessions, because what if they don’t feel like going to the gym when they wake up? In fact, subscriptions and regular commitments are a tough ask for a Rebel.  

If you’re curious about what you are, take the quiz now.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each of the tendencies, of course, but for me the real power of discovering this framework has been an increased understanding of why I do things – and why my team members do things.

For example, one of my team members is a Rebel. I am an Upholder. Upholders and Rebels don’t mix very well, especially in a boss-employee relationship. Gretchen Rubin says that this will be a tricky dynamic. She’s not wrong. Prior to finding The Four Tendencies, I interpreted my team member’s Rebel characteristics as insubordination, tempestuousness and downright rudeness. It drove me absolutely nuts and I was at my wit’s end.

Upon reading The Four Tendencies, I came to realize that my Rebel’s actions were not a retaliation against me at all. This framework helped me stop taking everything so personally, and instead get to learn how my team member is motivated. Simple changes have made a huge difference. For example, instead of saying “Please put a memo together about this problem we’re tackling and have it to me by Tuesday” (which would all but guarantee I would never see the memo), I might say “This is the problem we are tackling. Could you look into it and let me know what you think the possible actions are? If you can have me something to look at by Tuesday, that will enable me to be prepared for the client meeting on Friday.” By giving my Rebel teammate some freedom in how she tackles the project, and providing information about why the Tuesday deadline is in place, it will be a far more fruitful project for both of us.

I have also learned that if I ask my lone Obliger to do something, she will do it. Often, I will want to discuss how we should approach something, and she agrees to the first thing I suggest. This means that to develop her critical thinking skills, I must resist the urge to weigh in first. I must instead ask her the right questions so she can develop options instead of obliging to my suggestions.

As an Upholder, once I have decided to do something I do it – even if it stops making sense. More than once, something on my to do list becomes unnecessary because of the passage of time or changing circumstances. But I’ll still do it – because I wrote it down. A few months ago, we were pursuing a video project for a client and having a hard time recruiting a particular type of participant. We had set a goal for the number of participants we needed, and day after day we were unable to identify people to join us for the video shoot. I just kept hurtling toward the goal, putting more and more pressure on the team to meet the goal and get the job done. Never once did I pause to ask why we were having a hard time recruiting participants. The day before the video shoot, we were forced to cancel due to lack of sign-ups. In the space and time this created, we were able to take a step back and evaluate where we went wrong. We discovered that our concept was flawed and was creating barriers to participation. Had I been able to strengthen my Questioner muscles earlier in the week and wondered aloud why we were facing these difficulties, I could have saved days of tension and misplaced energy.

Questioners are great additions to teams – they think about things critically and can prevent fruitless plans of actions by asking the right questions at the beginning. For non-Questioners like myself, it can take some patience to answer their queries and explain our plan of action. I have discovered that a Questioner’s questions are intended to help them make sense of something (rather than undermine my leadership), and I have been able to use their insight to strengthen our approaches to projects time and again. Ironically, Questioners tend to dislike being questioned, which I find hysterical and have used this fact for my own amusement once or twice.

If you’re new to The Four Tendencies, here are four tips for integrating this framework into your work and life:

  1. Take the quiz and discover your Tendency. It is possible to lean toward one of the other tendencies, so you could be a bit of a cocktail. I have one team member who is a REBEL/Questioner, and the other is REBEL/Obliger. You might be able to guess which one is more challenging to manage.
  2. Talk about it with your friends and family. Ask them if they recognize the characteristics of your Tendency in you. By sharing with others how we think about things, and asking them questions about their approach to the same things, we learn so much about ourselves. Human beings have a tendency to assume everyone sees things the way we do. Simply by learning how differently two people can see the same thing can be an absolute game changer.
  3. Use the language of The Four Tendencies to talk to your team members about how to approach projects and deadlines. The greatest gift Rubin has given my team is a common language for us to talk about how we are different, and talk about how to lean on each others strengths and mitigate our weaknesses – without it turning into insult tennis. Building common understanding grows stronger, more productive teams.

  4. Always remember that it’s not personal. We are all different, and the actions of one person doesn’t necessarily mean what it would mean if you did that same thing. If you asked me to come to your birthday drinks and I said yes and then no-showed, that would not be a good sign. As an Upholder, rest assured it is causing me physical pain to not have stuck to my word – something is going on. That wouldn’t be the case for a Rebel or even a Questioner.

Whether you’re a Four Tendencies convert or novice, let us know what it has triggered for you. Has it unlocked a new way of thinking or generated questions for you?

Javelina Blog Author Ariel Reyes
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Javelina Blog Author

Catherine Alonzo, CEO & Founding Partner

Catherine Alonzo is the CEO and founding partner of Javelina, a company that brings brand experience to life for non-profits, businesses, campaigns and individuals. Having played a pivotal role in growing Javelina into a leading branding and marketing firm, Catherine specializes in effective messaging, brand development and business strategic planning.


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