Obliger, Upholder, Questioner, Rebel — what are you?

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

How to deal with people using Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework

People are different. Let’s say you’re a boss. Some can obey your orders like little angels, especially if you give them deadlines. Others struggle, unless you can justify your demands with graphs and tables and perhaps pages-long appendices. And then there are those who simply disobey, or loaf, no matter what you do.

It can be frustrating.

Bestselling author and lawyer Gretchen Rubin has an explanation. In her book, The Four Tendencies, Rubin proposes there are four basic Tendencies by which people can be described. And these are based on how people respond to inner expectations (like New Year’s resolutions) and outer expectations (say, rules and doctor’s orders).

Adorably obnoxious Upholder Dr Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) is a riot in The Big Bang Theory.

Upholders are the demigods, who can meet both inner and outer expectations. Hermione Granger is obviously an Upholder. So is Sheldon Cooper. They’re those whom all the other Tendencies often want to become: after all, Upholders are usually the overachievers, who can automate their actions and, presumably, their success. But they can be insensitive pricks.

Bureaucrat Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) is a disgruntled Questioner in Parks and Recreation. (UPDATE: Or maybe he’s a Rebel — because Tammy.)

Questioners are the Grand Inquisitors. They need information, justifications, before they can act on any external demand. They question traditions, customs, imposed company “cultures”. While they often can stick to their gym schedule (that is, meet inner expectations), they often can’t abide by gym rules (outer expectations). They ask, “But why, smartass?”

Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) is a classic Obliger, with a great responsibility and a weak will (although you can argue that the One Ring is simply too seductive…and precioussssss).

Then there are Obligers, who comprise the majority of people. They are the angels I was talking about, the loyal servants, who can turn in work on or before the deadline. They’re often the ones who had invited you to be their gym buddies, the ones who struggle unless they have someone to be accountable to. They are those who can work best when they have to give their work to someone who can appreciate it. And they suck at resolutions no matter what day of the year it is. They meet outer expectations, but resist inner ones. They can also be the parent-figure kind of leader. The curious thing about Obligers, however, is that they can rebel when pushed to the brink — they can shut down or quit unexpectedly.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Norse god of mischief, is clearly a Rebel.

And then, finally, there are the Rebels, who struggle with both inner and outer expectations. You can’t bother them. They obsess over freedom. They act only when they know it’s what they want: anything another person tells them to do, they do the opposite. If this describes you, though, don’t panic. On the plus side, Rebels are often those who initiate refreshingly unorthodox solutions…like creating some new procedure, a new design, a new system; or quitting altogether.

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Rubin says no one Tendency is superior to another; it’s just that each is different, and each has pros and cons. So don’t tell me you’re an Obliger who wants to be an Upholder. I’ve been there. Accept, don’t resist. Instead, work on your strengths to get around your weaknesses.

And yes, boss, there are ways to get a Questioner, or even a Rebel, to obey your orders. You just have to know their Tendency quite well. So if your employees are all Questioners (heavens forbid), it is likely that they’d want you to provide the reason for reducing costs for office stationery. Or if they’re a Rebel, communicate in such a way that their freedom to do things is highlighted. First, inform them about your demand, justify yourself, provide possible scenarios if they won’t do what you’re asking them, and then stop: let them decide what to do (hopefully it’s similar to your would-be command!).

When I read The Four Tendencies, it almost felt like a sequel to the Book of Revelations. I connected the dots. Patterns emerged. People, as well as myself, became a little bit simpler — all while retaining their uniqueness, nuances, beautiful differences, and individuality as persons.

Take this quiz to know your Tendency.

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