The Four Tendencies: Why Personality Types Should Matter to Leaders

Whether you own a business with teams to manage or if you are a solopreneur, you will need people to do things for you. How great would it be if all the people around you just did things exactly how you want them, right? Then life would be peachy and everything would get done.

However, I learned right from the beginning of my business that you have to learn how to communicate effectively – not just by saying clearly what you want but also by phrasing what you want in a way that would make the other person want to listen to you. 

It was in one particularly tense and traumatising scenario dealing with a difficult staff member we shall call Sam that I chanced upon a podcast while trying to find some new perspectives. It was an interview with Gretchen Rubin, the author of the best-selling book The Happiness Project. Rubin was being interviewed about her new book titled The Four Tendencies and she was describing the different ways that human beings respond to outer and inner expectations.

It resonated strongly with my situation and I recognized so much of myself in what she was saying. Outer expectations are what others place on us, like meeting a work deadline. Inner expectations are what we place on ourselves, like keeping a New Year’s resolution. Depending on a person’s response to these expectations, that person falls into four distinct groups: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels.

An Upholder is a person who easily meets both outer and inner expectations. If you ask an Upholder to submit a sales report by Monday 12 pm, they will do it no matter what. Once they set a goal, they are internally motivated to do it. If they decide that they want to go to the gym every evening, they will automatically do it too.

Questioner is a person who responds readily to expectations that make sense to them. They will not get you the report by Monday 12 pm if they know you won’t look at it until Tuesday afternoon. They will go to the gym in the evening only if it matches their view of the world. They will ask, “Why should I do it?” and do not respond to arbitrary rules or simply doing things because that’s the way they have always been done. They are not keen on rules that are designed for the masses. In other words, they are inclined toward inner expectations.

An Obliger will get you the report by Monday 12 pm because they respect outer expectations. As for the gym, they may go a couple of times, but will probably drop out after a while as they are not motivated by inner expectations. However, if they have to meet the trainer or even a friend at the gym, they will be there. According to Rubin, Obligers are the largest group amongst us, and they make things happen. They get along best with the other three tendencies in both work and personal relationships.

Rebel rejects all expectations, both outer and inner. They will not get you the report by Monday 12 pm simply because you demanded it. They struggle to commit to things like going to the gym because they want the freedom to follow their feelings. Regular commitments are a tough ask for Rebels.

People sometimes try to figure out the best Tendency and shoehorn themselves into it. But according to Rubin, there is no best or worst Tendency. The happiest, healthiest and most productive people aren’t from a particular Tendency but rather those who have figured out HOW to harness their strengths and counteract their weaknesses.

Knowing other people’s Tendencies makes it much easier to persuade them, to encourage them to take action and to avoid conflict. If we do not consider a person’s Tendency, our words may be ineffective or even counterproductive. Also, when we understand other people’s Tendencies, we are more tolerant of them. We understand that the person’s behaviour isn’t aimed at us personally.

What’s your Tendency? Can you pinpoint what other people’s Tendencies are? I’ll talk more about how to effectively communicate to each of the Four Tendencies in part two of this article next week. For now, I’ll end it with this reminder:

To communicate well, we must speak using the “right language” – not phrasing the message in a way that would work most effectively for us, but curating the message that the listener will most likely react to. In other words, we must tailor our arguments to appeal to different Tendencies.

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