Communicators—and all humans—can learn a lot, can reduce conflict and misunderstandings, and can get better at their work with just a small amount of insight and empathy, says Gretchen Rubin, the author of the 2017 New York Times best-seller “The Four Tendencies.”
Rubin was the keynote speaker at a recent Communications Leadership Council retreat, with a presentation entitled, “Which Personality Tendency Makes the Best Communicator?”
Her book outlines the “Four Tendencies” framework, developed to help people identify their personality profile, based on how they respond to expectations. In just about any role people play, Rubin says, whether as a boss, employee, spouse, parent, or more, it’s important to know both our own as well as other people’s Tendencies. “It’s hard to grasp just how differently we all see the world,” she says. “When we can see other people’s perspectives, we understand why, from their point of view, their actions make sense.”
Knowing which personality type we are helps us understand how we respond to both internal and external expectations, and by doing so, reduces cognitive dissonance, and in the case of professional communicators, can make them better at their work.
- Outer expectations represent what others expect of us. It could be work deadlines, it could be helping out a friend, or even maintaining certain standards of behavior.
- Inner expectations are what we expect of ourselves. This could be keeping a New Year’s resolution, or hitting a career milestone, or having a nice vacation house.
People’s responses to these expectations define which of the Four Tendencies they fall into—that is, Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel. Here’s how Rubin defines each of the four.
Upholders. These are people for whom discipline is their freedom. They like lists. They like setting goals, even daily ones, and hitting them. Upholders readily meet outer and inner expectations. The love calendars. It can be hard for them to be comfortable if something is ambiguous. “If you are an upholder you have to keep in mind your inner expectations,” Rubin says. But upholders can seem a little cold. Things that come so easily to them don’t come so easily to others.
Questioners. Questioners push back against anything they perceive as arbitrary. They focus on justifications. Everything they do is based on their own inner standards of expectations. For outer expectations, they say, “I’ll comply if you convince me why,” Rubin says. “That’s their motto.”
But Questioners can sometimes have analysis paralysis. They find it tough to exit the spiral of research, Rubin says.
Obligers. In Rubin’s definition, Obligers readily meet their external expectations, but sometimes struggle with their internal ones. Their motto might be, “You can count on me, and I’m counting on you to count on me,” she says. But if they try to meet an inner expectation, it has to have some form of outer accountability attached. Obligers are the people who can learn the most about themselves from learning about their Tendency. Obligers, Rubin says, are the largest Tendency, both for men and women.
People who work with Obligers need to understand this Tendency. “The one thing that really does show up is Obliger rebellion in the workplace,” Rubin says. “It can be small—I’m not going to answer your emails. Or it can be: I quit.” If they feel unheard, ignored, exploited, or taken advantage of, it can be explosive. Rubin’s advice is to head that off and not let it build to where the person rebels. Because these are generally people who go the extra mile.
Rebels. Then there are the Rebels. They do what they want to do what they want to do it, in their own way. Their motto is “You can’t make me, and neither can I.” There is tremendous power in the Rebel Tendency, Rubin says. And yet, if there is someone who resists everything you ask, it can be hard to deal with. What do you do? Rubin says one thing is to appeal to the identity itself. You are an artist, you are a boss, you are a responsible parent. “You can say, when you don’t come to the staff meeting, it makes people feel like you don’t care what we have to say,” Rubin suggests. “You can tell the rebel the consequences of their reaction or inaction, and then you let them decide.”
When you see a Rebel paired up, it is almost always with an Obliger.
Knowing our Tendency, says Rubin (who defines herself as an Upholder), can help us set up situations in the ways that make it more likely that we’ll achieve our aims. We can make better decisions, meet deadlines, meet our promises to ourselves, suffer less stress, and engage more deeply with others. Just as important, knowing other people’s Tendencies helps us to work with them more effectively.