The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (And Other People’s Lives Better, Too) is a book by Gretchen Rubin that presents a personality profile framework about how people deal with outer and inner expectations.
One aspect of this framework and book that I particularly like is that Rubin doesn’t try to explain too much of an individual’s personality with her framework. She writes,
I think that many personality frameworks cram too many elements into their categories. By contrast, the Four Tendencies describes only one narrow aspect of a person’s character—a vitally important aspect, but still just one of the multitude of qualities that form an individual. The Four Tendencies explain why we act and why we don’t act.
The book suggests taking a quiz (here is the link) to discover our own tendency. It takes only five minutes.
The Four Tendencies are:
- Upholders. They meet inner and outer expectations. They love rules, having a clear plan and are self-motivated and disciplined. Clearly tell them what needs to be done and they’ll lead the way.
- Questioners. They meet their own expectations, but resist outer ones. They need to see purpose and reason in anything they do. Make it clear why what you want from them is important.
- Obligers. They meet other peoples’ expectations easily, but struggle with their own. The must be held accountable by a friend, coach or boss to get things done. They thrive when they have a sense of duty and can work in a team.
- Rebels. The defy both outer and inner expectations. Above all, they want to be free to choose and express their own individuality. Give them the facts, present the task as a challenge and let them decide without pressure.
My wife Giovanna took the quiz a few weeks ago, and according to the Four Tendencies Framework she is an “Obliger.” We were not surprised by the results. There are specific ways in which Giovanna responds to inner and outer expectations that fit the description of an obliger.
So what does it mean to be an Obliger?
“Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet inner expectations. They’re motivated by external accountability; they wake up and think, “What must I do today?”
This description matches our experience. Giovanna sometimes goes to great lengths to meet external expectations. For example, she doesn’t like to be late to the point that often she ends up being quite early to appointments or meetings. She takes her assignments and responsibilities very seriously and she doesn’t want to disappoint people, even when it goes against her interest.
“Obligers excel at meeting external demands and deadlines and go to great lengths to meet their responsibilities, so they make terrific colleagues, leaders, family members, and friends.”
Giovanna is in fact a great wife, daughter, and mother. At work people can rely on her.
“Others rely on them, but because Obligers resist inner expectations, it can be difficult for them to meet their aims for themselves, in the absence of external accountability—to work on a Ph.D. thesis, to attend networking events, to get their car serviced.”
When we first read about this aspect of the obliger’s personality, it was a real eye opener. We began to understand better why it may be hard sometimes for her to pursue personal goals, unless someone holds her accountable.
“Obligers depend on external accountability, with consequences such as deadlines, late fees, or the fear of letting other people down.
In fact, Obligers need external accountability even for activities that they want to do. If you want to read more, join a book group.”
This explains why Giovanna prefers to go to specific classes in the gym to keep herself fit, while I prefer to create my own plans and schedules. (I am an upholder, according to the Four Tendencies framework)
However, this focus and the weight of outer expectations,
“…can make Obligers susceptible to burnout, because they often have trouble setting limits or telling people “no.” They may, in fact, reach the point of “Obliger-rebellion,” a striking pattern in which they abruptly refuse to meet an expectation. Obliger-rebellion may take a form that’s small and symbolic, like deliberately being late to work. Or Obliger-rebellion may be dramatic and far-reaching, like abruptly quitting a job, getting a divorce, or ending a long friendship, with the feeling, “I’ve had it. This is over. You’re dead to me.””
The concept of the “obliger-rebellion” has helped me to understand why someone nice and dependable, in certain situations or with certain people may suddenly stop acting as one would expect.
Another interesting aspect of Rubin’s discussion about obligers is about how sometimes their behavior may appear to be driven by self-sacrifice or lack of self-esteem, while in fact is more of a consequence of their need for accountability.
“Why do I always make time for other people’s priorities at the expense of my own?” – may ask an obliger. The answer? “Because outer expectations provide you with the needed accountability.”
When Upholder and Obliger Pair Up
After describing the characteristics of each tendency, Gretchen Rubin discusses how people with different tendencies interact when they are paired up. She explains:
No relationship is doomed, or assured, based on the Tendencies. Nevertheless, when people from different Tendencies pair up—as romantic partners, as parent and child, as colleagues, or any other kind of pairing—certain patterns tend to emerge.
All tendencies pair up well with obligers, and the upholder is not exception. Giovanna and I have had an amazing 32 years together, and reading Rubin’s description of how obligers and upholders may interact (I am an upholder) confirmed some of the things I had noticed during our marriage.
“Upholders are gratified by the Obligers’ (mostly) reliable meeting of outer expectations, but they can become frustrated by Obligers’ inability to meet their own inner expectations.
“Also, they may be very unsympathetic to Obligers who feel pressured by
I had sometimes wondered why my wife would feel so much pressure to meet other people’s expectations, and I have often suggested her – with little success – to avoid stressing too much. But this because, being an upholder, I didn’t understand how strong is for her the need to meet outer expectations.
On the other hand, to Obligers, Upholders may seem
“cold or selfish, because Upholders may choose to meet an inner expectation even when it conflicts with an outer expectation.”
Our experience confirms that we have a different approach in balancing inner and outer expectations, and sometimes we need to make an effort not to be frustrated by how our spouse act in certain situations. But we need to remember that we have different ways of dealing with the same situations, and the framework is very useful to explain why.
As Rubin explains, “understanding the Tendencies can help reduce conflict.”
THE OTHER THREE TENDENCIES ARE DESCRIBED IN THESE ARTICLES:
- Upholders. They meet inner and outer expectations. They love rules, having a clear plan and are self-motivated and disciplined.
- Rebels. The defy both outer and inner expectations. Above all, they want to be free to choose and express their own individuality.
- Questioners. Meet their own expectations, but resist outer ones. They need to see purpose and reason in anything they do.
- Introduction to The Four Tendencies