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The Four Tendencies - Summary and Application

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

Previously, we looked at the DISC personality framework, which tells us how to communicate with others and how people prefer to do work. This article will talk about another personality framework: The Four Tendencies. This framework was developed by Gretchen Rubin, an American writer who studies happiness. She wrote a whole book on it.

This personality tests is useful because it answers the question, “How do I get people—including myself—to do what I want them to do?

The Four Tendencies test is a narrow personality test that measures two things:

  1. How readily you meet inner expectations

  2. How readily you meet outer expectations

Inner expectations are things you expect of yourself. A common example is a New Year’s resolution. If you can easily meet goals that you set for yourself, then you readily meet inner expectations.

Outer expectations are things that other people expect from you. A common example is a friend asking you to go to the gym with him/her to exercise together. If you tend to do things because other people asked you to (especially when you don’t really want to), then you readily meet outer expectations.

There are four possible personality types in the Four Tendencies:

  1. Upholder: readily meets inner and outer expectations

  2. Questioner: readily meets inner expectations only

  3. Obliger: readily meets outer expectations only

  4. Rebel: resists both inner and outer expectations

You can take a formal quiz here:

Or you can pick a statement that matches you:

  1. Upholder: I love routines, and people think I’m extremely disciplined.

  2. Questioner: I love researching, and people sometimes say that I ask “Why?” too much.

  3. Obliger: I put others ahead of me, and I value harmony in relationships.

  4. Rebel: I value freedom and choice; I do what I want to do, when I want to do it.

Mottos for each Tendency

According to a representative sample, the distribution of the tendencies is 41% Obligers, 24% Questioners, 19% Upholders, and 17% Rebels.

This article will explain each tendency in detail, then look at examples of applying the Four Tendencies in real life, and then answer some FAQs.

If you are a Rebel or Obliger, I strongly encourage you to learn about your Tendency because traditional advice often does not work for these two Tendencies.

Here's a click-able table of contents to help you navigate the article:

1. Upholder: Discipline is My Freedom.

Upholders readily meet inner and outer expectations. They are highly disciplined and love schedules, rules, and routines.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Upholders

For strengths, Upholders are highly productive and can easily form habits. They rarely have trouble getting themselves to do things.

For weaknesses, they might seem rigid and cold because they don't like changing plans, and they usually prioritize meeting their needs over other people's needs. They might also experience upholder-tightening, which is when they start a new habit and can't relax. For example, they start a habit of walking 10,000 steps, and even when they have a really busy day, they'll stay up late a night to finish that goal.

Working with Yourself as an Upholder

Upholders might find themselves with too much things to do, and feel like they're not getting the important things done. To overcome this problem, clearly articulate your priorities, and perhaps have different to-do lists rather than one big one.

Working with Upholders

When working with Upholders, it's important to give them prior notice. As long as they have enough time to help you, they usually will.

2. Questioners: I'll comply...If you convince me why.

Questioners turn all outer expectations into inner expectations if they believe its reasonable and efficient. Thus, Questioners only meet inner expectations.

Some random characteristics of Questioners: They hate waiting in line, they love spreadsheets, and they love sharing articles.

“Questioners have the self-direction of Upholders, the reliability of Obligers, and the authenticity of Rebels.”

— Gretchen Rubin

Strengths and Weaknesses of Questioners

Questioners excel at being logical and efficient in everything they do. But they can also be viewed as annoying for their constant questioning unless they are very socially adept when asking those questions. They also need to be wary of analysis-paralysis, which is when they spend too long researching that they take action too late.

Working with Yourself as a Questioner

Questioners are generally pretty happy with themselves, but they can get frustrated at others for doing things that seem illogical or inefficient. To overcome this frustration, just remind yourself that you are only 24% of the population.

If you need to do something that you think is illogical or inefficient, you can always tell yourself, "Maybe this task is illogical/inefficient, but it's important to someone I care about or respect. So I will do it for them."

If you find yourself getting into analysis-paralysis, simply give yourself a deadline.

Working with a Questioner

Questioners can add value to relationships and organizations by ensuring people don’t unthinkingly accept expectations that aren’t justified or efficient. They key with Questioners is justification. Once they accept an expectation, you can count on them to deliver (and maybe even improve upon a process for you.)

Ironically, many Questioners resist being questioned because they think, “If I made this decision, I obviously researched it thoroughly. It’s not my fault if you didn’t do your research on the topic.

Questioners also hate questions that are a waste of time. Their first thought is always, “Why should I bother answering this question?” If, upon reflection, you realize your question doesn’t really need to be answered, then let it go. If the question is important, then ask the Questioner to share their thought process and logic. They enjoy that.

3. Obligers: You can count on me...and I'm counting on you to count on me!

Obligers NEED outer accountability to meet any inner expectation. For this reason, they gain the most from learning about their tendency.

When what others expect from Obligers is what they expect from themselves, they have the life they want.” – Gretchen Rubin

Strengths and Weaknesses of Obligers

Obligers are the easiest tendency to get along with because they are naturally harmonious. But they often get frustrated at themselves for being unable to meet internal goals and may struggle with self-care.

Working with Yourself as an Obliger

It’s worth mentioning again that Obligers NEED outer accountability to meet an inner goal. It’s not a sign of weakness; it’s just different wiring in the brain. Fortunately, there’s always ways to create accountability.

Obligers also vary dramatically in what makes them feel accountable. For some Obligers, a simple cellphone reminder may be enough. For others, they may need supervision or monitoring from others. Here are some ideas for creating accountability:

  • Deadlines to someone else whose opinion you care about

  • Monitoring via an app or a person (like a paid coach)

  • Thinking of yourself as a role model to those around you

  • Thinking of what your “future self” would expect of your “current self”

  • Spending someone else’s money for a class/course (rather than your own money)

  • Getting an accountability partner (like a gym buddy or a reading buddy)

Unfortunately, Obligers are often taken advantage of, which leads to resentment. If an Obliger is faced with prolonged expectations that are unfair, unrealistic, nagging, or makes them feel taken for granted, an Obliger can fall into Obliger-Rebellion. When this happens, they will stop meeting all expectations and often do sudden and dramatic things like ending a marriage with an ungrateful spouse or quitting a job due to unfair treatment. After a period of time, even if nothing changes, the Obliger-Rebellion will end and the Obliger will go back to normal, but those burnt bridges will be forever burnt.

To prevent Obliger-Rebellion, Obligers must stand up for themselves. This can be very hard as its against their nature. Unfortunately, Obligers can't count on other tendencies to stand up for them because they are all used to standing up for themselves (so they expect you to do the same). If you want to be free of these unfair expectations, the simple act of bringing it up in a conversation can often be enough.

If you are struggling to say no to other people despite feeling overwhelmed, you can remind yourself that saying no to someone is actually saying yes to someone else or something else that's more important.

Working with an Obliger

Obligers are like the adhesive in a relationship or a team. They bring people together and focus on maintaining good relationships. Just be careful to not take advantage of them.

As mentioned earlier, Obligers are often taken advantage of, so we need to do our part in making sure they are treated fairly. If you are unsure if you are taking advantage of someone, simply ask yourself, "If I was in their shoes, would I feel like I'm being treated unfairly or taken advantage of?"

If the answer is yes, the Obliger probably feels that way too but just isn't speaking up. Help fix the unfairness to mitigate the risk of Obliger-Rebellion.

When you ask an Obliger to do something, remember to give them a deadline. Even if you don't think it's necessary, Obligers need it to feel motivated to start.

One special situation with Obligers is that they might not meet the expectations of their spouse or close partner. That's because they see their spouse as so close to them that they ignore their expectations just like how they ignore their own expectations! The solution is to talk about it and become aware of it. That might fix it. If not, then look for other sources of accountability.

4. Rebels: You can't make me...and neither can I.

Rebels what to do what they want to do, in their own way, and on their own time. If someone else tells them to do the exact same thing, they will resist. They don’t even want to tell themselves to do something. They prefer to act from freedom, choice, and self-expression.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Rebels

Rebels are naturally authentic and enjoy overcoming challenges. Since Rebels resist all expectations, they may be viewed as inconsiderate or uncooperative.

Rebels also might struggle with themselves because conventional advice doesn’t work for them. They are told to set goals and to get outer accountability by all the other tendencies, but those things actually make it harder for Rebels to do things.

Working with Yourself as a Rebel

Rebels can do anything they want to do, so self-understanding is key for Rebels. They should get clarity on their values and use their values as decision criteria for whether or not to do things. For example, “I am a good partner, so I will take responsibility for my fair share of chores regardless of what my partner wants me to do.

A Rebel can sometimes feel unproductive because the thought of having to do things makes them not want to do it anymore. The solution is to re-frame the tasks as a choice, challenge, or game. For example, instead of making a to-do list, a Rebel can make a could-do list and just do the things they feel like doing at that time. Another idea is to put a bunch of tasks on small folded-pieces of paper in a bowl. Then draw randomly from the bowl and do that item. This makes it a game of chance, but you can still be very productive this way.

When others ask Rebels to do something, they can feel less motivated to do it even if they originally wanted to do it. In these situations, a Rebel can remember, “I’m free to do something even if someone else wants me to do it.” After all, not doing something because someone else asked is just as un-free as doing it because someone asked.

Working with a Rebel

The other tendencies tend to lack understanding for Rebels, making everyone’s lives harder. When communicating with rebels, we should use this sequence: Information-Consequence-Choice.

Here is an example of what a school counselor might say to a Rebel student who doesn’t want to do her volunteer hours:

To graduate high school, students must complete 100 volunteer hours. Students who start earlier as a freshman of sophomore have more choices about projects and when to do it. The longer students wait, the less choices they have. I know seniors who lost their spring break because they had to spend that time doing their service hours. My door is open whenever you'd like to talk about choosing a service project.”

After giving the Information-Consequence-Choice message, don't monitor or nag them. They do best without supervision.

If a Rebel refuses to do something, don't save them from the consequences. They need to experience the painful consequences for them to learn the importance of something.

Another way to motivate a Rebel is to challenge their identity. For example, instead of asking them to stop being late, say “Why do you keep being late? That’s just so inconsiderate!” If the Rebel doesn’t want to be seen as inconsiderate by you, he/she will likely be on time in the future.

A third way to motivate a Rebel is to challenge their ability. For example, you can say, “Well, it’s hard for many people to stay fit and healthy these days, so I’m not surprised you’re struggling too.” A statement like that may light a fire within a Rebel to prove themselves capable of overcoming that challenge.

How I’ve Applied the Four Tendencies to My Life

I know the tendencies of everyone that’s important to me or that I have to interact with on a regular basis. This allows me to predict their behavior in terms of responding to their inner and outer expectations.

Example 1: Mom, Upholder

I realized my mom is an Upholder because she always preaches rules to me, she loves to-do lists and calendars, she’s very uptight about planning and wanting things to go as planned, and she gets things done fast.

I also used to get frustrated when she’d preach to me what her family thinks about my non-traditional career path. As a Questioner, I got frustrated because their opinions are illogical to me. But now, I know that my mom is influenced a lot more by the opinions of others because she’s an Upholder.

To increase harmony, I simply accept her for her Upholder nature, and I comply with her expectations, even if it's illogical or inefficient at times, because she's important to me. Harmony is king. I can communicate logic later when we are both in a good mood.

Example 2: Obliger Friends

I have a few good friends who are Obligers. They are very easy to get along with, as expected. When my Obliger friends tell me about a goal they have, I try to hold them accountable for it and tell them I’ll follow up with them because I know they need outer accountability. I don’t get frustrated at them anymore if they talk about something they’ve wanted to do for a while but just haven’t started. I know it’s because they lacked outer accountability and not because they’re lazy.

Example 3: Questioner Colleagues

I have a few colleagues that I have to work with regularly who are Questioners. It’s so easy for me because I’m a Questioner too. I know they don’t mind my thorough justifications and focus on efficiency.

One time, a Questioner was trying to fix the print view of a document. She wanted it to fit the full page, but she couldn’t figure out how. She bothered other colleagues (mostly Obligers), and they couldn’t figure it out either. She was stuck and bothering people for at least 30 minutes. They tried to tell her to just move on, but she wouldn’t listen. That’s because she’s a Questioner, and Questioners only respond to inner expectations.

Eventually I noticed the situation and went to talk her. I said, “Is the margins a problem?” She said, “Yes. It looks bad.” I said, “Will the client not accept this if the print version has big margins?” She said no. I asked, “Will the client even care if the print version has big margins. No they won’t. So you don’t need to waste any more of your time on this unimportant issue!” She had an “Aha” moment and stopped worrying about it.

As a Questioner, she needed to understand very clearly WHY she should stop worrying about this task.

Example 4: Rebel Friends

My Rebel friends are probably the most fun and interesting to be with because they’re very spontaneous and like to try new things. It’s also very hard to get them to commit to a plan. If I ask them, “Do you want to go for dinner Saturday?” I’m likely to get a response along the lines of, “I’ll see how I feel Saturday night.” To a Rebel, the question seems so restricting in terms of timing and what we’d do.

I now know it’s better to be less specific and appeal to their identity. So I might ask, “Do you wanna hang out this weekend? Maybe Saturday? We should do something fun!” This way, they have choice in the timing and what we do.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. Is there a best Tendency? Isn’t Upholder the best?

No. Each tendency has their own strengths and weaknesses. The happiest, wealthiest, and most productive people are those who built a life that leverages their strengths and figured out how to work around their weaknesses.

2. Can I change my Tendency?

No. Besides, why would you even want to? No tendency is better than another.

3. Can I be multiple Tendencies at one?

No. People fit squarely into one of the four tendencies. If you want to get into more detail, then technically, people fit into one of 8 primary-secondary combinations:

  1. Upholder-Questioner

  2. Upholder-Obliger

  3. Obliger-Upholder

  4. Obliger-Rebel

  5. Questioner-Upholder

  6. Questioner-Rebel

  7. Rebel-Obliger

  8. Rebel-Questioner

Basically, you can lean towards a neighboring Tendency, but you cannot lean towards an opposite Tendency.

For example, a Questioner-Upholder is more likely to meet outer expectations than a Questioner-Rebel.

4. Doesn’t everyone fit into every Tendency?

Everyone responds to logic (not just Questioners). Everyone meets expectations if it’s important to someone we care about (not just Obligers and Upholders). Everyone desires freedom of choice (not just Rebels). But your tendency tells you your primary response driver to the question, “How do you respond to inner and outer expectations?”

5. Are there specific career choices that fit each Tendency best?

Any Tendency can do well at any career. The most productive and innovative workplaces have all four Tendencies. If you are already in a certain career, figure out how you can use your Tendency to suit that career.

That being said, there are certain career fields that may suit certain Tendencies. For example, fields that reward question asking, like in the academic field, might naturally suit Questioners. Fields like entrepreneurship, where you get lots of freedom and have to carve your own path, might naturally suit Rebels.

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