How to Get Along While Getting Things Done

by Jeannie Sullivan, Learning Strategist and Business Coach

Our world is full of expectations. We have them of ourselves and constantly place them on others. Whether it’s a big project or household chores, expectations make the world go ’round.

Let’s imagine that you get an email from your boss today about a big meeting coming up next week. In the email, he tells you that everyone will need to wear their blue shirts with the company logo that day. What is your immediate response?

A.    Sure thing, I know exactly where it is.

B.    But, why do we have to wear the blue one? Won’t any company shirt do just fine?

C.    Of course, I’m not going to be the only one in the wrong shirt.

D.    Ugh, I’m not wearing that awful blue shirt.

How do you respond to expectations?

According to Gretchen Rubin, author of bestselling book The Four Tendencies, we all have a natural instinct in how we respond to expectations. And our typical response can vary based on whether the expectation is an internal one we place upon ourselves or an external expectation placed upon us.  The Four Tendencies is a framework that explains every aspect of our behavior including decision making, productivity, and communication. People fit into one of Four Tendencies: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels.

What are The Four Tendencies?

Upholders, as they are called in the framework, readily meet internal and external expectations. This means that upholders consistently complete everything on their to-do lists, including the early morning trip to the gym. If you answered, “Sure thing, I know exactly where it is” to the question above, you are likely an upholder.

Questioners meet internal expectations and need to understand the “why” behind external expectations to meet them. They resist arbitrary rules and expectations unless they clearly understand the reason behind them. If you answered “But, why…” to your boss’ request, you are probably a Questioner.

Obligers tend to meet external expectations, but not internal expectations. The majority of our population falls into this category that thrives on traditional accountability structures like having a workout buddy or an assigned task (with a due date). Was your answer “Of course, I’m not going to be the only one in the wrong shirt?” If so, you are most likely an Obliger.

Rebels traditionally resist both internal and external expectations, with the exception of any expectation that connects to their identity. Whereas Questioners need to understand the reason behind the expectation, Rebels need to relate the expectation to who they are.  This tendency often shows up as a negative first response, like in option D above: “Ugh, I’m not wearing that awful blue shirt.” However, if the Rebel in this example identifies as an “exceptional team member,” then their response might be: “I really don’t want to wear that awful blue shirt, but of course I will because I’m all about teamwork.”

How can The Four Tendencies can change your life, for the better?

I was first introduced to the framework as I was listening to Rubin’s book, Better Than Before. I’d always been frustrated by my lack of ability to find success within traditional productivity systems, and as someone who’s constantly seeking professional and personal growth - this book on habits quickly found a place at the top of my reading (well, listening) list.

And I’m so glad it did! The concepts presented in this book offered me personal freedom from a perception of productivity that didn’t work for me. By the end of her book, I recognized that I was a Rebel, a sprinter and a moderator - three characteristics that had defined my lack of success in creating change in my life and business - simply because I didn’t understand how to leverage them (instead of succumbing to them).

But what I also realized is that the wisdom of Rubin’s work, specifically The Four Tendencies framework, could transform my work with individual clients, teams and organizations.

So how does all this fit into my work as a coach?

When working with clients individually, understanding their tendency helps me adapt an accountability structure to enable their success - which is the outcome I expected. But a couple of unexpected outcomes showed up as well.

For example, I recognized that people typically expect others to respond to expectations as they do - which creates many communication mishaps at work. For example, when an Upholder expects an Obliger to complete a task without a deadline attached, all sorts of assumptions can arise and frustration ensues. In coaching, this often shows up as “What in the world do I do about this employee who won’t complete her tasks on time? Does she not even want a job?” Often, this “problem employee” simply needs a deadline to go with the task. Problem solved.

Where can I learn more about The Four Tendencies?

I recommend that you dive into understanding your own tendency, as well as the tendencies of those who you work with closely. Becoming aware of others’ tendencies will help you set expectations in a way that is more likely to keep you getting along and getting things done as a team. You can take an online quiz to determine your tendency here: The Four Tendencies Quiz.


To learn more about the Four Tendencies watch this interview with Jeannie Sullivan , part of the Association’s Human Intelligence series.