How Understanding Personality Tendencies Can Help You in the Workplace

by Kelly A. Cherwin

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We all have different personalities, different work styles, different expectations, and different ways of thinking. As the leader of a team, we may sometimes struggle to understand others’ personalities or tendencies and ask ourselves, “Why don’t they act like I do?” or “Why won’t they meet the deadline?” or “Why are they asking so many questions?”

At the recent SHRM Talent Conference & ExpositionGretchen Rubin discussed her book, “The Four Tendencies“and explained how recognizing and understanding personality profiles can make you happier, more productive, and more effective both at the office and at home.

The four tendencies are defined as:

  • Upholders: Their motto is “discipline is my freedom.” They meet outer expectations and they meet inner expectations.
  • Questioners: They live by “I’ll comply-if you convince me why.” They resist outer expectations and meet inner expectations.
  • Obligors: Their pledge is “You can count on me, and I’m counting on you to count on me.” They meet outer expectations and resist inner expectations.
  • Rebels: Their creed is “You can’t make me, and neither can I.” They resist outer expectations as well as resist inner expectations.

As Rubin explains, there is no “best” tendency. The people that are usually the healthiest, the happiest, and the most productive “have figured out how to harness the strengths from their particular tendency, counteract weaknesses, and build the lives that work for them.”

Why Do the Four Tendencies Matter in the Workplace?
According to Rubin, if we don’t understand the four tendencies, we may have unrealistic assumptions of how people may change. It is important to be aware of the tendencies so we are more tolerant of them. This is not to say that as a leader you throw your hands up and allow your team to act however they want, but by understanding the profiles you are better equipped to react to the situation and guide them, persuade them, or encourage them in a way in which they’ll thrive.

Rubin says, “The fact is, if we want to communicate, we must speak the right language — not the message that would work most effectively with us, but the message that would persuade the listener.”

Tips on How to Manage Each of the Four Tendencies
Upholders have many strengths such as being self-motivated and reliable, but they can also often take on too much and have difficulties if things don’t go according to plan or if guidelines are ambiguous. A manager can counteract this by setting clear goals and expectations and helping the upholder understand priorities. A manager can also encourage an upholder to try and delegate tasks.

Questioners are interested in making systems more efficient and effective. They are often data driven and will accept authority with justification. However, these strengths may result in certain weaknesses such as over-analyzing or being unable to accept closure on matters if he/she still has questions that delays projects. Advice on how to deal with a questioner is to set limitations since this will force action. If a questioner has the task of hiring a new person for the department, without limitations he or she may interview 30 people and take months to decide due to the numerous questions each candidate could create. However, if a manager gives a questioner the guideline of interviewing the top six candidates and then narrowing it down to the top three with an offer extended by a specific date, the questioner will be forced to make decisions.

Obligers Respond to outer accountability and feel an obligation to meet others’ expectations. However, because of these qualities, obligers are susceptible to being taken advantage of because they aren’t able to say “no.” A manager needs to impose accountability measures on an obliger and remind them that it is okay to say “no” to projects that can derail other priorities. A manager must be careful that the obliger is not overextending themselves by taking on too much.

Rebels strive for flexibility in their work and their schedules and prefer not to report to people. However, what if you are managing a rebel? Give them a challenge and the opportunity to meet the challenge in their own way. Perhaps a certain deadline, a presentation, or a report could be completed in a way they feel is best.

It is important for managers to remember that no single tendency is the “right” tendency to have. Furthermore, some people can exhibit different tendencies at various times as tendencies can overlap. However, by managers recognizing that different personality tendencies exist, they can not only better understand the people they manage, but also use varying approaches to management depending on the tendency being displayed. Adapting management to address the four personality tendencies can increase the efficiency, productivity, and enjoyment of a workplace.

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