The Nonprofit Bookshelf: What are the Four Tendencies? And how can knowing these help your organization?


We’re big fans of Gretchen Rubin over here at Whole Whale. So when she released her latest book, The Four Tendencies, we dove right in. One of the most influential authors writing about happiness and human nature, Rubin has the ability to simplify the complex in a humorous way that is widely accessible to many audiences.
The Four Tendencies helps individuals to answer the question, “How do I respond to expectations?” Through years of research, Rubin discovered that people fall into 4 categories when answering this question: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. These 4 categories are ways of divining whether an individual is more likely to meet outer expectations, inner expectations, both, or neither. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to happiness and productivity, below we dive into each tendency and explain how knowing this framework can help you and your organization be healthier, happier, and more productive.
Now on the #NonprofitBookshelf: Our resident Rebel on @GretchenRubin's The Four Tendencies — and why knowing them will help your organization. Click To Tweet


Upholders make up only 19% of the population (the second smallest group, behind Rebels) and are people who can easily meet both outer and inner expectations. Your boss gives you a deadline at work? Done. And probably done early. You decide you want to exercise 3 times a week? No problem. Upholders like to know what the expectations are and they love to meet them.
While this may seem like the dream tendency, there are pros and cons to be had with each one. Rubin explains one downside with Upholders (that can also be an upside in certain situations) is something called “tightening.” This is when Upholders have trouble letting go of the rules or quitting a habit that no longer serves them. They also tend to have trouble thinking outside of the box.
If your organization has an Upholder, make sure the goals, expectations, and rules at work are very clear. You won’t need to hover over their shoulder to make sure they get work done; they will happily get work done on their own. Just don’t expect them to come up with crazy, innovative ideas — save those for the Rebels.


Questioners, like they sound, question all expectations. They will easily meet an outer or inner expectation — if it meets their personal standard. They will reject outer expectations that don’t make sense to their own inner beliefs, and turn outer expectations into inner expectations when they do.
This tendency is obviously a little tricky at work. If someone is a Questioner and they don’t agree with the expectation you have set for them, good luck trying to get them to meet it! Questioners may seem annoying and draining to others on the team because they ask so many questions, but know that these questions help these individuals understand why a task or goal is important.
If your organization has a Questioner, make sure to answer their questions and clarify the importance of what they are being asked to do. From there, they will happily oblige.


Speaking of obliging, up next we have the largest group: Obligers! These individuals readily meet outer expectations, but have trouble meeting their own goals. Obligers are motivated by external accountability; they want to know what they have to do each day.
Unlike Upholders who can easily meet expectations by themselves, Obligers will be more productive at work if they have oversight and deadlines.
If your organization has an Obliger, know that they will happily do whatever they are tasked with. Just make sure to have scheduled check ins to go over their work.


And finally, we have the Rebels. Rebels make up the smallest group at only 17% of the population. It’s a good thing that they are the smallest group (speaking as a Rebel myself), because Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. They wake up in the morning and think, “What do I want to do today?” If someone asks them or tells them to do something, they usually want to do the opposite. This can be a very frustrating tendency to work with (sorry, George).
Oversight, deadlines, and supervision can ignite a Rebel’s resistance. They’ll be more productive if they have freedom and choice. Do you want to work on A or B? At Whole Whale, we work on a two-week work cycle (or sprint if Scrum is your thing) with a number of tasks to be completed in that cycle. That said, it’s up to us to determine what we do each day and when we get certain tasks done.
If your organization has a Rebel, this sort of project management system can work great because it offers the freedom to decide how they want to spend their work day. And if you need out-of-the-box ideas, Rebels are your go-to because it taps into their tendency to resist the norm.
Do you know what tendency you are? Take the quiz and let us know on Twitter @WholeWhale! We’d love to hear how you find productivity and happiness at work based on your ability to meet outer and inner expectations.


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