Making the Four Tendencies Work for You

Last year at InfoComm, a friend from the industry who follows me on various social media platforms came up to me and said something like this, “I hate you! You’re so productive! How do you manage to work a difficult job, raise a kid, run half marathons and make craft projects?” I said something about not sleeping much and we moved on, but his question stuck with me. I figured I’d write a blog post with some productivity tips, but I never got around to it (ironic, right?).

I’m glad I didn’t, because I just read a book that changed my entire way of thinking when it comes to productivity.

It all started with a recent episode of one of my favorite podcasts (Note to Self), that featured an appearance by Gretchen Rubin, a happiness expert. On the podcast, Rubin explained the research that she’s done about habits and motivation, and what she calls the “four tendencies.” Basically, when it comes to the things that motivate us and the way that we react to expectations, there are four different kinds of people: upholders, obligers, questioners and rebels.

Upholders are externally and internally motivated. If something makes it onto their to-do list, they will do it. Obligers respond to external motivations. If someone asks them to take care of something, they will do it. Questioners ask about the motivations behind everything. If they think that something makes sense, they will take care of it. Rebels chafe under expectations. They hate the very idea of a to-do list.

(I’m not a best-selling author or noted happiness expert, so if all of this interests you, I would suggest checking out Rubin’s website and books. I binge-read “Better Than Before” and I found it incredibly enlightening.)

Obligers are far and away the most common tendency, followed by questioners. Upholders and rebels are both fairly rare. I am an upholder living in a world that’s mostly made up of obligers. My productivity tips would have been next to useless for most rAVe readers, because most rAVe readers don’t have that same burning desire to clear everything off of their to-do list that I have. I am incredibly productive, but I’ve also learned that I have to do a better job of policing what makes it on to my list. If I bite off more than I can chew, I get overwhelmingly stressed out. And even if someone else tells me not to worry about taking care of something, a little voice inside me still yells at me for dropping the ball.

What does this have to do with AV? You have to understand what motivates your team if you want to help them to be happy and productive.

Say you have a checklist that needs to be filled out before any job can be signed off on. It’s long, detailed, probably a little bit dull. But you need it to be followed diligently. If you gave that list to an upholder such as myself, you wouldn’t have to worry too much about it. I would check every box on that sheet, no questions asked. And if you came back to me halfway through my checks and asked me for a progress update, I would probably grumble at you for micro-managing me.

(It’s probably no coincidence that when I worked as an on-site tech, I was the only technician that was really gung-ho about making sure that we took care of all of our weekly room checks and filled out all of the paperwork.)

But most people aren’t like me. Most people need external expectations, which means that you could hand them that same checklist, but you’d need to make it clear that the team was counting on them to take care of it. And if it was a particularly long checklist, you might need to touch base with them to see how it was going. What if you had a questioner on your team? They would need a real explanation of why the checklist was important. Rebels? Rebels’ motivations tend to be wrapped up in their identities, so they might say, “I’m not the kind of person who can’t handle a measly checklist.” But, honestly, I’d probably just figure out a way to delegate the checklist to someone else on the team so we knew it would get taken care of.

I think we’re all aware that a one size fits all approach doesn’t work when it comes to managing employee expectations and responsibilities. But I also think it’s really useful to have a framework that you can use to understand everybody’s working styles. I have some questioning tendencies, so explaining why we’re doing something is often very helpful to me. But, as I said before, I hate being micro-managed. Giving someone a progress report often feels like a waste of time that could be better spent getting shit done. Obligers, on the other hand, need that external accountability. An intermediate report gives them a more manageable goal and a deadline.

Understanding the four tendencies can also give us a framework for helping our teams work together. Rubin mentions in her book that, when it comes to happy marriages with a rebel in them, most of them also feature an obliger. It makes sense, really. If one person hates the very idea of a weekly chore list, then you need someone who will be motivated to make sure that the pets get fed. By that same token, an upholder and a rebel could seriously butt heads with each other. When you’re picking programmers, techs and project managers to work together on a job, it will make things run a lot more smoothly if you make sure you get the right mix of the four tendencies. When it comes to my checklist example, it might pay to think outside of the box. Maybe the project manager is supposed to be in charge of the list. But if you have a lead technician who is an upholder, everyone might be happier and more productive if you shift everything around to have the tech take on the checklist.

If you find the four tendencies interesting, Rubin has a lot more information, as well as a quiz, on her website. And I would highly recommend Better Than Before. It taught me a lot about managing my own internal expectations, triaging tasks so that I don’t get overwhelmed, as well as the importance of scheduling downtime (upholders love to schedule everything).