How to Be the Perfect Boss for Every Employee, According to Happiness Expert Gretchen Rubin

People tend to respond to expectations in one of four different ways, according to Gretchen Rubin, bestselling author of The Four Tendencies and The Happiness Project. If you’re a company founder or manager, a big part of your job is setting expectations for others. Knowing which tendency you’re working with could boost your employees’ success–and your own.

In a webinar for Zoom members this week, Rubin described the four tendencies, and how best to motivate each of them. Obligers (which most people are) fulfill other people’s expectations, but often fall short of their own expectations for themselves. Questioners need to fully understand an expectation and why it matters before they fulfill it. Rebels dislike all expectations, even from themselves. Upholders are good at fulfilling other people’s expectations as well as their own but can be rigid. Rubin says she’s an Upholder, and according to her online quiz, I’m one too.

No tendency is better or worse than any other, Rubin said. “All of these tendencies include people who are wildly successful, and also people who are struggling.” But if you’re a leader, understanding these tendencies matters because the kind of approach that might truly motivate an Obliger will backfire badly with a Rebel, and vice versa. Here’s how Rubin says you can get the best performance out of each.

1. Obligers

“Obliger is the biggest tendency for both men and women. This is the one that most people belong to, so all of us want to understand the Obliger tendency,” Rubin said. “They make great team members, great leaders, and they’re often invaluable employees. They are the rock of the world.”

The down side of this is that, because Obligers are so good at fulfilling expectations, they’re often subject to burnout. You can fight this by encouraging them to take time off as appropriate. “Make sure to take time for you,” probably won’t work with this group, but “I’d like you to go home early because I need you fresh and well-rested for that meeting tomorrow,” just might.

You also need to make sure Obligers aren’t getting overburdened. “It’s not fair for one person to be on eleven committees when other people are on three or four, or for one person to do all the drudge work while other people skip out,” she said. Watch for signs that the Obliger may be feeling overburdened or neglected. Obligers can get pushed to the point of what Rubin calls “Obliger rebellion.” When that happens, it can have serious consequences, one of which could be that the Obliger leaves your company.

2. Questioners

“Questioners question all expectations,” Rubin said. “If they think it makes sense, they’ll do it, no problem. If it fails their inner standard, they will push back. Anything inefficient, unjustified, or arbitrary is a big thing for questioners.”

If you’re working with a Questioner, he or she may drive you crazy with endless questions about a task or a decision. You might even feel defensive if you think the Questioner doesn’t trust your judgment or respect your authority. Try not to take it personally.

Questioners can bog down a meeting. If that happens, consider having the Questioner put their questions into an email instead. They can also get bogged down themselves with endless research, especially when making a decision. Help them fight this tendency by setting limits on their decision-making process, for example by setting a deadline for the decision to be made. It may also help them to have a trusted authority. For example if someone they know and respect is using a certain piece of software and likes it, that may help the Questioner decide.

“By the way,” Rubin said, “If you are thinking, ‘I question the validity of this framework,’ you’re probably a Questioner. And also if you are thinking, ‘I very firmly fit in all four,’ that also is a sign of a Questioner because it means you respond in whatever way feels right to you in the circumstance.”

3. Rebels

Rebels are the least common of the four tendencies, Rubin said. In the right circumstances, their achievements can be spectacular. “They are so in touch with their passions and interests and values. If they decide they want to do something, they’re unstoppable,” she said.

Managing a Rebel takes patience and wisdom. “If you ask or tell them to do something, they’re very likely to resist,” Rubin said. “A lot of times, people with good intentions try to help Rebels, but trying to help them by reminding them, rescuing them, nudging, or encouraging them may actually ignite the spirit of resistance.” That could prevent the Rebel from doing something he or she might have done if only you hadn’t requested it.

A reader recently asked what she should do to help her laid-off Rebel husband find a new job. “Nothing,” Rubin said. “Do nothing. Do not write a list of helpful phone numbers and put it on the fridge. Do not say things like ‘Honey, maybe today’s a good day to call your Uncle Bob about that position. Don’t do anything.” She added, “This is harder than it sounds.”

The one useful thing you can do as a manager is tell the Rebel the consequences of a given action, or inaction. “Let’s say there’s a mandatory staff meeting,” Rubin said. “You might say to that co-worker, ‘Hey, you know we’ve got these staff meetings and at the meetings we distribute upcoming projects. We take the good ones for ourselves and we leave the boring projects for the people who skipped the meeting. The meeting’s at 10 a.m. Wednesday. Come or not, as you want.'”

4. Upholders

You may think Upholders need the least attention from a manager. They are great at meeting deadlines, and also great at setting boundaries and taking care of their own needs. But Upholders do need some direction, especially if they’re in a supervisory role themselves. “They can sometimes seem a little cold and judgmental because things that come pretty easily to Upholders are not so easy for people of other tendencies,” Rubin said. “Sometimes Upholders don’t understand that. They’re like, ‘If you could just make a list and do it. I don’t understand what the problem is and I don’t want to be your babysitter.'”

Upholders can also be rigid. “It’s very hard for them when things are ambiguous and they can feel uneasy when it’s not clear what the rules are or what success looks like,” Rubin said. This can make it tough for them to work well with Rebels in particular, because Rebels are all about being spontaneous and ignoring the rules.

Taking your employees’ tendencies into account when you work with them–and your own tendency as well–can help you be a better leader and interact well with others. Rubin even says that if you contact her, you should feel free to tell her which tendency you are. “I will email someone differently if I know they’re a Rebel, or a Questioner, or an Obliger, or an Upholder like me,” she said. “I really do feel it helps me move through the world more effectively with other people.”

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