Cult of Personality Part I: Why Your Crew’s Characteristics Count

We’ve all optimistically purchased something described as “one size fits all”. But how often does that turn out well?

Exactly. And it’s the same in the workplace. For managers trying to enable their people to achieve their best, certain strategies will work better for some than for others. That’s why we’ve been reading up on author Gretchen Rubin (The Happiness Project) who has some thought-provoking ideas on how personality types affect the way we work. As you’d expect, we’re all over anything that encourages better work habits. So in this and next week’s post, we’re going to take a closer look at what Rubin calls the “Four Tendencies” – and then discuss the PEP strategies that work best for each.

Let’s start with a quick explanation. Rubin sorts people into four categories according to how they respond to outer expectations (others’ expectations of them) and inner expectations (their expectations of themselves). These categories – and Rubin helpfully provides a quiz for those keen to clarify which category they belong to – are:


Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations. They are punctual, embrace habits, meet deadlines and cheerfully tick off tasks on their to-do lists. Just don’t ask them to break the rules (however tempting it may be to mess with them a little).


As the name of this category suggests, the quirk of this group is to question all expectations. They require a lot of information before they make a decision. “Do It Now”? Only if they’re suitably well-informed, thanks.


Obligers meet outer expectations, but have trouble meeting their own. They’re people pleasers: it’s difficult for them to say no. It’s also difficult for managers to resist loading them up – unconsciously or not. As a consequence, Obligers often struggle to make time for their own priorities.


Rebels not only resist all expectations, but often enjoy flouting them too. No surprises there.

Chances are your team comprises a healthy but challenging mix of all four types, albeit with some blurring of the lines (at the risk of both questioning and rebelling, we’d suggest that nothing is ever that cut and dried). An awareness of your team members’ particular traits can therefore be a valuable tool for managers. As Rubin asserts, “When you know if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger or Rebel, you’re better able to set yourself up for success. And if you’re trying to help other people to change their habits, you’re more effective.”

This certainly rings true for us. “The challenge for managers is that everyone has a different way of delivering expectations and responding to feedback,” explains PEPworldwide:nz managing director Kathryn Anda. “At one extreme, you may have those people who leave something till the last minute. At the other extreme, you may have those who tackle something as soon as it lands on their desk – regardless of how important it is. And consider those who question everything, too – what impact do they have on your team?” Managers need to think about how they may be “subconsciously allocating work”, she adds. “For example, ‘obliging’ people often end up being given more and more work as they tend to accept it without questioning where or how it fits into their priorities.”

So here’s a bit of homework for you (Rebels, we sense your resistance already). Have a think about the different personality profiles that populate your team (don’t forget to include yourself). Consider how competing characteristics may be contributing to any disturbance in your team dynamic. Ask yourself why you give work more often to one person than to another. And then check back in two weeks, because our next post will explore the difficulties and advantages associated with each personality type and our best techniques for managing them. Is this a case of “But wait, there’s more”? Absolutely.