What's Your Personality Type? A Q&A with Gretchen Rubin

The key to workplace harmony is knowing how employees react to expectations—both others’ and their own, says the best-selling author.

By Tamara Lytle August 23, 2017
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Gretchen Rubin's books might look like they cover a range of topics—happiness, habits and personality types—but she says they're all about the same thing: human nature.

The author of the best-selling The Happiness Project (Harper Collins, 2009) lives with her husband and two daughters in New York City, where she co-hosts (with sister Elizabeth Craft) the popular weekly podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin. She found her own happiness by foregoing a law career after graduating Yale Law School to become a writer. Her other titles include Happier at Home (Harmony, 2012) and Better Than Before (Crown Publishers, 2015), which is about changing habits.

Her newest book, The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (Harmony, 2017), can be helpful for HR because it highlights how different types of people can work well together. "Understanding these principles in the workplace leads to less conflict, frustration, delay and anger and to arriving more quickly at solutions," she says.

You started as a lawyer and even clerked for then-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Why did you change careers?

I got an idea and became preoccupied with researching it—how to achieve greater happiness. I realized that what I was really doing was preparing to write a book on the topic. I decided I'd rather risk failing as a writer than succeeding as a lawyer. I'm happier doing what I do now because I love it so much. It's 100 percent intellectual freedom, and that's precious.

Your book Better Than Before is about everyday habits. What's one that's important to you?

I try to stick to my bedtime. Sleep is a foundation of so many other good habits. If you're exhausted, it's hard to do other things that make you happier, healthier and more productive.

What advice can you give someone who's having a hard time changing a habit?

There is no magic, one-size-fits-all solution. What works for me may be the opposite of what works for you. Understanding your own nature is critical. One of the most obvious examples is knowing whether you're a morning person or a night person. If you pledge to go for a 45-minute run before work every morning even though you usually hit the snooze button three times, it's probably not going to work.

Your new book focuses on four personality types. What are they?

Upholders, questioners, obligers and rebels.

Upholders readily meet both outer expectations, like work deadlines, and inner ones, such as a New Year's resolution.

Questioners question all expectations and will only do the things that make sense to them.

Obligers will easily meet outer expectations but struggle to meet inner ones. They are the most common personality type.

Rebels, who are the least common, resist all expectations. They don't do well with micromanagement and want to do what they want, when they want, in their own way.

And which one are you?

I'm an upholder who tips to questioner.

[SHRM members-only online discussion platform: SHRM Connnect

How did you get interested in personality tendencies?

When I decided to make my bed every day, kiss my husband every morning and every night, and give up sugar, people kept asking me "How do you do it?" I said, "It makes me happier, so I just stick to it." I realized that these things came easily to me because of my tendency as an upholder.

Are there any habits you struggle with?

Making appointments. I don't mind going to them, but I hate scheduling them.

How are the personality types relevant in the workplace?

Our tendencies affect the way we approach issues and projects and how we expect people to work together. We tend to think everyone sees the world the way we do. For example, upholders have no problem meeting expectations, so they don't understand why others need accountability to do the same.

Which personality types work best together?

Rebels usually partner well with obligers.

What personalities should business leaders avoid putting together?

No combination is entirely unworkable. It depends on other aspects of people's personalities, like sense of humor, intellect or friendliness. Still, it's very hard for upholders and rebels to work together. They see the world very differently, so there will be conflict. The more the upholder wants to put something on the calendar, the more the rebel will resist it and insist on spontaneity. You don't want a whole team of questioners, either, or you get analysis paralysis—the inability to move forward in the absence of "perfect" data.

How can HR professionals use knowledge of these four tendencies to do their jobs better?

Anticipate the kind of structure that will allow people of all personality types to thrive. Obligers need outer accountability, such as deadlines, reminders and supervision. Questioners need justifications, including information on why they are being asked to do something. Rebels require a lot of choices and freedom in the way they operate. Upholders do best when it's clear what the expectations are and they are not asked to make a lot of last-minute changes. Conflicts become easier to navigate when you understand these tendencies.

What is "obliger rebellion"?

It's what happens when obligers continuously meet expectations then suddenly snap and refuse to take on any more. When that happens, it's an HR problem. For example, an employee who has always been consistent and reliable might come to you one day and say, "I'm sick of this place. I'm leaving in two weeks." Obligers are often exploited, so you need to watch out for that: Is work distributed equitably? Are these people taking vacations? 

You explored how to become happier in The Happiness Project. Are there business advantages of a happy workforce?

Absolutely. Happier people are more likely to help others, have more energy, and be better leaders and team members. They even have stronger immune systems, so they're not out sick as much. And people prefer to be around them.

What's the key to happiness at work?

Having a real friend on the job. It's also good to help others and foster deeper relationships. You don't want an impersonal workplace. It matters a lot if people think someone cares about their happiness and success. When you report to a person who knows and cares about you, you know you're not just a cog in a wheel.

Tamara Lytle is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. 

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