Understanding what motivates you

Have you ever been driven crazy by a co-worker’s persistent questioning of what the team is doing and why, and whether things could be done more efficiently – or have you been driven crazy by a colleague’s refusal to address those crucial questions?

In researching and writing “Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives,” I realized that all of us differ dramatically in our attitude toward habits and in our aptitude for forming them. From my observation, I began to realize that just about everyone falls into one of four distinct groups: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers and Rebels.

The key question is: How do you respond to an expectation?

We all face two kinds of expectations:

+ Outer expectations: meet a work deadline, observe traffic regulations.

+ Inner expectations: stop snacking, start running.

UPHOLDERS respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations. They’re self-directed and have little trouble meeting commitments, keeping resolutions, or meeting deadlines. They really want to understand and meet expectations – including their expectations of themselves. This creates a strong instinct for self-preservation, which serves as a counterweight to others’ expectations. However, Upholders may struggle in situations where expectations aren’t clear. They may feel compelled to meet expectations, even ones that seem pointless.

QUESTIONERS question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified- they’re motivated by reason, logic and fairness. They decide for themselves whether a course of action is a good idea, and they resist doing anything that seems arbitrary or lacks sound purpose. Essentially, they turn all expectations into inner expectations. However,

the Questioner’s appetite for information and justification can become tiresome. Questioners themselves sometimes wish they could accept expectations without probing them so relentlessly.

OBLIGERS respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations. Obligers excel at meeting external demands and deadlines, so they make terrific colleagues, family member and friends. They don’t let others down, but they may let themselves down. Because Obligers resist inner expectations, it’s difficult for them to self-motivate.

REBELS resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. They choose to act from a sense of choice. Rebels work toward their own goals, in their own way, and while they refuse to do what they’re “supposed” to do, they can accomplish their own aims. Rebels place a high value on authenticity and self-determination, and bring an unshackled spirit to what they do. At times, the Rebel resistance to authority is enormously valuable to society – but Rebels often frustrate others because they can’t be asked or told to do anything. They don’t care if “people are counting on you,” “you agreed to do it,” “it’s against the rules,” “this is the deadline,” or “it’s rude.”

From what I’ve observed, most people, by a huge margin, are Questioners or Obligers. Very few are Rebels, and, to my astonishment, very few are Upholders. Because Upholders and Rebels are such small populations, people who try to shape people’s behavior on a large scale – employers, device manufacturers, insurance companies, instructors – do better to focus on solutions that help Questioners, by providing sound reasons, and Obligers, by providing accountability.

The happiest and most successful people are those who have figured out ways to exploit their tendency to their benefit and, just as important, ways to offset its limitations. By understanding ourselves and others better, we help ourselves to build happier, healthier and more productive lives.

(Gretchen Rubin is the author of “Better Than Before,” as well as the bestsellers “The Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home.”)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate