Why Creating ‘Personality Types’ Only Skims The Surface…

Four Tendencies Gretchen Rubin

I came across a new book recently: ‘The Four Tendencies’ by New York Times bestseller Gretchen Rubin, also author of the ‘Happiness Project’. It got me thinking. Why is it that personality typing is such a popular exercise (and money-spinner!) and should we take the theories at any more than face value?

It’s debatable, and personally I’m not a fan. I find them too simplistic and I don’t enjoy putting people in neat little boxes. Personality, while interesting, isn’t necessarily what we should be looking at. I prefer to explore and talk about types of behaviour (and the motivation behind it) than types of personality. That said, I will (begrudgingly) acknowledge that high-profile models can raise society’s general levels of self-awareness, which is a good thing.

Self-awareness is one of those things most people think they have bucket-loads of. Many people think that just being oneself automatically equates to knowing oneself (sorry kids, it ain’t that easy!). We might pride ourselves on being a good listener, nurturer, leader or mediator, but if you’ve ever asked for open, honest and authentic feedback (and been brave enough to listen) you’ll often see that what you think versus how you ‘land’ (your intent versus your impact) may not be the same. Unless we really know ourselves (warts and all), what motivates us deep down, where it comes from and where our stress trigger points are, then there’s always room for more learning. It’s a cliché, but it’s a constant journey, this self-discovery stuff! We have depths and doors to explore that we don’t even know exist.

So I listened with interest last week when a friend said she’d just attended a talk by Gretchen Rubin about the thinking behind the new book. The model here is based on how we respond to inner and outer expectations. The premise is that the extent to which we meet inner and/or outer expectations easily determines our position as one of four main, ‘hardwired personality types’. Apparently, when you know whether you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger or Rebel, you make better decisions, get in fewer arguments, suffer less stress and frustration and generally manage yourself better.


The trouble is, my (quite self-aware) friend emerged convinced that she straddled three of the types straight down the middle, with a fair dose of the fourth type in her outlook and behaviour too at times. She tried hard to shoehorn herself into one of the types by taking the quiz and trying to answer as instinctively as possible, but there were too many variables.  When she suggested to the author that her answers too often depended on the situation, she was advised immediately that she was a Questioner!  But there were too many clear examples of traits (in her outlook and attitude) from two of the other types that felt close to home, so she was reluctant to pigeon-hole herself as a Questioner.

And that’s where I struggle with over-simplified personality profiling, especially if it’s not based on behavioural science or psychology-based findings. Yes, ‘types’ are a great tool to start a conversation and create a common language with friends and partners (and with yourself!) about why ‘opposite’ people treat you the way they do, but without digging deeper into your (and their) values, beliefs, thinking habits and traps and why you attach the meaning you do to things, you’ll lack the answers to what to do with this ‘new’, unearthed information. In general, any binary measurement in life will lead you astray: black and white, right and wrong, good and bad….life is much more grey and complex. When we acknowledge that, we open ourselves up to new perspectives, to big picture thinking, to possibilities – this for me is the definition of open-mindedness.

People in boxes

One reason my friend was struggling was because her deeply-held values were to be found in all four personality type descriptions.  ‘Profilers’ (people who ’invent’ these theories) seek to put people in boxes, but they also need to make those boxes appealing lest someone be upset (think of the Harry Potter sorting hat), and therein lies part of the problem. We are complex and unpredictable beings, so trying to ‘type’ us in the first place can be an issue, especially with only 4 options! I’ve been known for my unimpressed views of Myers Briggs, but at least there are 16 options! Albeit only 4 more than horoscopes….

It also annoys me that when you call them up on the fact that you don’t fit into a neat little box, that exact action fits you into a box! “If you’re questioning this tool then you’re a ‘questioner’. NO – it can never be that simple!

If you forced me though, and if I had to suggest one for you to explore, the closest one I find to acceptable is the Kolbe Concept.  The tests are different from other self-assessments because they don’t measure how smart you are (thinking) or what your personality is like (feeling). They measure how you naturally DO things. Backed by 30 years of scientific research (which is why I like it better!), the concept is an alternative to personality and intelligence tests because it’s all about our instinct.

Nearly a million people have completed the Kolbe A TM Index on five continents. With data from business, government, educational, and high-tech and manufacturing organizations, Kolbe has been refined into a practical management tool

Kolbe testIt suggests that creative instincts are manifested in an innate pattern that determines an individual’s unique and subconscious method of operation (modus operandi). When people act according to instinct, their energy is almost inexhaustible – like water running downhill. But when people are forced to act against their instinct, their energy is rapidly depleted – like water being pumped uphill. There also aren’t 4 boxes to neatly slot yourself into, but measurements on a scale across a number of variables, giving it a little more sensitivity.

Having said all this, here we are, writing (me) and reading (you) about self-awareness and about why we think and behave as we do…and that’s exactly what I think we should take the time to do more of, at work AND at home! Uncovering what makes us tick, what makes us act and respond the way we do and treat others the way we do helps our relationships with others and with ourselves. So, I will concede that if such ‘tests’ help that conversation become more common place and give people a language with which to understand each other in a digestible (albeit over-simplified) form, then I’ll let them have their profiles and types and personalities. As long as it’s the START of something and not the end of it!

Feel free to leave your thought and questions in the comment section below.

Post by Jodie