How to Motivate People at Work

Ever feel baffled by a coworker’s failure to follow through on a commitment? (He said he’d finish that report today!) Or dismayed by your own flakiness? (I swore I wouldn’t have a doughnut at lunch!)

It can feel confusing and frustrating when we can’t figure out how to motivate someone (including ourselves) to follow through. But deep down, we all realize that rolling our eyes at others’ foibles isn’t kind-hearted or productive.

That’s where the Rubin Tendencies framework comes in. Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before is about understanding how habits work and how to use them to make life better.

(I loooove that book title. I’m all about progress. I don’t mind if my train is still far from the station as long as I know it’s chugging in the right direction.)

Rubin suggests that the world is made up of people with 4 different types of decision-making styles, based primarily on responding to outer expectations (what others expect of me) or inner expectations (what I expect of myself).

Here’s how Rubin describes it:

UPHOLDERS respond readily to outer and inner expectations.

They wake up and think, “What’s on the schedule and the to-do list for today?” They’re very motivated by execution, getting things accomplished. They really don’t like making mistakes, getting blamed, or failing to follow through (including doing so to themselves).

QUESTIONERS meet only their inner expectations. In other words, they meet an expectation if they think it makes sense.

They wake up and think, “What needs to get done today?” They’re very motivated by seeing good reasons for a particular course of action. They really don’t like spending time and effort on activities they don’t agree with.

 REBELS resist all expectations, outer and inner alike.

They wake up and think, “What do I want to do today?” They’re very motivated by a sense of freedom, of self-determination. They really don’t like being told what to do.

 OBLIGERS meet outer expectations but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves.

They wake up and think, “What must I do today?” They’re very motivated by accountability. They really don’t like being reprimanded or letting others down.

Rubin gives this example: An upholder can train with a trainer or exercise on her own. A questioner can do either, if he thinks it makes sense. A rebel will do neither, because the fact that she has an appointment or an item on her to-do list makes her want to disobey. An obliger can meet a trainer, but can’t get to the gym on his own.

Rubin says that understanding this framework is important because “if you want to motivate yourself (or someone else) to do something, it’s key to know how a person will consider and act upon that request or order.”

Of course this framework has its limitations. Not every person fits neatly into a single category. We may behave more like a Rebel in one situation and an Obliger in another. But I find it very illuminating.

For example, I had always assumed that my husband and myself made decisions within similar paradigms. Turns out, I’m an Upholder, but he’s a Questioner. Aaaaah. Explains so much. And one of my children is definitely that magical but maddening breed of Rebel.

Many times the conflict (or just confusion) we feel dealing with other people—at work or at home—derives from our own inability to perceive how the other person reads the motivators. It’s easy for us to conclude that the other person is misinformed, foolish, wrong, difficult, selfish, problematic. And sometimes we’re right. But whether we’re right or wrong is completely irrelevant, because once we allow ourselves to place blame, we decimate the potential for productive problem-solving.

A much more beneficial (and compassionate and fulfilling) approach is to identify the other person’s point of view and to accept that this point of view makes sense to them. By accepting their view rather than fighting against it, we enable ourselves to leverage it for mutual success.

Instead of…

He won’t turn in his reports on time.


I get that he’s a Questioner, so to him, spending time on reports makes no sense.

Which leads to a solution…

I need to explain why these reports really do affect the bottom line.


Instead of…

I already told her the best way to handle this project. Why does she refuse to follow my lead?

Think …

She’s a rebel. It bugs her to be told what to do.

Which leads to a solution…

We’ll be better off if I give her space to figure it out on her own.


We can even try this compassionate acceptance on ourselves.

Instead of…

I hate that I never follow through on my decisions to eat better and get more sleep. I’m so weak-willed!

Think …

These are all internal goals, and those don’t work so well for me. I’m an Obliger who does better with external motivation.

Which leads to a solution…

I need to create some external expectations for myself. Maybe I’ll commit to my lunch group at work that I’m ordering salads at least three times a week. And I’ll use an app to log my sleep hours.

Have fun pegging your colleagues as Obligers, Rebels, Upholders, or Questioners.