Why Some People Easily Meet Their Commitments and Others Need Accountability

[This is the first blog in a two-part series on accountability. Part One below introduces the concept of accountability and who can benefit from it. Part Two (coming soon) offers strategies for creating accountability, and qualities to look for in a great accountability partner, group, or coach.

*As a note, accountability has many definitions, but for the purposes of this blog and the next, I mean the act of sharing goals and intentions with others so that they can hold you to them.]


July 1 is here, which means that half 2018 is already behind us. At Yammer (where I work), I am starting to have mid-year performance review conversations with my employees. In addition to reviewing their recent project work, we are also reviewing their progress on the professional growth goals they set for the first six months of the year, and are setting goals (either new or continued) for the next six months. Helping my employees set and make progress on their professional goals is by far my favorite part of being a people manager. As someone who struggles to meet my own goals (both professional and personal) without someone else holding me accountable, I love being the person who is holding them accountable for their growth.

Unfortunately, the last six months was a period of a lot of change at Yammer, and I could not check in on goal progress as often I wanted to. Some people easily met their goals without me checking in, while others struggled. As I reflected on why some made more progress than others, I was reminded that even though science supports that people are twice as likely to achieve goals they have shared with others, there are individual differences in who benefits most from accountability.  I thought I would focus this week's blog on these individual differences - outlined in The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin - in case it helps any of my readers better understand their own ability (or inability) to meet their goals. And given that next week I will focus on how to create accountability, I'll also focus on how these individuals differences influence who is most able to offer good accountability to others.

The Four Tendencies

I am typically skeptical of bestsellers that categorize people’s personality or behavior, especially those that are not rooted in scientific evidence. This book is one of a very few exceptions. First of all, Rubin did not just create the framework out of thin air. She conducted a nationally representative survey as part of creating  the framework. Additionally, scientists are starting to validate the framework by applying it to their own work.

According to the framework, people fall into one of four tendencies - Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels - in how they respond to inner (what they ask of themselves) and outer (what others ask of them) expectations. These tendencies influence how people respond to accountability.

Before you read on, if you’d like to find out which tendency you lean toward, take the quiz here. It will be more accurate if you take it before you know what the tendencies are.


Upholders tend to easily meet both inner and outer expectations. These are people who set New Year’s Resolutions and never have a problem sticking to them. (These are also my employees who meet goals without me checking in!). They also tend to easily be able to meet the expectations others – family, coworkers, bosses – so they are perceived as highly dependable people. Upholders do not typically need accountability and are not ideal people to seek accountability from. Because they are so easily able to hold themselves accountable, they can get frustrated and impatient with those who cannot.

Questioners are like Upholders in their ability to meet their own expectations, but they resist expectations put upon them by others. In other words, when Questioners are asked to do something, they often respond with some form of “why?”. They will only follow through with the ask if they get a satisfactory answer to that why. On the accountability front, they may be like Upholders in not needing accountability for themselves, but their questioning nature can be helpful as accountability for someone else, especially if they can channel their questioning towards helping the other person understand “why” they are struggling to meet an inner expectation.

Obligers are the most common of the Four Tendencies and are those who benefit the most from accountability. Obligers are easily able to meet outer expectations but struggle immensely with meeting their own expectations. One way that Obligers can overcome their struggle is to turn their inner expectations into outer ones. In other words, they can be successful if they are accountable to someone else for something they want to do.

For those who might be wondering, I’m an Obliger. I wish I had known this years ago. I felt a lot of shame for not meeting my inner expectations, yet it turns out there was nothing wrong with me!

Rebels are the rarest and the toughest of the Four Tendencies. They tend to struggle with both inner and outer expectations. Rubin has a slogan for them in the book which you can see in the image at the top of this blog: “You can’t make me, and I can’t either.” For Rebels, accountability can be viewed as pressure that makes them react with that “you can’t make me” mantra. However, reminding a rebel that an expectation is aligned with their personal values or their identity (e.g., I am a responsible person, so therefore I will save money every month) can reduce the likelihood of resistance. As a side note, calling accountability by a different name call also help. In my weekly “accountability group” (which I will talk more about next week), we have a Rebel that would probably prefer we call it a "mastermind" or just “Wednesday Wonders” (our WhatsApp chat thread name).

To recap, Upholders and accountability do not mesh. They don’t need accountability for themselves and are frustrated with those who do.

Questioners may not need their own accountability, but can be great at helping others understand “why” they might be struggling with their goals.

Obligers are the perfect people for accountability - both giving and receiving.

And finally Rebels are tricky, but with the right strategies in place, accountability can help them overcome their natural tendency to resist all expectations.

Stay tuned next week for 5 ways to create accountability. In the meantime, if you took the Four Tendencies quiz, are you surprised by your tendency? Does it change how you think about accomplishing your goals?

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