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This Is Why Your Passive-Aggressive Office Note Didn’t Work

Tear up that snarky note you left in the kitchen telling your colleagues to refill the coffee pot, and do this instead.

This Is Why Your Passive-Aggressive Office Note Didn’t Work
[Photo: lucato/iStock]

There was a time when the coffee pot in my office was a battleground. Every few days, someone would drink the last drop by mid-morning, then leave it sitting on its little hotplate for the rest of the day, without refilling it. Sometimes, worse still, there’d be a few sad tablespoons left over–never enough for a full cup of coffee–that would slowly simmering into a thick, bitter syrup as the day wore on.

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This would infuriate one of my company’s VPs, who sat near the office’s coffee pot. He loved coffee. He resented the people who didn’t refill it after drinking their share.

So first, there were friendly emails: “Please remember, all–when you empty the coffee pot or it drops to the very bottom after your pour, refill it for the rest of us,” he wrote. That didn’t work. A few days later, the pot sat empty by 10:30 a.m., and he sat fuming.

Next came the sticky notes: “Seriously, this isn’t your parents’ house. Fill the pot if you are the last one.” That didn’t work either. Soon, the nagging on our team chat platform began. When the pot was found empty, the VP would notify everyone. This started to make some of those people more determined not to refill: If you want coffee, just make coffee! Leave me alone.

Personally, I didn’t drink the office coffee, so I was able to watch this play out with a sort of amused detachment for a while–until some people started to get genuinely angry. “I refill the coffee pot every time!” I’d hear somebody gripe. So finally I intervened–the same day the aggrieved, coffee-starved VP snapped a photo of an employee emptying the coffee pot without refilling it, and posted it for all to see. If friendly emails and nagging Post-Its hadn’t worked, public shaming probably wouldn’t either.

So I set out to learn what might be.

You Can’t Persuade Everyone (The Exact Same Way)

People are different. The way you convince one person to do something often doesn’t work on another person. In fact, sometimes the same method that works on one person backfires with another. That’s what author Gretchen Rubin found after surveying over a million people about how they view and react to expectations.

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Related: Gretchen Rubin On Making Habit Changes That Stick


In her new book, The Four Tendencies, Rubin says that we tend either to meet or resist the expectations of others–which she terms “outer expectations”–as well as those we have for ourselves, our “inner expectations.” No matter how our personalities may differ, most people are remarkably consistent when it comes to their typical responses to those two sets of expectations:

[Illustration: The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin]
Rubin’s four tendencies (you can take her quiz to find out which one you are) make for a helpful framework for knowing how and when to empathize with and appeal to people with different personalities–rather than avoid them or fight them:

  • Upholders will do anything to meet a work deadline (an outer expectation) and also their New Year’s resolution (an inner expectation). They’re self-starters and highly reliable, but they can be defensive and rigid.
  • Questioners tend to be good at meeting their inner expectations, but they need to be convinced why to do something before doing it, this way they can decide for themselves whether it’s worth doing. They’re comfortable bucking the system but can suffer from analysis paralysis and get impatient with people who just accept things as they are.
  • Obligers are motivated above all else by helping others and by following rules. They can be counted on as responsible but can have trouble imposing limits or saying “no.”
  • Rebels are motivated by freedom of choice and self-expression. They don’t want to be told what to do; they want to decide what to do. They’re great at being independent, spontaneous, and creative but not at being disciplined.

Your response to a given situation depends on which of these tendencies best describes you, Rubin believes. Say there’s a work project that’s in danger of missing its deadline. An Obliger might stay up until 2 a.m. finishing it, and then become angry with others who didn’t do the same. A Questioner might respond, “Well, no one asked you to do that!” An Upholder might chide the Obliger for not managing their time well enough to avoid the late-night work session. Meanwhile, a Rebel will just think the Obliger is crazy.

Once you see the world through this four-part lens, people’s decisions may start to make a little more sense. “Once it’s explained, it’s totally obvious,” Rubin told me when I spoke with her about it. “It is not subtle.”

Refilling The Coffee Pot

To influence someone, Rubin explains, you have to adapt your message to their tendency. As she points out, Upholders want to know what should be done, Questioners want justifications for it, Obligers need accountability, and Rebels need the freedom to do it their way. So when my frustrated VP wrote “Refill it for the rest of us,” he was appealing to outer expectations. As an Obliger who values obedience to rules and puts the good of the group first, he’d written a message that would appeal to him personally. But it didn’t appeal to too many employees in our company, a startup that has tended to attract a fair number of Questioners and Rebels.

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Take a look at these two passive-aggressive signs, and see if you can tell what they have in common:

[Photo: Flickr user Cory Doctorow]

[Photo: Flickr user Ryan S.]
That’s right: They both appeal to outer expectations, but not to internal ones. A Questioner will want to know why they should meet these demands (as a Questioner myself, I bristle when I get emails that ask for something, don’t explain why, and then say “thanks in advance.”) Rebels, meanwhile, will actively disregard anything that charges them with “revolting” or “lazy” behavior. Especially frustrating to people with these tendencies are signs that presume you’re going to do exactly what they tell you (the ubiquitous “Thank You For Not Smoking,” for example).

So these appeals can be counted on to generate at least as much backtalk as compliance. The problem with most people’s attempts at persuasion is that we tend to communicate in ways that would appeal to us. “We’re more likely to be persuasive,” Rubin explains, “when we invoke the values that have special appeal for a particular tendency.” Here’s what those are, in a nutshell:

  • Upholders value self-command and performance.
  • Questioners value justification and purpose.
  • Obligers value teamwork and duty.
  • Rebels value freedom and self-identity.

So with that in mind, here’s a sign that Rubin says might work on just about everyone:

[Photo: courtesy of Gretchen Rubin]
For Upholders, it explains what to do to be in the right. For Questioners, it provides justification. For Obligers, it appeals to duty and the greater good. And for Rebels, it lets them make their own choice.

But the “four tendencies” framework is more than just a method for exerting influence. As Rubin puts it, “This is helpful for having a vocabulary to explain differences. It allows you to talk about them more calmly.” She points out that her husband is a Questioner, and as an Upholder herself, Rubin used to get frustrated when he’d question external expectations. “Now I just have to speak to him in a Questioner way, so we don’t have to argue,” she says.

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In other words, understanding the four tendencies can help minimize conflict–and take things less personally when we notice someone who’s operating from a different place in the framework than us. It’s not bad to have a given tendency, after all, and simply grasping that can be liberating.

The coffee pot war in my office died out after a while. I’d like to be able to report that the reason why is because I posted an amusing sign that deftly appealed to everyone. But the reality is much simpler. The single-cup Nespresso machine that debuted in our office probably deserves the most credit. Those things don’t run out, and they let you choose whatever kind of coffee you want–no matter how Rebellious you are.