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Another way to look at stress

Written by Kevin Woods. 4 min read.


If you’re familiar with MBTI® personality type, you’ll know how it helps people identify their personal stress triggers, reactions, and coping strategies—and you’ll know that these are different for different people.

But there’s another way to look at people’s behaviors which helps to improve stress and well-being: interpersonal needs.

The FIRO instrument offers such a perspective. It focuses on interactions between people and their differing levels of interpersonal needs.

This assessment was first developed in the 1950s by psychologist Dr. William Schutz when he was commissioned to evaluate teams working together under intense pressure—specifically, the naval warship teams in the US Navy.

He concluded that when people interact, they have interpersonal needs. Getting these needs met is a critical factor in how people get along and work together.

And it’s crucial for high-performing teams.

And, as you can imagine, not getting those needs met—or having them misunderstood—can lead to tension and stress because the relationship doesn’t function as well as it could. And the impact on morale and well-being is negative.

So, what does this look like in practice?

See below—but first, a short overview of the FIRO basics.


Interpersonal needs

There are three social/interpersonal needs identified by Schutz in the FIRO framework. They are Inclusion, Control, and Affection.

        • Inclusion is the need to belong and how you relate to groups
        • Control is the need for influence (or control or structure)
        • Affection is the need for 1-1 connection with others

These need areas are both expressed and wanted by individuals. Expressed needs show how a person behaves toward others. Wanted needs show what kind of behaviors a person wants from others. Scores can be low, medium, or high, depending on the person.

If we look at the social need for Control, we can see how this might be a source of stress, especially in a changing work environment.


The FIRO® need for Control

Here are definitions of the behaviors associated with the FIRO need for Control:

        • Expressed Control is the extent to which a person makes efforts to control and influence others
        • Wanted Control is the extent to which a person wants structure and clarity in their environment

Let’s say there’s a team leader or manager with high scores for Expressed Control—that is, they behave in a way that influences or controls others (not necessarily a bad thing). Examples of this at work might be holding and providing all information the team needs, deciding tasks and agendas, approving (signing off) all work done by the team, steering discussions, and so on.

A team member with high Wanted Control would work quite well with this manager, especially if they themselves have low Expressed Control. This person is happy to be led by their manager, doesn’t feel the need to be influential, and likes working in the organized, structured environment shaped by the manager.

In this example, the interpersonal needs for Control match up.

But, as we know, such neat convenience is unlikely. What happens with a team member who has low Wanted Control?

They’ll have a very different experience. Low Wanted Control might manifest in the following ways: being more independently minded, preferring to figure things out themselves, wanting to be left to get on with things in their own way.

A manager who insists on strict work schedules, for example, or frequent updates on every task—not for any bad reason but just because that’s the way they are—could be a source of tension for the team member with low Wanted Control.

They might see their manager as overbearing, micromanaging, and unwilling to trust them to get the job done (remember, most people have negativity bias with other people’s behaviors).

Similarly, the team member’s reluctance to accept a fixed work schedule or their refusal to provide updates as often as requested might cause the manager to be suspicious: ‘What is this person hiding from me?’

Either way, trust is eroded between these two people—and stress is increased.

And it’s largely through not knowing the motivations for each other’s interpersonal behaviors. Any time there’s a mismatch of needs between people, there’s the potential for misunderstanding, tension, and stress.


Stress, VUCA, and everything else

Given that people are generally more stressed because of world events (which are out of our immediate control), do we really need to add interpersonal needs stress to the list?

No. Because it’s avoidable. It’s within everyone’s hands. You can do something about it.

With the FIRO assessment, you can use a different perspective to build self-awareness, a different angle. It shows the relationships people have and the behaviors that exist between them. And it complements the MBTI assessment too. When you know more about interpersonal needs, you can see how one person’s preference for Introversion might be flavored different depending on if they have a low Expressed Affection score or a high Expressed Affection score (for example).

Before today, the FIRO framework might not have been on your list of resources for managing team stress.

But maybe it’s time to rethink that.


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