In the Psychometrist’s Chair: FIRO-B

In the previous episode in this series, I related the experience of completing the MBTI questionnaire and receiving facilitated feedback. But if MBTI is mostly about the individual, giving feedback on relationships with others more by inference and implication, FIRO-B is explicitly about the individual, others and the relationship(s) between the two. This is an instrument that looks at the ways we wish to behave towards others and others to behave towards us, and illuminates that these may be very different even in a single dimension: FIRO-B can illuminate many things, not least that “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” may be a familiar expression but it can also be highly inaccurate in describing our behavioural patterns.

Developed by Will Schutz during the 1950s, FIRO-B is based on the theory that the way we interact with others is determined by three interpersonal needs, Inclusion, Control and Affection.

  • Inclusion is about making contacts and associating with others
  • Control is about making decisions and influencing others
  • Affection is about making personal, emotional contact with people

FIRO-B provides feedback on how strong an individual’s needs are for each of these three areas, both in terms of how they are expressed (ie how likely an individual is likely to initiate this strand of behaviour) and how much they are wanted (ie how much someone prefers to be a recipient of particular behaviours from others).

The formation and development of a relationship between two or more people always follows the same sequence. Inclusion activity is followed by Control activity, and finally by Affection activity. Understanding how far the sequence has been achieved, and the differences in needs for these activities of the parties to the relationship can allow a productive discussion of what to do to improve the way they are working together – provided, of course, that the parties to the relationship are the kind of people who value productive discussion and are receptive to it. That may sound glib, but the interplay of different sets of preferences is actually crucially important. Two individuals with high expressed control scores and low wanted control scores are likely to clash heads, even after discovering why through the use of FIRO-B. For both parties, their comfort zone and situation of greatest satisfaction is to take control and act autonomously: the answer, is they can arrive at it, is probably power-sharing.

My own results and feedback interested me not least in that the report highlighted things about myself that my results themselves suggested might not be obvious to me:

  • Others like, value and respect me more than I realise as my control scores suggest I may not also believe my own competence
  • I’d benefit from learning to say ‘No’ more often
  • I will have a better range of contacts than I might first assume.

As feedback goes – even constructive, thoughtfully delivered feedback – these are largely encouraging things to hear: the FIRO-B feedback process was, for me, a positive one that shed light on a psychometric tool that doesn’t share quite the public profile of MBTI. As a participant, my observation would be that my own ‘scores’ also felt harder to predict – with the exception of one area.

That one area was Control, where I received the lowest of my scores: my expressed (0) and wanted (2) scores came as no great surprise. One line in the report that accompanied the report (“pushing you into something is unlikely to work”) rang a particular bell, as it reminded me vividly of a friend’s interjection on my behalf many years ago (“You really should stop telling Dave what to think: he’s really not to going appreciate your efforts”). This might imply a stubborn streak, although there are other ways of seeing this. Demonstrating little interest in expressing or wanting control might sound like a definition of an anarchist, to which I would object on two grounds. Firstly, that anarchism is about an absence of top-down government rather than a presence of chaos (I know my Proudhon from my Bakunin, and appreciate the strong strands of morality and mutual respect in the history of anarchistic thinking). And secondly – and more importantly, in context – that the interpretation of psychometric tools doesn’t – and probably shouldn’t – be so literal: the conversation, thinking and realisation that they invoke are as significant as the literal results. (That said, Tony Whybrow posted a very approachable explanation of high Control scores in the context of football managers for those of you who prefer to soccer to socio-political history.)

Others might, for instance, present me with a notion with which I am not in love, but (to mangle Joan Armatrading’s best song) I am open to persuasion. Encouragement and support – to pursue the training/romance analogy, the equivalents of dinner and flowers? – will work to an extent, but part of my self-confidence, self-esteem and comfort are closely entwined with my own professional domain: I’m likely to be most comfortable in a specific area of defined activity, within which I can ‘do my own thing’ while working in a collaborative spirit with others. While that might be a personal recipe for comfort, I’ve worked in a wide enough range of circumstances over the last 30 years to recognise that I need to season my personal preferences with other flavours to meet the tastes and needs of others and of the larger organisation: indeed, one of the rationales for using a tool like FIRO-B is to help people towards this kind of recognition.

(I was also fascinated by A Brief Summary of FIRO Theory, written by Celeste Blackman and downloadable as a PDF, which drew links between Control and the human need to feel competent. The implication is that I fear feeling incompetent more than I fear being ignored or rejected, which strikes me as a reasonable assumption particularly as I tend to interpret feeling overly-controlled as having my abilities questioned. The way that the whole article was couched in terms of identifying what people are afraid of and taking steps to dispel that struck as very positive, and reminded me in some ways of the Work Foundation’s Exceeding Expectations report – see our earlier article.)

Another important aspect of FIRO-B to recognise is that a combination of scales gives a more informed and nuanced picture than focusing on a single scale. My highest scores in the FIRO-B instrument are for Inclusion (4 and 5 respectively for expressed and wanted): my personal priority will therefore most likely be ‘fitting in’ or achieving a harmonious working environment. I’d already long since recognised a personal approach to working with others where I’m genuinely interested in their ideas, views and opinions, and will try to find ways of accommodating these to everyone’s tolerance if not complete satisfaction. While this might not always on surface reading sit easily with the introversion shown in my MBTI profile, my combination of preferences and traits is that of someone interested in understanding others: listening to them – and inviting them to speak – has proven itself to be a reasonably effective method (at least from my perspective) over the years. Likewise a respectful approach that (I hope) makes others feel that we can interact as equals. (Along with a recognition that equality isn’t going to appeal to some of them: if someone needs to feel special, the answer is to find ways of letting them, while recognising the impact that might have on some of the other people.)

This aspect of reviewing my own FIRO-B feedback – seeing my profile and recognising how much I have worked to ‘moderate’ it – is fascinating. One of the other blogs I came across reading around the subject was Flowing Motion, a blog by Jo Jordan, that included 12 Useful Coaching Questions based on the FIRO-B. Two of the questions around Preferences for Control seemed applicable:

  • If I am dismissive or disinterested in order and control, can I let people who like to be organized have their heads and set priorities?
  • If I have a deep dislike for any order or organization, is it simply a personal need for independence or is there a real problem that should concern everyone else too?

I’d definitely answer ‘Yes’ to the first question, and I’m pretty sure I’d answer “the former” to the second. Maybe I have an innate respect for diversity and difference, or perhaps I’ve just been around enough blocks enough times to have noticed what makes life easier and more effective for all concerned: I like personal independence, but I’ve been able to conclude that it’s like prawns – lovely, but not a balanced diet. I also like being around other people, so complete independence equates too much to isolation: my preferred version of ‘independence’ has a context – a degree of independence within something, rather than total independence from something. (Reflecting on the report as well as the feedback session, the impact of my control scores of my estimation of my own competency seems highly relevant: I don’t work well – or in particular, productively – in isolation, quite probably because I don’t get positive feedback from myself. There’s a fair sized grain of truth in the idea that my inner critic is harsher than the external ones it’s tended to encounter over the years.)

But was FIRO-B useful? The honest answer is ‘yes and no’. Framing my personal agenda as part of the process was valuable, and I’m aware that this isn’t a ‘luxury’ some people will get when completing it. I was surprised in a rather negative way when I googled to look for similar accounts of the FIRO-B Experience, and retrieved endless articles about leadership development: this seemed to run counter to the point of the instrument – surely enhanced understanding of interpersonal behaviours and needs isn’t solely about improving leadership? (The easiest conclusion to draw is probably that leadership development is so elevated in the agendas of so many organisations and individuals that those providing FIRO-B as a psychometric tool feel obliged to couch its use in that context.) Although my own use was in a personal context, I see significant value for it in a team environment, where entire teams can discuss their individual feedback and identify where differences in want and need will benefit from being worked through. (Although going back to leadership development, I can’t help but think that a good leader would already be sensitive to this as a team issue: if we have a national leadership shortage, I can’t help but think it’s a shortage of good leaders rather than leaders per se.)

Personal benefit? Mostly this came down to validating a picture of myself that experience and the passage of time had drawn (it seems) reasonably clearly. There were valuable reminders of downsides that need watching – that harsh inner critic, a reluctance to attempt things (mostly because I feel I lack ability or competence, or fear that I will), and a tendency to take incoming praise and recognition with too large a pinch of salt. I remember raising during the feedback session a feeling that I sometimes have a ‘blindspot’ about how others perceive me or what they make of me: reflecting after the experience, I can’t help but wonder if the feedback is there but I have a tendency to take on board the elements that suggest there’s room for improvement and to attempt to shrug off the remainder as flattery. If that’s right, I should apologise to all the people that have said good things from time to time.

I’m mindful that FIRO-B comes with the caveat that it can be affected by major life events: I’ve experienced the instrument at the end of a period where, for example, I’ve been obliged to exert rather more control than I would otherwise choose and my low reported scores on that scale could partly reflect a reaction to that, or a desire to feel like I’m resetting the balance. My feedback and report – in terms of ‘what am I looking for?’ – are pretty consistent with those from the MBTI experience: a niche within an organisation that pursues goals I believe in. Having completed two psychometric instruments, I’m seeing a clearer picture of the kind of niche, but not necessarily the kind of organisation (which is where the next two psychometric instruments come in).

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Comments (1)
  • Naysan

    September 6, 2011

    The great thing about FIRO-B is that it allows you to evaluate you behaviours around your interpersonal relationship orientation at any point in time without you having to make any reference to preconceived ideas or assumptions about yourself. It explicitly asked you to reflect on how you see yourself now which enables you to evaluate your current state as well as you preferences, attitudes and intentions given where you are right now.

    The relationship between FIRO-B and MBTI has often been quoted and used as part of personal development. My view is that you can take a lot of learning and reflection for self-awareness from both, but in my view one does not predict the other despite many strong correlations. As you point out having a mid-range score for both expressed and wanted inclusion would not necessarily be predicted by a preference for introversion. Unless of course you begin to bring ‘trait’ into the mix and review MBTI Step II which might shed light on certain ‘Out Of Preferences’ (OOPs), which for me feels like a tongue in cheek way of saying we didn’t get it quite right the first time.

    You rightly point out that FIRO-B and Schutz’s later iterations of the tool FIRO Elements (Behaviour, Feelings and Self-Concept) are extremely useful when working with individuals and teams to explore the dynamics at play, improving communication and effectiveness in a broader context than just leadership.

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