Will Schutz, an American psychologist developed this theory, which he called the FIRO theory – Fundamental Interpersonal Relationship Orientation, when he carried out a study for the US Navy into the efficiency of various groups on board US warships. The US Navy wanted to discover why certain groups worked better than others in spite of all the members having the same level of competence and training.
In the course of his research, Will Schutz found that a group went through three phases in its development towards unity and efficiency. These phases and the features that characterise them are illustrated in the diagram below:
A group working towards the goals of unity and efficiency must pass through the phases in the order shown to succeed. The process of group development is thought to be cyclical. A group which through development has reached the third phase – openness – will eventually return to the previous phases as a result of, for example, to the assignment falling outside the groups framework, or the addition or loss of a new member to the group.
The more mature a group is, the shorter the time it will take to reach the third phase.
The group’s energy
To solve the most important questions for the group, the members of the group must contribute a lot of energy. Where this energy is focused depends on which phase the group is in or on its level of maturity.
During the inclusion phase energy is focused on questions concerning membership. A lot of time is needed at this stage to find out how much you are prepared to adapt yourself to the others, how you accept them and what resources are available.
To enter the control phase you must be prepared to take chances and risk exclusion or other consequences. If the group is to be able to progress it is important to dare to take chances. During the control phase matters of leadership are crucial to the group’s development. Now is the time to allocate responsibility, deal with conflicts and determine what role you want within the group. This phase is the most difficult and often requires the most time.
Once the group members have discovered their roles the group can move on to the openness phase. This is generally experienced as a strong feeling of satisfaction and contentment as any conflicts that arose have been solved. The start of this phase is characterised by considerable caution, and it is important to maintain the good atmosphere and feeling that has appeared. The group’s energy is directed at preserving this unity and openness. Here, the leader’s efforts play an major role in avoiding stagnation. During the rest of the phase, the group’s energy is concentrated on further developing positive means of communication, confidence and acceptance of one another.
In the openness phase the group does not need to solve membership questions or conflicts, instead the group’s energy can be used for solving assignments efficiently. Relationship problems are solved as they arise.
If the problems in each phase are not tackled successfully, the cycle is reversed i.e. the group returns to the preceding phase.
Overview of the phases
try to get to know one another
are very polite to one another
create the emotional starting point for their own and others’ future actions
show little need of finding a group identity
attempt to read and interpret non-verbal and symbolic signals
- require order and structure
- show great dependence on the leader
- put forward many suggestions for activities for the group, of which few are followed up
- are unwilling to reveal and talk about their “hidden motives”
- question their own and other’s values
- try to foresee the behaviour they can expect from the other group members
- show a strong need to be accepted by the group
- create few or no serious conflicts
- exhibit a strong need to understand the group’s goals and game rules
- take few personal risks
- show that they are unsure if they will or will not be a part of the group
- take part in endless discussions about unimportant things
- try to orientate themselves – Why am I/we here? Is this the right group for me/them? Can I/they work in the same group? Can I be myself in this group? What will they require of me what will I require of myself? What rules will apply?
Before a group enters the control phase, the group must first pass through an intermediate phase, the comfortable phase. The group enters this phase when the last of the inclusion questions has been solved, i.e. when they finally feel that everyone is a part of the group. During the inclusion phase the group has consciously avoided all important conflicts, especially those concerning leadership, because the members are aware of how difficult it is to deal with questions of power and responsibility. The group uses the feeling of contentness to gather strength and avoid for as long as possible having to solve the questions which lie ahead of them.
- develop a feeling of “we are all part of the group”
- begin to reveal hidden motives and values during discussions about the group’s goals
- begin to take more risks and show that they are less concerned about being accepted by the rest of the group
- demonstrate more openly their degree of commitment within the group
A group can remain in the comfortable phase for quite some time. For the group to progress it must have an assignment which requires that a leader be appointed from within the group, or that someone compares the member’s competence and ability.
When one or more of the members of the group begins to try control the group or direct the group’s work, the group enters the next phase – the control phase.
- form groups within the group and exhibit fewer group tendencies.
- compete more openly with one another and between sub-groups.
- use accepted excuses for questioned behaviour.
- try to convince the others that their view is the correct one.
- show that they refuse to be influenced by others.
- become increasingly involved in conflicts, which also increase in intensity.
- try, with the help of others, to assume or avoid leadership.
- try to solve conflicts that arise through voting, compromise or by seeking external assistance.
- actively try to discover their colleagues “hidden motives” but are cautious about revealing their own.
- give each other feedback which is often cutting and aggressive.
- show they are no longer concerned whether the group accepts them or not.
- take big risks and show that they are prepared to accept the consequences of their actions, even if this means expulsion from the group.
- display considerable differences of opinion in matters concerning the group’s work.
- exhibit a considerable need for structure and leadership, but are unwilling to allow anyone in the group to satisfy this need
- go against the formal leader
- try to minimise the stress caused by conflicts by taking refuge in irrelevant activities.
- The idyll phase is normally preceded by an serious conflict between the members, or a crisis in the group normally about leadership.
After experiencing a conflict and reaching a solution the group often feels itself “redeemed” or “cleansed”. The feeling is almost impossible to describe, but no-one who has experienced it can mistake it.
- begin to identify the conflicts and the persons involved using more straight forward and honest language
- show greater willingness to find solutions to conflicts and hence to change their own opinions and positions
- allocate leadership, roles and responsibility within the group based on an objective discussion of the individual’s competence and virtues
- develop a group identity and understand their roles within the group.
THE MEMBERS initially:
- The transition from idyll to openness requires far-sighted leadership both within the group and within the organization the group belongs to.
- Many groups never reach the openness phase but instead remain in the idyll phase, especially if they are working in an organization which rewards competition between groups in an inappropriate way.
- deal with conflicts as they arise
- display synergy, i.e. have discovered that collaboration within the group often gives better results than individual efforts
- demand consensus solutions, i.e. common solutions
- ask for suggestions, listen to them, evaluate then, react and, if suitable, implement them
- display contentment since they believe that all conflicts have been solved
- openly share ideas, feelings and opinions and give feedback
- show that they are content with their role in the group and with the group’s activities
- display a considerable need for unity
- display a feeling of “invulnerability”
- run down other groups – “they are not as clever, skilled etc. as we are”
- defend the group identity internally and externally
- demand group loyalty
- sometimes appear to be more amused than interested by the assignment
- focus most energy on maintaining personal relationships and avoiding returning to the control phase.
- display warmth
- regard conflicts as a problem for the group as a whole and an opportunity for further development
- feel secure since each member knows that they are appreciated in the group
- display warmth and comradeship without demanding possession
- do not feel threatened by or jealous of relationships or sub-groups
- allow each member in the group to decide for himself when and how much he or she wants to participate in the various group activities
- are able to cope with relationship problems without neglecting their tasks
- communicate with each other directly, openly, honestly and spontaneously
- reach decisions via discussion which encourages opposing views
- are aware that is possible to actively improve the group’s processes