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Scrum and Group Dynamics

6 November 2007

Jörgen Fors PMP

Given that Scrum has a very pragmatic view of getting things done and a strong focus on teamwork, how do the psychological aspects of group dynamics affect the likelihood that Scrum will succeed? Two interesting theories on the subject, FIRO and RAT, have implications for Scrum, yet I have not seen them referred to in any Scrum or agile material. Understanding these theories and their implications can affect whether a Scrum team succeeds or struggles.


The theory of Fundamental Interpersonal Relationship Orientation, FIRO, was put forth by psychologist Will Schutz in 1958. He developed this theory during the Korea conflict, when he was assigned the task of explaining why teams with equal training and tasks achieved quite different results. Schutz found that team performance was directly related to the way team members interact and communicate.

FIRO divides the life of a team into three phases: Inclusion, Control, and Affection. Each of these phases measures how much interaction the individual team members desire in the areas of socializing, leadership, and responsibilities (and more intimate personal relations as well).

Inclusion describes an immature team, where individuals are focused on belonging or not belonging to the team. Individuals on an immature team are very polite as they attempt to orient among the other team members, achieve acceptance for themselves, and decide whether to accept others. The motivating need of the individuals is to feel important enough to be allowed to be a part of the team.

Control describes a team where individuals are focused on determining their relative position on the team. Individuals often have a confrontational or guardian behavior towards the rest of the team as they measure their own position in the group as opposed to the other team members. The motivating need of the individuals is to feel competent enough to be able to influence the team.
Affection describes the relations of a mature team, whose individuals focus on how close or far away from other team members they want to be. Team members in the Affection phase act openly and transparently towards each other and share both thoughts and feelings. The motivating need of the individuals is to feel loved and liked enough by the others.

Teams will become fully efficient in solving whatever task they have to do only when they have reached the affection phase. The task of the team leader (ScrumMaster), then, is to guide the team into Affection as quickly and efficiently as possible.


Elias Porter’s Relationship Awareness Theory (RAT) holds that all people want to have relationships with other people. From birth, human infants seek positive connections with their caregivers. Interaction and relationships with others give our world meaning. Therefore, our behaviors are expressions of our innate desire to be connected with others. RAT looks at how we behave to establish and maintain these relationships so that we have a positive sense of ourselves and our value as people.

  1. Behaviors are tools used to get some result or confirm our sense of self-worth. Behaviors are also used to ward off things we do not want.
  2. Motives come from our wish to feel a strong sense of self worth or self value.
  3. Our individual Motivational Value System is consistent throughout our life and underpins all of our behaviors.
    Individual needs (and the resulting behavior) can change, depending on whether a person is stressed or not. So, a person’s behavior is predictable when calm and likewise predictable when under stress. However, calm behavior does not affect the stressed behavior. For example, a person can be friendly and helpful when calm, only to become controlling when under stress.

RAT divides individual behavior into three main types, all of which reside to some extent within an individual: Unselfish and caring (UC), Sure and controlling (SC), Analytic and independent (AI). In between these types are mixed behaviors.

All of the behaviors can be strengths of an individual and assets to the team, unless exaggerated. When the behaviors are exhibited to the extreme, they will be perceived by others as weaknesses of the individual. A common source of conflicts is when individuals of different behavioral types try to evaluate and judge each other. For instance UC and SC types of persons might experience the AI type as uncaring and uninterested.

FIRO in the Scrum environment

Now, let’s examine how these two theories affect the Scrum environment and see if we can use the information to find even more efficient ways of performing Scrum.

When we form a Scrum team and physically locate the individuals together, we create an undisturbed environment where the team is allowed to travel through the phases of FIRO. Scrum also sets a framework for how this journey is to take place by introducing a number of routines. During the inclusion phase, this framework allows new members to feel welcome and have some stability in an otherwise new world, where they are figuring out their roles.

The good news is that being located together and having routines lets Scrum teams make a fast transition to the Control phase. The bad news is that, once teams reach this phase, Scrum offers little help on how to get through this phase and become an effective team. On the contrary! Scrum explicitly states that the team shall be “self-organizing,” a directive which places a huge demand on the leadership skills of the ScrumMaster. One thing Scrum does provide, however, is some pressure regarding what is expected by the team (the sprint backlog) and during which timeframe it is supposed to happen (the length of the sprint). From a psychological point-of-view, the daily scrums and close cooperation enhance team spirit and enforce the bonds of the team. Forcing the team to focus on the task at hand also helps move the team into affection. At the same time, however, the pressure acts as a filter, where the weaker team members run the risk of being forced off of the team. Realize, too, that until an unfit member officially is lifted out, the team as a whole can not progress from Inclusion into the later phases.

While new Scrum teams will most likely perform better than teams using traditional development methods, no truly remarkable results can be expected by any team until they reach the Affection state. This is a good reason not to change the team between sprints, as every change in the team composition inevitably will throw the team back to the Inclusion phase. A strong team well into Affection will recuperate quite quickly, while newer teams might take considerable time to rebound, if in fact they ever do.

RAT in the Scrum Environment

RAT has different implications for the Scrum team. Just as different behavioral types apply different styles when acting as leaders, they also require different styles to be led.

A new group needs external stability and assurance. The team as a whole will have a need for a firm and self-assured leader—an authoritarian or, in RAT terms, someone with strong “Sure and Controlling” behaviors (SC). However, as the team passes into the Control phase, they no longer need this style of leadership. Since FIRO tells us that most of the group’s energy in this phase is spent finding internal team rankings, an SC-style of leadership will be seen as a direct challenge for rank, leading to confrontations. A better leadership style for teams in this phase is an Analytic and Independent (AI) leader, one who is skilled at “trickery.”

Once Affection achieved, the AI style will become obsolete. Any “trickery” that worked before to get the team to perform will be immediately seen through and ignored by this more mature team. Fortunately, the Unselfish Caring (UC) type of leadership is very well suited for leading a team that has reached this phase. This leadership style is also very much in line with the Scrum view of the ScrumMaster as “a remover of impediments,” i.e. both an authority and a servant to the team.

Based on this information, both FIRO and RAT theories suggest that selecting the right ScrumMaster is crucial to a team’s success. Not only must the ScrumMaster be well versed in the Scrum methodology, he or she must also be able to adopt different leadership styles, based on the current maturity of the team. Without a talented ScrumMaster to guide new teams through the early stages of their Scrum adoption, they may never move past the inclusion phase to one where they are truly productive. A good ScrumMaster serves as a catalyst for the team’s bonding process.

If your team is not performing as expected with Scrum, start looking at your own leadership style and ask yourself what can be done to help the team move into Affection. Keep teams intact or, if replacements are necessary, make them swiftly. Finally, be sure to appoint scrummasters that are able to use different leadership styles, depending on the situation at hand and the current needs of the team!


Schutz, W.C. (1958). FIRO: A Three Dimensional Theory of Interpersonal Behavior. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston

Personal strengths publishing, 2007

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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Mike Lowery, CSM,CSPO, 11/15/2007 4:27:51 AM
J├╢rgen, I really enjoyed reading this article but wondered if you could shed some more light on individual interactions as I have inferred from the text that as a team transitions to different phases all members do so at the same rate. This does not seem to fit with current thinking that everyone travels along the "change curve" but does so at differing rates. I totally agree with the Scrum master shifting their approach to suit the changing needs of the team, but I think understanding all the individuals needs is more effective than just looking at the whole team.
Jörgen Fors PMP, CSM, 11/16/2007 3:11:00 AM
I'm sorry if I were a bit blur in the article. Of course you are right in people traveling the change curve at different rates. The point is that the team as a whole and by definition, does not enter the next stage of FIRO, until all members of the team are there.
I.e. as long as there are issues on right-of-belonging or internal hierarchy, energy will be drained from the team as a whole in solving this issue. And the issue *will* be attended to before anything else, as it is a matter of the teams social security (compare with the Maslow hierarchy of needs, where security takes precedence over esteem and self-actualisation, which is were problem solving resides).
This can be quite clearly seen in teams in the inclusion phase, where members certain of their right of belonging, have to either adopt or expel new members before being able to regain focus.
Artem Marchenko, CSM,CSPO, 11/23/2007 8:45:44 AM
It is so much in line with what I've learned on the leadership courses and what I try applying myself. This article repacks and filters the leadership styles info into a Scrum team relevant format. Enjoyed reading.

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