Navigating the Labyrinth of Stress: Interpersonal Needs and Personality Preferences

In managing stress, the big first step is recognizing how you tend to act under stress. Once you recognize what it looks like for you—and consequently for those you work with—you’re empowered to manage it.

Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when it’s sustained, it can be debilitating. It affects our ability to regulate our emotions, and our metabolism and overall health. Stress can even cause our brains to shrink—a problem I’m confident no one needs. With 2017 seeing tremendous change already—and there’s surely more to come—stress management has to be a top priority for individuals and organizations alike.

One effective way to deal with stress combines looking at our behavior through two models. First, our interpersonal needs (as described by the Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation or FIRO model) often lie at the root of what tends to get us stressed. Second, our personality type (as described by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator instrument or MBTI) affects how we react to stress. By understanding what gets us stressed, and how we react to it, we can more readily pull ourselves, as well as teammates and co-workers, out of counter-productive stress.

When Our Interpersonal Needs Aren’t Met, We Get Stressed

According to the FIRO model, our behavior is driven by individually varying levels of interpersonal needs in three areas:

  • Inclusion
  • Control
  • Affection

We experience different degrees of need along these three areas in both “expressed” and “wanted” ways. For example, if you have a high expressed need for inclusion, you may want to make sure everyone and anyone is invited to anything and everything. If you have a low “wanted” need for inclusion, you might not care whether or not you’re invited to that meeting or party.

When our needs are met, we engage and contribute. When our needs aren’t met, we withdraw, sometimes we even sabotage (outwardly or passive aggressively), or try to get our needs met in negative ways—through substance abuse or other destructive behaviors.

Consider, for example, that you have got two people with high “expressed” and low “wanted” needs for control on the same team—you can imagine how unpleasant things could get as both of these individuals try to get their needs met. Suffice it to say, there are a limitless number of things at work that can stand in the way of getting our interpersonal needs met if we let them. If on an ongoing basis we’re unable to meet our needs, it can be a major source of stress that leaves us feeling ignored and rejected. Furthermore, we may find ourselves pushing for our needs at the expense of other people’s needs. All of this, of course, leads to a work environment that isn’t good for the individual, the team, or the organization.

Our Stress Reactions Are as Varied as Our Personalities

When our interpersonal needs aren’t met, we often find that the way we experience stress is highly varied—one person’s behavior may be radically different from another’s. In fact, our response is shaped by our personality type, which, according to the MBTI assessment, is determined by our preference for either: Extraversion or Introversion; Sensing or Intuition; Thinking or Feeling; Judging or Perceiving.

Out of each of these pairs, the one we prefer is known as our favorite or “dominant” process, and under stress can begin to express itself in exaggerated ways. For instance, someone who prefers thinking in an extraverted way, and is naturally inclined to seek order and logic, under stress may start to act like a drill sergeant. Or, a person who naturally prefers feeling in an introverted way may become withdrawn, hiding behind the curtain, so to speak.

Easing Pressure of Stress

In managing stress, the big first step is recognizing how you tend to act under stress. Once you recognize what it looks like for you—and consequently for those you work with—you’re empowered to manage it. Do any of the following sound like you when you’re under stress?

  • Extraverted Sensing. You typically like to look at facts in the present moment, but find yourself obsessing over irrelevant details that previously didn’t matter to you. This could look like oversleeping, exercising, drinking, etc.
  • Introverted Sensing. Your normal penchant for collecting data and details gives way to rigidity. When someone approaches you with a new idea, you shoot it down because it’s not “by the book.”
  • Extraverted Intuition. You’re normally about exploring all kinds of possibilities, but now you start to “catastrophize” things, imagining the absolute worst-case scenario. Experiencing stress can be kind of like Googling symptoms of an illness—you find that you have every disease on the planet.
  • Introverted Intuition. You’re normally all about finding connections and putting patterns together, but now you’re starting to put together patterns that don’t even exist. You may start to think like a conspiracy theorist.
  • Extraverted Thinking. You’re normally focused on organizing decisions in a logical task-focused way. Lately, people says you are getting a bit bossy and not concerned with how your approach is affecting those who are important to you.
  • Introverted Thinking. You’re normally good at giving the pros and cons of a problem, but lately you’ve become overly critical, unfeeling, and disinterested. Instead of seeing pros, you only see cons.
  • Extraverted Feeling. Usually you place a high priority on how your decisions affect others, but this has morphed into “overbearing caregiving.” You want harmony, even if you have to enforce it.
  • Introverted Feeling. You are normally calmly living and guided by values that are important to you. Now, only your values count and you get a bit testy when you think they are threatened because you feel like no one really understands you.

By understanding how you or a co-worker reacts to stress, you then can examine the interpersonal needs you might not be meeting and that may be at the root of your stress reaction, and take action. For example, you may find you’re sending mixed signals. If you experience a high need for inclusion, but you’re not making yourself available for gatherings, or don’t respond with outward enthusiasm when you’re invited, you can change your behavior to let people know you want to be involved. In some cases, it may mean making changes to your situation. There are some work cultures that won’t ever allow you to meet your needs in a meaningful way—if you’re in one of those situations, you’re bound to experience prolonged stress.

In a work setting as people learn about personality type, interpersonal needs, and stress reactions, teams begin to understand each other better. You learn what is called the “Platinum Rule”: to help people the way they want to be helped. And by so doing, you lay the foundation for a more productive and positive work environment where people’s interpersonal needs are more regularly met. You’ll do better work, and so will the people around you.

Michael Segovia is the lead trainer for CPP, Inc.’s MBTI Certification Programs. In his quarter-century career at CPP, Segovia has conducted hundreds of certification courses in the MBTI, and speaks and writes regularly on the subject of personality type, leadership, and development. He recently presented a TED talk reflecting on how type theory has informed his understanding of his own life’s story.