On formality in organizations and culture

The degree of organizational formality manifests itself in the use of language, dress codes, existence and use of formal titles, the way rooms and offices are organized, seating arrangements, office design, and many, many other things and artifacts, big and small.
Formality enable some people to feel comfortable to do business in a global setting; others need informality.
• There are cultures where people need to break out of formality in order to feel comfortable enough to do business. “Just call me Bob; I gotta get this company out of the muck soon-so let’s get a move on it!”….in first meeting, with sleeves rolled up.
• There are cultures where people need to booze in order to relay messages that cannot be relayed due the formal etiquette (and linguistic structure) of everyday business. “You know Oya-san, this idea of yours really needs more work”…..after 5th drink.
• There are cultures where the only way to do business is within a framework of strict formalities. “Dr Muller, sir. I am ready to give you the report”, says Hans who has been working under “Dr” Muller for ten years.
When OD is practiced in a global setting, the degree of formality needs to be adjusted; this is often a daunting task.
Here are some rules of thumb for an OD consultant in a global diverse setting.
• As a facilitator, overdress, all the time. Many populations do not respect a facilitator who is casual.
• In a meeting, you need to relate to people as they relate to you. Call Bill by the name of Bill and call Dr Muller by the name of Dr Muller. Decide how to present yourself, and let people call you whatever they want.
• Introduce people as if you are a host; do not ask them to introduce one another before you say a few words.
• Make sure to prepare people one on one before more formal meetings as much as possible. Use more structured meetings as a default, slowly migrating to less structured as you see the level of tolerance for this developing. Unstructured meetings are harder to run in a very diverse setting.
• If there is a gap in the way people address one another, bridge the gap at the beginning. “Bill and Dr Muller, how does each of you see this issue developing and what are the gaps? Then, start to translate intent. “Dr Muller, when you call Bill by the name Mr. Thomas, he feels uncomfortable”. “Bill, Dr Muller is only called Hans at his golf club, so you make him feel out of the aquarium”..
• Avoid humour because it is too informal. (I ignore this advice all the time).
• Always issue a formal written summary, with action items and ownership.

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2 thoughts on “On formality in organizations and culture

  1. These are excellent points – though I too like to use humor judiciously. That can be hard to judge but if you are very attuned to others cultural mannerisms you can tell if and when the humor was ignored, embarrassing, effective, or even annoying.
    I also always overdress. As a woman this is particularly important.

  2. Humor can be a great change tool. When you get people laughing, sooner or later they will ask themselves WHY they’re laughing.

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