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Simplicity: Formality v informality


Shirt and tieToday's society is less stratified and deferential than it was 30 years ago. Has the workplace lost anything important along the way? Trevor Gay considers the pros and cons of formality.

Photo of Trevor Gay"Would I be comfortable receiving financial advice from a bank manager dressed in jeans and T-shirt and a gold stud in his or her eyebrow?"

I was 17 years old in 1970, and a couple of weeks into my first job in the National Health Service (NHS) when my boss took me aside and told me that when he came into the office he liked to be referred to as Mr or Sir. I seem to recall it felt like a non-negotiable condition.

This was his normal behaviour. The other staff who had worked for him for a while saw it as perfectly normal too. Recently that got me thinking about how things have changed.

Consider these three contrasts:

  • In 1970 every letter that left our office, and those received in our office, was addressed Dear Mr, Mrs or Miss. In 2008 all correspondence I receive begins either Dear Trevor, Hello Trevor, Hi Trevor or Hi. In 2008 most conversations start on first name terms, whether talking to bosses, people we work alongside or someone on the phone I’ve probably never met.
  • In the hospital I worked at in the 1970’s there was a senior staff dining room; there was a consultant medical staff dining room; and a sisters' dining room; there was another dining room that did not have a name – this was for the rest of us. In 2008 most hospitals have one dining room that is for all staff regardless of rank.
  • In 1970 I was expected to wear a collar and tie at work. A suit would be the preferred attire but if not able to afford that, then smart trousers, jacket, shirt and tie was acceptable. The 2008 dress code is different. Those areas away from the public facing part of the organisation are much more liberal about dress code. I do not see as many suits as I used to. Having said that there are still a high proportion of suits among middle and senior managers. Some parts of the NHS allow 'jeans day' – usually a Friday of course!

I am not suggesting any of the two distinctly different approaches are right or wrong – that would be presumptuous and arrogant. I simply suggest things have changed dramatically and it is now a very different culture. From memory I was probably comfortable with the old style - it was - after all 'just how it is round here'. But I am also comfortable with the new informality. The 'old world' was perhaps one of knowing your place in the pecking order and respect being implicit in the position held by those in all parts of the hierarchy. The new world is more about informality. However:

  • Would I be comfortable receiving financial advice from a bank manager dressed in jeans and T-shirt and a gold stud in his or her eyebrow?
  • Would my doctor inspire confidence if dressed in sandals, shorts and baseball cap for my consultation?
  • Would it feel right to have summer board meetings in the garden with everyone dressed in casual outfits drinking ice cool soft drinks?

If the answer to these three questions is no then we might ask ourselves why we feel uncomfortable and where does that come from.

I know this is complex. Our expectations and perceptions about what is expected are deeply rooted in history and custom. The information technology revolution is one thing that is challenging all our beliefs about issues like the three hypothetical examples above.

"Would it feel right to have summer board meetings in the garden with everyone dressed in casual outfits drinking ice cool soft drinks?"

I remember reading that as a young man, Bill Gates would – without notice - declare 'today is going to be mini-golf day in the office' in the early days of Microsoft. Or he would bring in a film so that everyone could watch it – sweets and drinks were provided. This was probably because he did not bring to work a set of pre-conceived ideas about the way organisations should be run. He brought to work that which we consider to be perfectly normal behaviour outside the hours of nine to five, Monday to Friday.

I wonder what would actually happen if board meetings were held outside on a nice summer day. Maybe board members would find it enjoyable - maybe we are more productive when we are doing something enjoyable. When suggesting such ideas, one is often put into one of three camps:

  • Not in touch with the real world

  • A bit eccentric

  • In need of therapy

Maybe we need to get more in touch with our child like qualities. In 2008 there are no doubt organisations which are faced with some really stark decisions about how to survive in the private sector and, in the public sector, ensuring good quality services at an affordable cost.

Traditional approaches to solving problems are always our first position. This is fine but old approaches were for an old world where there was more predictability and stability and we all had more time. The information technology revolution has demanded that we all work at a far quicker pace where the customer is no longer a passive recipient of services or goods. The customer is now in possession of information about everything and organisations need to be very smart to stay ahead.

I love the following quotes:

"Strategies are okayed in boardrooms that even a child would say are bound to fail. The problem is there is never a child in the boardroom." (Victor Palmieri, Fortune, February 24 1992)

"What a distressing contrast there is between the radiant intelligence of the child and the feeble mentality of the average adult." (Sigmund Freud)

I know some of these ideas will have detractors. That is fine – life is all about different views and finding common ground. I like to think I am a 'realistic idealist' – how’s that for a good compromise? It is like swimming close to the side of the pool which is I guess where many managers swim. Close enough to the edge of the pool in case we get out of our depth.

I am not advocating anarchy, I am simply raising the issue of informality versus formality and which of the two approaches results in effective outcomes? And does it matter anyway?

Trevor Gay is an independent leadership and management coach, trainer, consultant and author with a self-confessed obsession for simplicity and liberating front line staff.

To see more reflections from Trevor you can read his last article on 'Are great leaders born or made?' by clicking here or visit his Simplicity Blog at You can contact him by email on [email protected].


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