Not all work is worship.

Formality is the antithesis of utility, of value.

It’s what you do not because it’s useful, but because you ‘have to’, because you ‘should’.

You usually ‘have to’ do something because it’s

a) what someone (an authority figure like a boss) wants you to do or

b) what something (a rule, a belief) says you need to do

Formality and utility are inversely proportional, and formality therefore poisons the effectiveness of relationships – relations between individuals as well relations within organizations.

At the Individual Level

The more formal your interaction, the less authentic it is.

And the less useful.

The degree of formality is the divergence between what you are and what you’re appearing to be, between what you want to say or do and what you’re saying or doing.

Which is the difference between how you want to respond and how you think you need to respond.

Where formality rules, you have to always be on your toes.

Because you can never just be yourself – you have to keep in mind at all times a bunch of rules, diktats, conventions and the like you think you need to conform to.

Which means that – at least some, and probably a great deal, of your focus and mental bandwidth is devoted to adhering to the demands of formality.

And that much bandwidth, which could have been used for something of value, is therefore lost to formality.

It’s like a path from A to B.

If the shortest, simplest path is the straight line, formality forces you to take the long, curved path instead.

Much worse though, formality artificializes the interaction between two human beings.

It’s no longer a natural communication between two original individuals; it’s now become about following some convention, some prescription, some belief.

Instead of going from A to B, you go from some A’ to B’; perhaps close to the original points if you’re lucky, but never really the original points themselves.

You hesitate to express what you would otherwise for fear of violating the unwritten code.

And therefore everything must pass through the filter of formality first – the check to see if it’s safe to express, the re-packaging in a more acceptable form, the wait to see how it’s received.

The response is no longer the individual’s pure, untainted response, but the calculated, considered, ‘correct’ response that conforms to formal conventions.

The Test of Formality

Sometimes, formality is nearly inevitable, and even useful, because of unfamiliarity.

When two people meet for the first time, formal conventions often serve as a groundwork for strangers to build upon.

But after familiarization, you’d assume that formality has served its purpose and can be dropped.

If it’s still needed, it’s questionable if there’s a genuine connection.

I’d go so far as to say that my best connections have been the ones where formality died out rapidly, perhaps within minutes of meeting, and died out utterly, never to be seen again.

With such people, barely moments after meeting, you can talk about anything, and then you can talk without being on your guard, without considering what you’re going to say, and how it might be taken.

Formality is the difference between how you want to respond and how you think you need to respond. And the best relations have the greatest convergence – how you want to respond aligns with how you think you need to respond.

Which means that you don’t have to think too hard how you ought to respond.

The relationship that fails the test of formality can’t really get off the ground, it’s a building with a shoddy foundation.

More often though, formality is much more embedded, and persists even beyond familiarity.

It might die out with time, but in most cases you know that you’re never going to really know each other, never going to really talk beyond simply trying to make conversation.

For whatever reasons, whether it’s due to the hierarchy of an organization or because of power / wealth / status differentials, or more mundane individualistic reasons like mere prejudice or perhaps simply a lack of interest, so many connections remain at the superficial formal level.

Organizational Formality

The greater the formality in an organization, the less effective it is.

Formality takes away the time and resources that would have delivered value to customers.

And diverts them to tasks to be done for the sake of being done – just because someone wanted them to be done.

Examples abound.

Sitting at work even if you have nothing to do because you need to clock certain hours or you’re afraid to leave before your boss.

Preparing extensive documentation that no one will ever read because it’s ‘required’.

Going through four layers of middlemen ‘managers’ to communicate with the person you who deals with the problem.

And perhaps most pernicious of all, doing something not because it’s going to add any value, but just so no one can potentially put you in the dock later for not having done it – in other words, saving your ass.


The degree of formality is the degree of divergence between what needs to be done and what you’re doing.

Which typically turns out to be the divergence between ‘what someone (or some rule) above you wants’ and ‘what the customer would want’.

In other words, the difference between what’s in the best interest of the organization, and what’s in your best interest as a cog in the organization (usually, what your boss wants or what doesn’t break a rule).

The best organizations have the greatest convergence – what those higher up want aligns with what the customer wants.

Which means that you don’t have to think too hard about balancing what’s in the best interest of the organization and what’s going to please your boss or save your ass – because they’re the same thing.

Of course, it’s too simplistic to assume that this holds for any organization; within any organization there’ll probably be all sorts of managers, with varying degrees of divergence.

But by and large, an organization tends to have a particular standard of people depending on its standard – there’d be few brilliant people in mediocre setups and vice versa, so it’s easy to see the extent of alignment in any organization.


It doesn’t matter how smart or stupid people are; formalities affect decision making.

Someone might despise formality, love it, or be indifferent to it – but it affects them all the same.

A formality is a cost, and every cost is to be factored into the decision making tree.

A formality might seem the most pointless thing in the world; and yet, adhering to it might be the smartest thing even for someone who despises formality.

Because the cost of the formality – which is the penalty for defying it – is something to be factored in.

That’s one harm of formality – that even people who don’t care for it might expend enough effort to comply with the minimum it demands.

While those who thrive on formality will of course do everything to keep it alive.

And those who are passive – indifferent to formality as well as utility – simply respond to the incentives it creates. Tell people to sit for 8 hours at work, and that’s probably all they’ll do, and no more – and you end up with human benchwarmers.

Whether an organization prioritizes formality over results is really a question of which category those with the power to make that choice fall in.


The largest chunk in most big organizations probably comprises the third category, the fence-sitters, without any strong convictions on this subject or any other, for whom work is simply an exchange of time and effort for a wage.

The third category doesn’t determine the culture, but it embodies it.

It does that by reacting passively to carrots and sticks, conditioned just as Pavlov’s dogs were.

There’s a story of organizational culture and 5 monkeys.

The monkeys are kept in a room with bananas at the top of the ladder. Each time a monkey tries to get to the bananas, all the monkeys are sprayed with icy water. Not surprisingly, the monkeys then restrain any of their ilk who try to get the bananas.

A new monkey is substituted for one of the old ones – and the first thing the newcomer does, perhaps not surprisingly, since he doesn’t know about the icy water, is to go for the bananas, only to be beaten by his comrades.

Soon enough, he learns the rules of the game – no one goes for the bananas – even though he’s never seen any icy water himself, and perhaps only heard about it from his comrades.

Eventually, all 5 original monkeys are substituted, and now you have 5 monkeys who beat and prevent each other from taking the bananas, without really knowing why – remember that none of them have ever seen anyone punished with water.

When you tell someone, who doesn’t have any particularly strong convictions otherwise, to behave a certain way, and reward him for doing so and punish him for not doing so, he’s likely to comply.

And so soon enough you create an organization where people are expected to, and indeed themselves expect to, and can’t even imagine it being any other way, deliver only on formality, not value.

It’s even worse because it’s self-reinforcing.

People begin to second-guess what they think their boss would like, and modify their behaviour based on that – even without being explicitly ordered to.

People’s expectations shape and determine reality – just as with inflation. If enough people share a belief and act in accordance with it, it tends to manifest itself.

If enough people believe prices will rise rapidly, they’ll act on that belief and make their purchases today, before the expected price rise – and when everyone rushes to buy, prices will rise.

If enough people believe a bank will collapse, they’ll act on their belief and withdraw their money and the bank will collapse.

And if enough people believe formality is rewarded, they’ll act on that and focus on show rather than substance – and the organization will become only about show, not substance.

And perhaps it’s not possible to change that – a starting moment comes but once in any organization.

Once messed up, you can’t build on a lousy foundation – either you accept it the way it is, perhaps temporarily patching it up like Band-Aid over a bullet wound, or you start over from scratch, a new entity.


Where formality rules, processes are an end in themselves, more important than outcomes.

And so you end up with an organization dramatically undershooting its potential – the bulk of its resources devoted to unproductive activities.

By unproductive I mean that which the world would not miss – were it to cease to exist, not a single person would be adversely affected. And by its existence not a single person is benefited.

(Except of course those who depend on the existence of unproductive work for their sustenance – and that’s where you get into the thorny problem of vested interests.)

The test of unproductiveness is the test of value, the test of utility – it’s when you can answer in the affirmative the question, “If this didn’t exist, would someone (other than those who make a living off it) be worse off?”

What never fails to surprise (and perhaps disappoint) is how rarely the most sought after, the most prestigious or highly paid, work passes this test.

And how frequently the most ordinary and underpaid work does.

What you end up with, when you fail the test of utility, is straightforward.

You end up with work, not for utility, not for value creation, but work for the sake of work – a passing of time, a mock seriousness, an appearance of busyness, a semblance of activity, a charade of purpose.