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Chapter Three:The Formality Continuum.

Formality Continuum, the Spectrum of Communication, “Informal to Formal”.

Chapter Three at a “Glance”? [One Minute Byte]

1. What is formal? What is semi-formal.? What is informal communication?

2. How can I use the “Formality Continuum” to my benefit?

3. What are the key points to be able to differentiate the level of formality?

4. The majority of communication is informal, how does this benefit me?

5. Why has the “Formality Continuum” not been used in Business before?

 



The Main Point: What are the contributing factors. (Defining the problem)

Understanding the Key Points in the Situation? [Five Minute Bytes]


What is formal? What is semi-formal? What is informal communication?

  • Informal communication has the least boundaries controlling it, it’s free flow.

  • Semi-formal communication is halfway between formal and informal.

  • Formal communication requires the communicator to behave in a certain way.

How can I use the “Formality Continuum” to my benefit?

  • The formality continuum opens up creative opportunities for people.

  • Informal communication is where ideas can be discussed and agreed upon.

  • The ideas which work can be tested in more detail in semi-formal situations.

What are the key points to be able to differentiate the level of formality?

  • The levels of formality are defined by the acceptance of the people involved.

  • Levels of authority do not define formality, it’s the acceptance of the ideas.

  • Acceptance of the ideas is based on the trust between the parties involved.

The majority of communication is informal, how does this benefit me?

  • Informal to semiformal communication lends itself to creative ideas.

  • These are the areas where people need to find better ways of doing things.

  • The level of risk is minimal in an informal setting, i.e. testing a small task.

Why has the “Formality Continuum” not been used in Business before?

  • The obvious reason is that no one has thought of different levels of formality.

  • Accepting levels of formality, opportunities to test ideas, then open up.

  • Due to the above, there wasn’t an informal arena to test ideas in companies.

 


Moving to a shared understanding of the situation? [Fifteen Minute Bytes]

If you have grown up in an environment where the norms in society have to be unconditionally respected simply because that’s the way things get done around here, then the chances are the “formality continuum” will not make sense to a person growing up in this kind of environment. Finding better ways of doing things might not have been an option in their former years.


What is formal? What is semi-formal? What is informal communication?

Informal communication has the least boundaries controlling it, it’s free flow.

Informal communication is defined by the free flow of information between people. For this to happen efficiently and effectively there needs to be a relative amount of openness to listen to and respond to other people’s ideas amongst those involved in the conversation. A typical business informal setting is two or more employees discussing the potential outcome of a project during a coffee break. The tone of the conversation confirms the acceptance of equal status amongst all the participants leading to the free flow of information.


Semi-formal communication is halfway between formal and informal.

Semi-formal communication has slightly more structure to it than informal communication. When a manager and an employee meet to discuss the results of an Action Plan this can either be semi-formal or formal, depending on how much the manager insists on the following procedure and how much he/she uses his / her level of authority to manage the outcome of the meeting. It is a limited free flow of information. Semi-formal communication is affected by the personality of the manager and their self-esteem, self-confidence and self-image.


Formal communication requires the communicator to behave in a certain way.

Formal communication involves all the aspects of standard procedure. A court of law is one such example. In court, there are set procedures on how you address members of the court, sequences of presentation etc, and all controlled by a single person, the judge or magistrate. A monthly management meeting with an Agenda and Minutes is an example of formal communication in a business. The restricting factor in formal communication is not that people do not discuss issues in a formal setting, but rather the setting in which these issues are discussed is governed by procedures, everything is recorded, therefore there is some risk.

 

How can I use the “Formality Continuum” to my benefit?

The formality continuum opens up creative opportunities for people.

The informal side of the continuum lends itself to the experimentation of individuals and therefore these people are continuously looking to find better ways of doing things. The risks are low and acceptance of others is high. Creating an innovative culture has within it the opportunity for people to share ideas and collaborate in areas of mutual benefit.


Informal communication is where ideas can be discussed and agreed upon.

The formality continuum creates a culture of continuous development because the focus of attention is how can I find a better way of doing what I have to do. This is not a new idea as it has been used for decades now in Japanese Companies with Kae Zen and P.D.S.A. being formal systems of testing ideas. The formality continuum allows employees to discuss and test their ideas first in a more informal setting.


Ideas that work can be tested in more detail in semi-formal situations.

If an informal idea has been proven to be more efficient and effective, then it might leapfrog into a more formal setting or if the results are not clear enough it might be first tested in a semi-formal setting.

 

What are the key points to be able to differentiate the level of formality?

The levels of formality are defined by the acceptance of the people involved.

Open-minded acceptance, approval, agreement, tolerance of the ideas without clear evidence initially that the idea would work, are all words that would define the communication at an informal level. The more formal it becomes the more hard evidence to support the idea becomes necessary.


Levels of authority do not define formality, it’s the acceptance of the ideas.

If a person on the shop floor is talking to the MD, it does not automatically mean it is a formal conversation. If the MD engages in casual conversation (and this must be well mannered, with appropriate language, or fitting behaviour) then both people can engage in an informal discussion about something they both have a concern with.


Acceptance of the ideas is based on the trust between the parties involved.

Trust is an underlying principle in working with the formality continuum. It should be there in all informal conversations, but one of the reasons is that in formal communication everything has to be formalised and in writing so it can be reviewed as to what was said and done at a later date. So in informal communication, it is important that there is a relative amount of trust between both parties. This is not always easy to confirm in the early stages, it does take time to confirm that both are trustworthy. If you say you will do and you really do what you say on a continuous basis, then these actions develop trust.

 

The majority of communication is informal, how does this benefit me?

Informal communication lends itself to creative ideas.

Informal communication is a situation that creates fertile ground for germinating novel, original and meaningful ideas, these ideas are the seeds for future development. Applied pressure does not necessarily result in high levels of motivation, it requires just the right amount of pressure combined with high motivation. Pressurising someone does not necessarily make them more motivated, and therefore there needs to be a well-structured setting with mutually agreed and achievable goals and the means to succeed.


These are the areas where people need to find better ways of doing things.

Tom Peters Book, “In Search of Excellence” mentions the concept of “Skunk Works” where companies demonstrate excellence, trial and test ideas in an informal setting much like the informal side of the formality continuum. The idea of the formality continuum is not a new idea. It is just that it allows a broader range of ways in which people can choose to communicate and also it opens up the informal side where employees can participate in self-development and improving work conditions.


The level of risk is minimal in an informal setting while testing a small task.

The risk of losing face, or being punished in some way is often a deterrent to people wanting to try something new. In an informal setting, ideas can be discussed, challenged, and theoretically assessed, thus lowering the risk of failure to some degree. Not everybody is risk-averse, however, the formality continuum does allow for there to be some control with people who are high-risk takers, they would be encouraged to discuss their ideas before putting them into action.

 

Why has the “Formality Continuum” not been used in Business before?

The obvious reason is that no one has thought of different levels of formality.

Casual conversations because all the facts in the conversation cannot be accurately repeated, therefore they are not considered part of “business communication”, unless the conversation was recorded on some technical device.

Recording a conversation makes it formal. e-mail is now considered a formal document. So where do text messages lie on the continuum?


Accepting levels of formality, opportunities to test ideas then open up.

When it is accepted throughout a company that there is such a thing as the formality continuum, and it is part of everyday life, i.e. part of the culture, then this opens up to a degree to high levels of participative management. This also is directly connected to the assertive communication culture. The informality continuum is connected to assertive communication, participative management, company culture and performance management.


Now companies have an arena to test ideas to drive continuous development.

Without an understanding that there can be times when authority levels are lowered so that more informal conversation can take place, then it is unlikely that people will share their ideas with their immediate superiors. However with the understanding that you can talk to your boss and he will be open to your ideas, as being part of a system called the formality continuum, then a whole new vista opens up.

 



Ideas that pull it all together:

Starting with ‘informal’ tasks, formalizing them as they become more effective.

  • Casual Conversation to formal document – when and why?

There are so many ways in which people communicate, verbally over the phone, verbally face-to-face, in writing in hard copy, in writing - texting, in writing an e-mail, non-verbally across a room, etc. These are the spectrum of communication, from “Informal to Formal Continuum”.


The informal end of the continuum is defined by the location, speed at which it happens and the ability over time to repeat exactly what was said or done. For this reason, informal communication has often not been encouraged in a business setting, because facts are hard to recall and agree upon after some time. If there is a misunderstanding and it needs to be confirmed what was said and/or done, and by whom, then it is difficult to prove who said or did what. This is where the location comes into the formula. Location includes the relationship between the two people. If there is a trusting relationship between the two, then the differences of opinion can easily be settled. If there is little or no trust between the two people, then it becomes obvious that informal communication will most likely not work.


But in any relationship where there is suspicion as to the other person’s motives, then even formal communication in writing can create disagreement because so often a word can imply two different meanings. For example, the words accountable and responsible both have similar meanings. But if you then define what each one means then in that situation the use of those two words become related but different. For example, if accountability means: “The buck stops here with person A.” Therefore regardless of who else is involved, the result of the task, project and activity, person A is fully accountable. And then with responsibility, means that person A can delegate an element of the task to person B. Person A will always be accountable for the end result of the task, and person B will be responsible for the outcome of the element delegated to them. So person A has to think carefully before delegating anything to person B because if they make a mess of it, it will ultimately affect the outcome of the task. Defining the differences in the meaning of accountability and responsibility is used most often in the delegation of responsibility further down the line.


So what has this to do with the “Formality Continuum”? In everyday communication, the majority of interaction occurs in the informal to a semiformal section of the continuum.


So why is it important to take note of this? It is much easier to experiment with ideas in the informal section of the continuum. This is why the informal continuum is so important, and making this part of a company culture opens up a whole new world where small tasks and be tried and tested to see if they work and under what conditions they work best. When you have this information you can then begin to formalise the task into a system.

 

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Publisher: People Plus (peopleplusco.com)


First Edition: 2021

 

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