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Levels of formality at work: high vs. low formality behavioral drive

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This blog post is the fourth in a four-part series covering the four behavioral drives that the Predictive Index™ measures in its PI Behavioral Assessment.

Formality is the drive to conform to rules and structure.

Understanding the high-formality employee

The high-formality employee takes a diligent and serious approach to her work. She is conscientious about getting things right, and this helps explain her emphasis on precision. She is well-organized and attentive to details.

In her view, whatever she does needs to be done right. She’s supremely motivated to produce error-free work and not to receive criticism or blame if things go wrong. As a result, she’s cautious and hesitant to take risks. She is a careful worker, and she has a strong reliance on conforming to whatever policies or rules have been established to govern how work should be done.

Reliable? Absolutely. A trailblazer? Not so much.

Working for a high-formality boss

If your supervisor is a high-formality person, he will operate strictly by the book. When a new operation or activity is needed in his department, he will develop a clear playbook about how that work is to be done. His authority is not based on who he is so much as it comes from the policies and systems that the organization needs in order to operate properly.

He is an expert and a specialist in his field. His confidence comes from having mastered his domain. He has high standards for himself—and by extension—for you. He will exert tight control over how things get done in his area.

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He is motivated by a sense of duty to an institution—his company, his division, his department. He is disciplined in his approach. This expectation to be disciplined rolls downhill, so be sure to do things by the book.

He is a conservative leader who is skeptical of new, unfamiliar, and unproven initiatives. He is a serious fellow, and he is also exacting in his management of those who work for him. He works hard to establish clear guidelines, and he expects them to be followed. A failure to do so creates risk of failure and a negative reflection back on him.

Managing the high-formality employee

When you manage a high-formality employee, she’ll want a crystal clear understanding of the rules and regulations. Your job is to make sure that she clearly understands what “right” looks like. This gives her comfort and confidence to move forward. “High-formality individuals love being detailed, precise, structure, processes,” explains Jennifer Tenfelde, HR director at Polysciences, Inc. “I’ve found high-formality individuals perceive there are right and wrong ways to do things.”


Give her time and help her to develop specific knowledge of her job. Clearly lay out your expectations for her performance, and ask her if she has any additional questions about how things are to be done.

What the high-formality worker needs most is freedom from risk of error. She needs time to develop expertise. Once she’s accomplished this, recognize her depth of knowledge. Be forewarned that this drive may make her a worrier at times. She may be inhibited around others until a clear “operating system” for interaction has been established.

“High-formality people will definitely flounder when there isn’t a clear path to be found or there is change,” observes Tenfelde. “Announce change well in advance, let them digest it, and give them an opportunity to kick the tires on it. Don’t expect them to embrace change immediately and you may have to do some hand-holding. Be upfront that you recognize they are going to feel uncomfortable but that feeling will go away.”

Low formality at work

A low-formality employee is informal, casual, and spontaneous. He will be inherently flexible in his approach to nearly every project. He’s more concerned with the endgame— what results are achieved—rather than how the results are achieved. Those are concerns for somebody else, not him.

The low-formality worker isn’t shackled or obliged to adhere to established systems or policies. He feels no need to stick to the script; he operates best unscripted. He’s extremely tolerant of uncertainty. Not a worrier, he’s fine to “go with the flow”. He’s non-conforming and is all too happy to forge his own path forward.

How loosely you can structure the work to be done for a low-formality worker is paramount. According to Tenfelde, “Low-formality people thrive when there is a lack of structure, where there is more freedom and a need to be creative in the approach. They aren’t going to be bothered by it … they are going to like it.”

Working for a low-formality boss

You can expect a low-formality manager to freely delegate details. The odds of her being a micromanager are low. The odds of her under-managing are much higher. She isn’t concerned with the nuts and bolts of how the work should be done. This type of work is too “in the weeds” for her.

If you yourself are a high-formality person, you may need to resist delving too deeply into the details of your work. You may be quite impressed by your 30-page operating manual, but your low-formality boss—while appreciative—can’t go there with you. Best to complement her strength of spontaneity and her freeform approach.

Managing the low-formality employee

If you manage a low-formality worker, you should do your best to keep from crushing him with too much rigid structure. Every organization needs rules and controls, of course, but give him latitude wherever possible. Recognize that your low-formality report also needs a certain amount of freedom of expression. Create a working environment that allows him to balance fitting in and standing out.

Recognize that your low-formality worker will be informal. It’s not that details and rigor aren’t important; they’re just not important to him. Give him opportunities to be spontaneous. Also understand that he’ll be relatively unimpressed by rank, authority, and seniority. What really motivates and drives him are opportunities to do his own thing without being pinned down. Here’s how Tenfelde puts it: “Low-formality people can work within structure, there just needs to be less of it for them to thrive.”

Mix and match

In the workplace, the formality drive determines someone’s comfort level with risk, particularly when paired with the dominance drive. Consider a high dominance/low-formality employee: she will be extremely venturesome. She wants to make an impact, and she doesn’t want to be encumbered by an undue focus on rules and structure. She’s confident in her own abilities and she’s perfectly content to make it up as she goes.

By contrast, a low dominance/high-formality worker will be extremely conservative. He doesn’t want to make a mistake that could come back to reflect negatively on him. New initiatives are a chance to hammer out the details, not to throw himself blindly into an uncertain situation.


Matt Poepsel, PhD is the author of Expand the Circle: Enlightened Leadership for Our New World of Work and host of the Lead the People podcast. He serves as Vice President & Godfather of Talent Optimization at The Predictive Index. He holds a PhD in Psychology, an MBA, and a Harvard Business School Certificate of Management Excellence. Matt has more than 25 years of leadership experience as a software executive and consultant. He’s also a US Marine, an Ironman triathlon finisher, and a student of Buddhist philosophy.

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