Form and Substance Are Not Synonyms

This is the seventh in my series of Suit Yourself essays.

Is appearance reality? What’s the difference between form and substance? Does the distinction matter in any significant way? In the context of work, will one do without the other? If so, which one?

Anyone who has ever sat in a business meeting and observed the words at odds with the behavior or watched as someone totally clueless got promoted or wondered why PowerPoint presentations evidently cannot be done without typos has asked these questions. The answers remain elusive (sorry), but I do have some thoughts that helped me figure out where I stand vis-à-vis circumstances that appear to be nothing short of a deliberate sacrificing of the reality of substance for the façade of form.

I should start by disclosing that I stop at Stop signs. I do this whether or not there is other traffic or a policeman around. You need to keep this in mind as you evaluate my thoughts on form and substance. I’m not a goody-two-shoes nor am I a better person than the folks who figure Stop signs are merely advisory. I stop at Stop signs for two reasons. First, it’s the right thing to do, part of the deal we make when we live among others. Second, obeying rules designed to protect people, including me, seems a sensible thing to do and worth the little delay in getting on my way.

I doubt many people would disagree with this thinking in theory, but the fact remains that, at least in my neck of the woods, stopping at Stop signs has become rare and somewhat suspect. To me, this is a form vs. substance question. We say and think one thing ("I’m a law-abiding citizen, I don’t put myself unnecessarily in the way of danger, I try not to hurt other people"), but do a different thing ("There’s no one around for miles. What’s the harm? Everyone does it").

Let’s further define our terms. I’m using "form" to mean what something looks like, its external characteristics, its packaging – and "substance" to mean what it actually is, its essentials, what’s inside. Put in behavioral terms, "form" is what we say we mean, and "substance" is what we do.

I know these terms raise meatier questions than I’m going to discuss here; in fact, I’m rather frustrated by the limitations of what I’ve chosen to write about. For one thing, perspective is critical to the perception of reality, and mine won’t be the same as yours. It’s also fair to ask whether there’s any objective reality at all. OK. Still, most business realities – objective or otherwise – aren’t too hard to pin down.

Customers do repeat business with the company or they don’t. Executives walk the walk or merely talk the talk. Employees know what’s expected of them and feel a sense of ownership and loyalty or they don’t. The company makes its numbers or it doesn’t. A reengineering project has real operational benefits that make a company more valuable or it just boosts the stock price because analysts love reengineering projects.

There are layers of complexity and nuance in all these examples, but the question I want to address here is: do things have to look good and be good or is it enough if they just look good? Put another way, is it ok for things to be rotten in the state of Denmark so long as we have lots of perfume to cover the smell?

Here's my take:

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