If your workspace is sloppy, co-workers might think you’re neurotic and disagreeable, new research from the University of Michigan says. Psychologists explored how messy workspaces affect perceptions of the owner’s personality.
In three experiments, about 160 participants were randomly assigned to sit in a researcher’s office that was clean and uncluttered, or in other offices that were either “somewhat” or “very” messy.
In the clean office, papers were stacked neatly on the desk, books and journals stood upright on bookshelves, file drawers had typewritten labels and all garbage was in the wastebasket. By comparison, books in the “somewhat” messy office were tilted on the shelves, a textbook and papers lay on the floor, and the wall clock was an hour off. The “very” messy office was even more cluttered and disorganized.
Study participants were asked to guess the researcher’s personality based on the office, rating the person’s extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to experience. They perceived the researcher with the messy office as less conscientious than the one with the organized office. Participants also inferred that the researcher with the somewhat messy office was less agreeable and more neurotic than the researcher whose office was tidy.
If people see a messy office and suspect its occupant is careless, cranky and uncaring, then they might avoid dealing with that person in the future on either a personal or professional basis, researchers found.
Not always! We knew we had a long-time client visit coming up and I spent too much time straightening my office and desk. Before it was disarrayed with organized stacks of papers; after, you could actually see the top of my desk. My business partner who also knew and worked with the client, didn’t have time to straighten up. Piles of working papers were on the desk, stacks on the floor, and stuff on the side table. When we were giving the client the tour the client saw my “clean” office, went to the partner’s office, looked at us and, referring to my partner, said “I can tell who does the work around here!”
I find this research agreeable because when I think of any kind of messy person, whether in the home or work, I have negative connotations towards that person. I think of lazy, disorganized and a procrastinator. Someone with a clean office I would think of a respectable, organized and professional. If I were to walk in the messy office, I would be more hesitant towards doing business with that person. Yet, I think it still all comes down to the personality and connection with that person despite the state of their work space. If the person with the clean office, was rude and snobby but the person with the messy office was genuine and relatable I would trust that person more. I might assume someone’s personality by their environment, but the encounter and relationship is what really matters.