This is what people are really thinking when you have a messy desk

Many people believe you can tell a whole lot about a person based on whether or not they make their bed each morning. Regardless of how your sheets rest while you’re on the job, a fascinating study conducted at the University of Michigan has some advice for everyone with a particularly messy office, desk, or workspace. Clean up, it just might make all the difference when it comes to others’ perceptions of you.

A dirty workspace suits some people just fine. In fact, certain employees feel at home surrounded by clutter. The problem with a messy desk is the message it sends out to the other people working in an office. Researchers say that when coworkers see a jumbled workspace, they’re quick to assume its owner is neurotic, confrontational, and probably just not a nice person to be around.

Three experiments were conducted for the study, involving 160 participants. In the first experimental setting, study subjects were randomly assigned to sit in an office that was either very clean and tidy or another that was somewhat messy. For the second and third experiments, participants sat in either a clean office or a very messy office.

All of the possible offices were decorated exactly the same and arranged in a way that suggested its owner was male. A few “personal” items were placed in the experimental workspaces, such as a baseball cap, candy being held in a cup, a framed photo of a baby, and a few scientific or academic books on a shelf. 

Everything within the clean office was in its proper place; papers were carefully stacked on the desk, all trash was in a wastebasket, and file cabinets even featured typewritten labels. The somewhat messy office appeared reasonably disheveled, with some books tipped over on the shelves, a few pieces of paper on the floor, and a wall clock that showed an inaccurate time. The very messy office, however, was in a complete state of disarray; very dirty, covered in clutter, and overall disorganization.

After spending some time in one of the offices, participants were asked to guess its occupant’s personality based on nothing but what they observed. Each subject rated this imaginary person’s sociability, conscientiousness, agreeability, neuroticism, and “openness to experiences.”

Across all three experiments, the imaginary occupant of the messy office was universally rated as less conscientious than the occupant of the clean workspace.

Beyond just the business world, the study’s authors were quick to note that their findings can be applied to virtually all walks of life.

“When there are cues related to less cleanliness, order, organization and more clutter in an owner’s primary territory, perceivers’ ascribe lower conscientiousness to the owner, whether that owner is a worker in the real world (office), a job-seeker (apartment), a student (bedroom) or a researcher at a university (lab office),” explains lead author Terrence Horgan, professor of psychology at UM-Flint, in a press release.

Fair or not, it’s quite easy to see how these perceptions from co-workers or superiors could seriously hold back someone’s career. No one is going to consider an employee they believe to be standoffish, neurotic, or careless for a promotion or important project. Besides just career opportunities, a messy desk can make it that much harder to interact with co-workers in a positive way. While some may shrug off that last notion; not everyone is looking to make tons of friends at work, it doesn’t make any sense to be the office pariah either.

“An employee who is very disorganized, difficult to get along with, and emotionally unstable might be problematic in any work setting that requires individuals to work together in a relatively calm and disciplined manner, whether that setting is located in a bank or university,” says co-author Noelle Herzog, a clinical researcher at Michigan Medicine.

In the second and third experiments, involving the very messy office, participants also overwhelmingly indicated that the person working out of the messy workspace was less agreeable and more neurotic than the individual in the clean office. Some participants went so far as to say that the person inhabiting the very messy office must have some seriously negative, and off putting, personality traits.

That one individual with a messy desk in your office may not really be neurotic or inconsiderate, but ultimately that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the majority of his or her co-workers perceive that they are an undesirable employee. Many may not even be aware that they’ve judged a co-worker based on their workspace, but it’s still happening on a subconscious level.

“Once trait information about a target becomes activated in perceivers’ minds, either consciously or unconsciously, that information can subsequently affect how they process information about, the types of questions they ask of, and how they behave toward the target, possibly bringing out the very trait information that they expected to see from the target in the first place,” concludes study co-author Sarah Dyszlewski, a research technician in the Department of Psychology.

It may seem like a hassle, but take the time to clean your desk. It may make all the difference.

The full study can be found here, published in Personality and Individual Differences.