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

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.[4]

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.[5]

“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.[6]

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.

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