Some people say a messy office is a subtle sign of genius, with everything everywhere proving you're too inspired and busy to care what the space looks like. Others insist the only way to be productive and clear your mind for creativity is to control your space and stay organized. How about a messy office changing the way people see your personality, though?
According to research from University of Michigan, a messy office has a negative influence on the way others see you. Psychologists conducted three studies. They randomly assigned about 160 participants to sit in a researcher's office that was either clean, somewhat cluttered, or very messy. The participants then had to make a guess about the office owner's personality, rating them on the Big Five personality traits (social/extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to experience).
In each experiment, participants said that the researcher who owned the messier offices was less conscientious than the researcher who owned the clean office. And in the second and third experiments, the participants thought that the researcher with the messier office was less agreeable and more neurotic than the researcher with the clean office.
Lead author Terrance Horgan, professor of psychology at UM-Flint, says the findings can apply not just to offices, but to other spaces like your apartment, too. And the results show that, just like the way you dress or the car you drive, the way you keep your space sends a clear message to the people around you. In theory, if you control how your space looks, you can improve the impression you give. That has a big influence when you're, say, conducting interviews or having a private meeting trying to convince someone to fund you, as research technician and co-author Sarah Dyszlewski points out.
"Once trait information about a target becomes activated in perceivers' minds," says Dyszlewski, "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."
Importantly, the studies decorated the offices as though they belonged to a man. It's not clear whether the findings would be the same for offices decorated as though they belonged to a woman. It might be that, because women traditionally have been seen as responsible for household chores and cleaning in the United States, the results for females would be even more dramatic. But there's also a case to be made that we might cut ladies some slack for how their offices look, given that women sometimes face hurdles in the workplace that men don't.
So maybe a messy office shows you've got a spectacular mind, maybe it doesn't. But based on the studies, it might be worth tidying up, at least when you know you've got something really critical on the line.