CSI: Mydeski: You leave key clues at work


You can judge someone's personality by what his or her workspace looks like. Take Tamar Hirschfeld, for example. She's set up her office on patio furniture. She has the laptop, the headset, even the snacks.

Intuitively, you know she's not an accountant-type. And you surely won't be surprised to hear that she's a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

People leave deliberate and inadvertent clues about themselves in their personal space, and Samuel Gosling, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, who studies these clues, concludes that your co-workers are good at judging what they mean.

Deliberate clues people leave are things like plants, which reveal that you are nice; and candy, which reveals that you're an extrovert, because you want people to drop by your office and talk.

Some clues are deliberate, but personal. For example, a pebble you keep from the beach where you had your first kiss will not be meaningful to someone who doesn't know the story, but it reminds you of something nice. Still, the pebble gives the co-worker information, and he or she will pick up on the fact that you're sentimental.

You can give clues with a plant, too. "Anyone can buy a plant," says Gosling, "but you need to be task-oriented to actually keep the plant alive."

Be careful about all the clues you leave about yourself in your office because your image is at stake. And the image you project might be more powerful than the work you actually do. So, manage your workspace as you manage the colors in your wardrobe, the layout of your memos, and all other aspects of your image.

In many instances, you'll be able to control what you project. For example, if you're trying to be more detail-oriented, but you've killed every plant you've ever owned, don't buy another. Your dead plant will just emphasize your lack of attention to detail.

When it comes to projecting a positive image through your personal space, some areas are more easily managed than others. A messy desk is tough. If you keep a messy desk, you will have to change your behavior in order to clean up your act. It's worth the effort, though.

"There's a cultural bias toward orderliness," says Eric Abrahamson, professor at Columbia University Business School. "Messiness is considered bad." Kelly Crescenti, an Illinois-based career coach, concurs: "When people have a clean desk, it looks like they get things done and they are productive."

However, you can't really know how productive people are by looking at their desk, says Julie Morgenstern, organizing guru and author of Never Check E-mail in the Morning: And Other Unexpected Strategies for Making Your Work Life Work. But she concedes that "the image issue is giant."

So, even if you can find everything you need on your paper-strewn desk, clean it if you want to look good. Start with a filing system, and Crescenti advises that at minimum, you take the last 15 minutes of every day to actually use the system and clean things up before you go home.

But, as with all image management advice, don't go overboard.

Abrahamson provides a postmodern defense of the messy desk: "Messiness is related to creativity because it tends to juxtapose things that don't normally go together." And, he reports that he's seen computer desktops that rival the worst of the classic desktop messes.

"It's the last frontier of messiness," he says. Hirschfeld can attest to that. "The last computer I had got very, very messy," she says. But that might be okay. While it's true that your co-workers can accurately judge you by looking at your workspace, it's also true that your computer desktop is a nice place to hide your worst attributes.