Neatness counts: A messy desk can hurt your career

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Here's a way to kill your career: Have a messy office.

Here are things that people with messy offices say: My work gets done; I know where everything is; People are too concerned about appearances.

All these things could be true. But here is what is also true: If your desk is a mess you look like you're totally out of control.

The FBI has known for decades that you can judge someone by their workspace, which is why the FBI has special investigators who visit the offices of criminals. The FBI doesn't publish their data on this type of investigation, but the University of Texas does. And a study conducted there found that people with messy offices are less efficient, less organized and less imaginative then people with clean desks.

Some of you who are stubborn (and delusional) are saying, “So what? That's not me.” But even if you are definitely sure that you are as efficient in your messy office as your neighbor is in her clean office, your co-workers don't see it that way. The study also found that people perceived messy workers to be inefficient, unimaginative workers.

A messy desk undermines your career in subtle ways. If you are the owner of the company, you give the impression that you cannot handle your position and the company is in trouble. If you are in middle management, when someone is giving away a plumb assignment, she does not think of you because you give the impression that it will go into a pile and never come out. Even if you get every project done well, the perception will be that you don't.

Still not convinced? Would you ever go to work in striped pants and a striped shirt? Why not? You could still do your job. But people would not perceive that you could still do your job, because appearances are powerful, and someone who dresses in a goofy, unconventional way does not inspire confidence. Appearances matter, and the desk in your office is as important as the clothes on your back.

Managers, take note: This study goes both ways. So if you are thinking of promoting someone, you are probably making the wrong decision if the person's desk is a mess. Either they are in over their head, or they do not care, but either way, they will not instill confidence in the people below them. In most cases, messy desker should be passed up for someone who is neat.

Take a tip from GE, a company known for developing outstanding managers throughout its ranks. GE requires everyone to have a sparkling clean desk each night when they go home. This makes sense — GE attempts to make everyone a potential manager by preventing people from undermining themselves.

Some of you might call this rule draconian. I can hear you now, “A messy desk is an expression of who I am.” This is probably true. I believe that a messy desk is a reflection of what is in someone's head. But you need a clear head in order to be creative and efficient in ways that make your work a reflection of your best self.

So take some time this month to clean up your office and create an organized system for maintaining cleanliness. If GE refuses to keep messy desks in its ranks, then you should, too. Start with your own, and then take a look at the people who report to you.

13 replies
  1. Doug Ferrell
    Doug Ferrell says:

    Wow. I don’t know where to begin. It seems like you have had very limited exposure to a variety of workplaces. Perhaps you should do a little more research before making such a strong statement about desks and careers. Different people think and work in different ways. The goal of an employer should be to maximize the efficiency and capability of its employees, not to enforce ridiculous top-down mandates which only serve some executive’s ego trip.

    In some fields, especially technical ones, becoming a manager is not the goal. Rather, solving difficult problems is. Perhaps if you want to be a ladder climber at GE or the FBI your advice makes sense, but I do not see any basis for the extreme generalization you make.

    And managers are advised not to promote people with messy desks? Please. You seem to have very little understanding of jobs which require a person to actually achieve tangible results. This is the basis for promotion at any sane workplace. GE makes a profit from the products it develops, produces, and sells, not by “developing” more managers.

    Try reading this for a different view:

  2. jrandom42
    jrandom42 says:

    Notice that some of the “messy desk” employees at GE included William Hewlett and David Packard.

  3. Anne
    Anne says:

    I quit a job where a short-sighted manager forced us to have a clean desk every night, much as you’ve suggested in your article. The net effect was to make us spend hours every morning digging out all the paper that we were forced to shove into a drawer rather than leaving it stacked where we could see it and pick up where we left off. I resented this a lot and left to get my masters and PhD. (Not just because of this issue, obviously, but it was typical of the valuing of perception of over the reality of being allowed to get on with my work in the way that worked for me). Both my masters and my PhD supervisors always work from piles of paper. They are both visual organizers like me, and the piles represent tasks that need to be done. They are both outstanding in their fields and not surprisingly, much better to work for than the short-sighted, neat-desk boss who attempted to force conformity. I think your advice here is extremely silly – or perhaps it’s true that you need a clean desk to get ahead in the corporate world, in which case I’m very happy I escaped.

  4. matchmaker
    matchmaker says:

    On a whim, I tried the candy corn kisses. I regretted it. I guess I expected them to taste like candy corn. I thought they were pretty bad, actually. At least the kids liked them. I'll stick with regular candy corn and regular chocolate kisses.

  5. Molly
    Molly says:

    I agree with Doug and Anne. This article was really quite extraordinary. It reminded me of two things. First, that in the novel, 1984, Orwell goes to great lengths to describe how visually perfect the office environments are, including the desks. I found it particularly chilling that the main character, Winston, a civil servant, never really has anything extraneous (like a bit of paper or pencil) on his desk. Secondly, this article reminded me of a profile I read of mass murderer Marc Lepine. In the 1980s, this man shot and killed 14 women who’s “crime” according to him, was that they choose to pursue a “male” profession – engineering. After his shooting spree, he killed himself. In subsequent articles following the police investigation into his life and habits, it was revealed by the chief investigating officer that the man was so anal-retentive that not a single thing in his apartment was “out of place.”

    Creative people in particular rarely have tidy desks. Their approach to almost everything they do is to find connections between the random, patterns in chaos, etc. etc. How can anyone do this if EVERYTHING is put in its place and there’s no room for “accidents” or “mistakes”?

    I enjoy your blog very much, but I must say this article struck me as narrow minded both in its approach and its conclusions.

  6. K. Woods
    K. Woods says:

    Are you guys kidding? Seriously? I agree with Penelope on this one. I don’t care how many PhD’s you have or researchers that say your paper pit is excusable because you’re a ‘visual’ thinker. It’s total B.S. I too wish the world was populated only with nice people who highly valued all my intrinsic gifts. Sorry. Like it or not, in the real world you WILL be judged on how messy you are by others around you. A little clutter is reasonable during the day or over a few days while you’re tackling a big project. If you deviate from the normal range though, you need to understand it has an impact on how you’re perceived. Period. If you’re the office wunderkind or hot dot entrepreneur who doesn’t give a shit what others think because you don’t have to, then good for you. Do not doubt for a second that the judgment will be made and you are getting work in spite of it.

    What’s normal? Take a look around. At the very least, never have a desk that is messier than your boss or that you couldn’t make presentable for a client if they dropped by with 60-seconds notice.

  7. Rae Gross
    Rae Gross says:

    rereading this reminded me to clean my space. Working in an uber-creative environment where no one has a clean desk has made me slack in my organization. I already feel more put together, thanks for posting so many years ago :)

  8. Bryce Dickes
    Bryce Dickes says:

    I’m afraid Penelope is right as far as I’m concerned. A neat desk is noticed by all sure there are the odd comments like being called “Monk” an the like, without doing a study my previous manager was neat and tidy an very motivated. My new manager not so neat leave apps get lost in the clutter invoices lost. Last time I checked that mattered quite considerably. Work is the place for being neat and things having their own place, the time taken to get, rather than find what you need is considerably less. Until you truly give it a try you will remain unable to benefit from it.. Give it a try and then post another comment as to how it didn’t work for you and why! I will be very surprised if you’re not singing the neat and tidy song Penelope is..

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