Managing Your Career By Managing the Stuff on Your Desk

Last Updated Aug 19, 2010 4:51 PM EDT

Why are there so many articles about how to dress for success and so few about how to dress your office for success?

In fact, once you're hired, your co-workers draw as many conclusions about you based on what your office looks like as what you wear, yet the insipid how-to-buy-a-suit posts leave you high and dry in the Bloomingdales home accessories department.

Also, it turns out that the conclusions we draw about who people are from the office they keep are actually pretty accurate perceptions, according to the guy who studies this stuff obsessively, Sam Gosling, professor of social psychology at University of Texas and the author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You.

Before you buy another thing at Staples, think about this: In 1942, as the United States was entering World War II, the US government was trying to figure out the best way to identify people who would make good spies. One of the aptitude exams it developed was the Belongings Test, in which candidates had to draw conclusions about a man based purely on items in his bedroom: clothes, a timetable, a ticket receipt. The test works because people are good at drawing conclusions based on people's stuff.

This process is Darwinian in the sense that it's a way we can pick who to mate with. (Here's Gosling writing about how to judge a possible college boyfriend by his dorm room.) There is also a Darwinism at the workplace, though. Roughly translated: "A players work with A players" (yes, really, they do). You call this being a good judge of character. Gosling calls it "snoopology."

Reading people's stuff is similar to reading peoples' body language; some body language is intuitive (turning away from you when you talk means the person is not interested) and some is not (if someone touches his mouth it means he's lying).

Some clues about stuff you already know how to read, such as a Malcolm X poster or crucifix hanging on the wall. Others clues are not so intuitive: Here are some examples:

  • People who like rock music tend to be introverts, artistic and anxious. People who like classical music fit the same personality profile as someone who likes grunge music.
  • People who have food on their desk are extroverts.
  • People who have a messy desk are unimaginative.
This last one really gets people going. All the messy-deskers get up in arms. But it's a lot like being obese. You can say it's not fair that people judge you to be incompetent because your pudgier than you'd like, but the truth is that fat people do worse at work than people who are not overweight. Fat people make other people around them less healthy, they are worse at driving revenue than thin people, and fat women have less empathy than the rest of the population.

The same is true with people who have messy desks. They get less work done, even though they like to argue that they are being unfairly judged.

The interesting thing about judging people is that we can trick people for a short time - like on a first date where you dress in very stylish clothes (translation: open to new ideas) when in reality you are a really a schlub (translation: anxious). This is why it's better to judge people by what their office looks like; it's harder to fake that for a day.

On the other hand, you can see what people are trying to project as a way to understand who they want to be, which gives a lot of clues about who they are. In other words, we often use consumerism as a way to define ourselves. This is why Ramones t-shirts outsell Ramones albums 10 to one. And it's why people who can't cook buy expensive stoves. And while someone might not know how to use the stove, you can see that she values cooking, even if she can't do it.

One of the biggest indicators of how successful you'll be at work is how strong your self-knowledge is, according to research gathered in the Harvard Business Review. So if you understand what body language conveys in order to understand how you feel, you'll be better at managing your communication in meetings. And if you understand what your office conveys about yourself you'll be better able to understand who you are and who you wish you could be.

And of course, the best communicators are those who can read other people quickly. So paying attention to someone's stuff helps you pay attention to your ability to communicate with them. Alas, if emotional intelligence is the currency of the new workplace, consumerism may be the way to get rich.