There is much academic ado about the common cubicle. Items on a desk, research suggests, can be revealing about the personality of the person...

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There is much academic ado about the common cubicle. Items on a desk, research suggests, can be revealing about the personality of the person who sits behind it. And the amount of mess? Well, that can be misleading.


For example, research suggests that a bowl of candy on a desktop reflects extroverted behavior, a worker who welcomes social interaction. And a clock, situated where the person at the desk can see it, indicates that the occupant is a responsible employee.


“The kind of person who buys new batteries before the old ones die,” Sam Gosling, a psychologist at the University of Texas.


His research with colleagues at UT in Austin is “based on the hypothesis that the environments individuals craft around themselves, such as offices and bedrooms, are rich with information about the occupants’ personalities, abilities, values and lifestyles.”


But desk-watching amateurs should avoid jumping to conclusions about co-workers and bosses, the experts say. First impressions are not always valid, and people can manipulate what they want others to see.


While one can assume that a thriving, overgrown plant on someone’s desk indicates that he is there for the long haul and happy where he is, the owner of a sickly plant should not be cast aside as a slacker who is negligent — regarding the plant or work. One can be committed to a job but horticulturally challenged, Gosling says.


And when it comes to the leaning tower of papers on your desk, Columbia University business professor Eric Abrahamson reminds us that Albert Einstein “had a notoriously messy desk.” At least it looked messy.


“He knew this pile was on relativity, and the other on Brownian motion,” says Abrahamson, co-author of “The Perfect Mess,” due for release next fall by Little Brown publishers. “There’s an intermediate level of mess that is optimal. The perfectly clean desk does not indicate an optimally efficient worker.”


People with nonroutine jobs tend to have messy desks, he says.


Another academic perspective says that what we put on our desks has little to do with how we perform our jobs.


“I have found that it [one’s desktop] is never related to how well you do your job, but rather how you feel about your work space,” says R. Steven Schiavo, a psychologist at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “People who decorate extensively want to establish a claim on that space.”


Papers spread all over one’s desk can simply indicate that they haven’t been put back yet, Gosling says. Or they could mean “I don’t have an efficient system, and they are an inadvertent expression of what I am like.” Your neat neighbor’s clean desktop, on the other hand, “is her residue of tidy behaviors.”


Abrahamson is rather suspicious of order freaks. There is both a function and a limit to desk mess, he says.


“The desk mess put in front of you is all the things that you need readily available,” says Abrahamson, referring to research, notes and papers spread out on a desk for an immediate project. Leaving them there overnight if you are finishing up the project the next day makes sense. Stopping to file doesn’t.


In this case, the “residue” of which Gosling speaks is functional.


So why is order held in such high esteem?


“We are an order-obsessed society,” Abrahamson says. Those with messy desks are frowned upon. And heaven help the messy worker who makes a mistake. We assume it’s because he has a messy desk.


“We moralize order,” Abrahamson says. (Remember “Cleanliness is next to godliness”?)