It’s not like you want your desk to be known as the messiest one in the office. But things get busy at work, and sometimes your organizational skills can get pushed onto the back burner. And, while your co-workers seem nice and all, you might occasionally wonder if they’re secretly judging you for your atrociously untidy workplace.
Well, the jury’s out: According to a new study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, if your desk is super messy all the time, it’s likely that people around you aren’t just throwing shade at your lack of organization—they might actually be associating you with negative personality traits like neuroticism and disagreeability.
Researchers at the University of Michigan wanted to figure out how the degree of messiness of someone’s workspace correlated with others’ perceptions of their personality, so they gathered 160 participants to sit in three offices: one that was cleaner, one that was somewhat messy, and one that was in totally chaotic disarray. In the neat office, the file drawers had typewritten labels, garbage was cleaned up into a single wastebasket, papers were stacked neatly on a desk, and books and journals were organized on bookshelves. On the other hand, the second “somewhat” messy office had a wall clock that was an hour off, papers on the floor, and books tilted on shelves. The third and “very messy” office was similar to the second but a lot more cluttered and disheveled.
The participants then were asked to try to guess the office dweller’s personality based on the appearance of their workspace. They rated the person’s conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, and openness to experience.
What the researchers ultimately discovered was that participants associated the owner of the “somewhat” messier office with having a less conscientious personality, and they perceived the owner of the extremely messy office as being non-agreeable, more neurotic, and possessing overall negative personality traits—all without ever meeting the actual owner of said office.
According to the researchers, the automatic association with these negative personality traits could translate into assuming a person makes an undesirable employee over nothing but their desk space. It could even, in turn, contribute to how they’re treated in the workplace.
“Once trait information about a target becomes activated in perceivers’ minds, 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,” said Sarah Dyszlewski, a research technician in the University of Michigan’s psychology department and one of the study co-authors, in a news release.
So, is this evidence for all of us to try to be less judgy—or for people to suck it up and clean their desks in the name of avoiding being judged? That’s for you to decide. Either way, though, it can’t hurt to experiment with some cleansing office feng shui.