Does Your Desk Tell Secrets About You?

OK- I had a lot of fun with last week’s post!  Thanks for the comments and emails (And phone calls).  This whole desktop thing seems to have struck a nerve with a few of you….

I want you to try a little experiment. Pick five people at random in your company – preferably ones you do not know well. Go by their desks and observe their desktop stuff. What you can deduce about them from the objects on the desktop? Did you form an opinion about what is important to them or how well they might be doing their jobs? Now, go back to your cubicle or office and look at your own desk.

Sam Gosling, a psychology professor at THE UNIVERSITY – known to outsiders as The University of Texas at Austin – recently authored a book, Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You that purports to study how people’s belongings exhibit their personalities. When it comes to the most essential components of our personality, he believes that the things we display and the way we arrange them says quite a bit about who we really are.

Here are a few of his observations, quoted from his 2008 interview with National Public Radio’s Neal Conan and some reader comments from Amazon:

  • Question: do the desk owner’s family photos face him or the visitor? Hmm.
  • Is the desk that is cluttered with baseball stuff a sign of a collector or a hoarder? (depends on the organization)
  • Introverts place fewer personal items on their desks than extroverts.
  • People with candy for visitors are inviting and outgoing.
  • Do not judge someone based on one characteristic of his or her stuff.


Others have observed that women’s offices contain more symbols of relationships, while men tend to have sports items or certificates acknowledging personal achievements. Ahh, this pop psychology stuff gives me a headache. However, I know from personal experience that some people reach conclusions about your work habits from observing the organization of your desk. Here’s a scenario I observed many years ago, while working at a company primarily involved in building hardware:

I was walking through cube-land with an older senior manager. The area was populated with hardware engineers – primarily EEs and software engineers. The manager commented in passing, “I can always tell the desks of the software engineers, there is stuff everywhere” (this was not offered as a compliment.) Looking around, you could see some desks held only a calculator, neatly stacked papers and a pencil cup. While on other desks, there were sticky notes all over CRTs (remember CRTs?), cartoons stuck with pushpins into a cork board and stress squeeze balls in neon colors.

So, my conclusion: If you work in a large company, where people who do not know you may pass your workspace, tidy up a bit. Put papers into folders and folders into file drawers. Use electronic storage and filing whenever possible. Arrange personal items and mementos outside of the central working area. And, above all if you are a PM or manager, have a candy bowl and offer good stuff to visitors. I personally love dark chocolate!

One Response to “Does Your Desk Tell Secrets About You?”

  1. Brian O'Connell Says:

    Very good points. I know from myself I tend to keep things to a minimal. I only keep things work related on my desk, which does explain that I am an introvert [I think]. I really liked the last paragraph that you wrote about tidying up your desk..that is correct, you may never know who may be passing by and may think that you are unorganized, especially if your position requires to be organized.

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