If Offices Could Talk: What Yours Is Saying About You


We all give off cues as to who we are as people and how we like to interact. This is especially clear in the way we organize our space. Give your leadership skills a boost by paying attention to these cues in a colleague’s office.

This neat and orderly TAG office features
minimal clutter and coordinated purple accents

Cue #1: The Model Office

Tidiness and a good use of space are indicative of conscientiousness. For a coworker who neatly organizes his supplies and color-codes his files, structure is a priority. He likes to focus on one project at a time, and he excels at managing his own work. At the extreme, sparseness and near-religious cleanliness indicate high attention to detail and strong need for control. Coworkers who tend to keep a messier desk are more flexible, and they work best when allowed to multi-task among several projects.

Cue #2: The Distinctive Office

Quirky posters or a clutter of decorations indicate high openness and versatility. This coworker seeks new projects and excels at thinking creatively. To motivate this worker best, ask her to lead unique initiatives and consider allowing her to set time aside to work on projects outside her job description (Google’s 20% “Innovation Time Off” is a great example).

Cue #3: The Status Executive

A big mahogany desk, plush leather chair, and adornments placed between your coworker and her visitors indicate someone who values hierarchy and expects respectful formality. This authoritarian may be borne of ambition, as she is motivated by power gains and is naturally drawn to leadership. Managerial roles will be welcomed, but she may become defensive and frustrated when delegated small or seemingly unimportant tasks.

Cue #4: The Trophy Room

If you walk into an office that boasts awards, certificates and trophies, know that your coworker is strongly motivated by acknowledgment and status. Make saying “good job” a habit with this colleague, and for especially great performance, consider sending a congratulatory email to let the office know about his accomplishment. Saying thanks will make an especially big impact. Do as celebrated former Campbell Soup CEO Douglas Conant did and make an effort to express special gratitude.

Cue #5: The Goal-Oriented Office

A perfect example of a relationship-driven
office at TAG's headquarters in Houston

An office with project charts, graphs, and target lists reflects high achievement orientation. This coworker is likely to take personal responsibility for company issues, and he makes a natural project manager who can set deadlines and push a project along on schedule. When managing this worker, ensure that he’s also prioritizing group cohesion. According to a 1971 study, individuals with high achievement motivation perform best when they also focus on group maintenance.

Cue #6: The Home Away from Home

Personal trinkets and photographs of family and friends are signs of a relationship-driven coworker. She takes pride in her personal life and welcomes opportunities to share with her coworkers. To motivate her, emphasize to her why an assignment is relevant to the team, and reward her with opportunities to work inter-departmentally.

Cue #7: The Hobbyist

College basketball jerseys and artifacts from a recent golfing trip are also strong indicators of a people-oriented coworker. These cues invite conversation, and they show that your coworker is passionate about relationships with his colleagues and clients. He feels that it’s important to “know” his business partners. Respond to this cue even if you’re not drawn to his particular hobby by engaging him with your own personality and interests.

Note the basketball and astronomy
motif in this hobbyist's office

Cue #8: The Vacation Rest Stop

A coworker who loves calendars or screensavers of exotic locales and tropical paradises has a strong hedonism orientation. For her, work is a means to the next big vacation, and she is likely to be motivated most by weekend company trips and time to relax during the day. Lunch breaks are critical, and if you ask her to stay late, providing dinner or allowing a late start the next day will ensure a productive employee all evening.


Pay attention to what your coworkers are saying with their office décor. Every coworker has his or her own motivations and preferences when it comes to communication and leadership, and the office is a rich source of cues to managing and embracing this diversity.



Other resources:
Kimberly Elsbach’s 2004 article “Interpreting workplace identities: the role of office décor.” Journal of Organizational Behavior, 25, 99-128.
Sam Gosling et al.’s 2002 article “A Room with a cue: Judgments of personality based on offices and bedrooms.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 379-398.
Sam Gosling’s 2008 book Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You

1 Comment

January 22, 2013 AT 3:32 PM CST

Susan Green wrote:

Enjoyed this article especially the descriptions. I found my office as well as others.

Thank you for sharing.

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