What your office says about you.

Next time you’re strolling around at work, take a peek into your colleagues’ office space and think about what it says about them. How are they communicating their ‘selves’ to you?  What does their office decor says about who they are? What does your office say about you?

Like it or not, unfortunately your colleagues are constantly making interpretations of who you are, based on how you decorate (Elsbach, 2004). Think: first impressions – you just cant help yourself but do it.

People tend to use “physical identity markers”, or material objects, to communicate their identities to others at work (Elsbach, 2004).  People surround themselves with symbols that help to reinforce – both to themselves and to those around them – who they are, who they want to be, or maybe even who they want you to think they are. Looking through the offices of colleagues you’ll find things like: diplomas, family pictures, awards, momentos, books, art, plants, or even sports equipment. The particular combination of identity markers one has in his or her office can tell you a lot about that person before you even say hello. Chaos? Organized? Picture of kids art or fine art? Cluttered or minimalist?  Interestingly, if you take away people’s ability to express their identities at work they can find that highly threatening on a number of levels (Elsbach, 2003).

Based on nothing in particular, and about as accurate as your daily horoscope, here is my own personal theory of office decorators. By all means not exclusive – I’m sure there are a few other good categories out there. Please share if you think of one!

1. The self-affirmer.  These people decorate for themselves, not for others. The self-affirmer surrounds themselves with family pictures, kids artwork, their hobbies, favourite sports team, inspirational quotes, or perhaps their favourite artwork so they can gaze around when they need a reminder of who they really are.  The picture of the latest family holiday or trinket will often be placed so that they can easily see it, not so that others can see it.  They may use a pen that was a family heirloom or an important gift because of its sentimental value; colleagues may never know these objects are identity markers.

2. The aspirational. The aspirational surrounds himself with objects that represent who he would like to be – or at least who he would like others to think he is.  He is the fellow who drives a 1990 buick, but places a picture of himself learning over someone else’s Ferrari square in your vision. Longing to be seen as powerful and important, his identity markers relate to status; he strategically places the Mont Blanc pen not in a drawer, but on his desk where others will certainly take notice.  You leave his office very aware of his ‘importance’.

3. The strategic.  The strategic decorator has a clear image that she wants to project to others. Whether real or aspirational, she knows how she wants to be regarded, and arranges herself accordingly.  That photo of her running the Boston marathon was chosen to communicate her mental fortitude and endurance, that family photo of a gorgeous and colour-coordinated family is situated mostly so that others can see it, everything is neatly arranged and her office is immaculate. She is competent and organised and makes sure you know it. No matter how hard you look you really cant figure out what she’s all about; can she really be that perfect?

4. The innocent opportunistic decorator.  Highly misunderstood, this person simply does not put any thought into his office. This is the poor soul who received the 365 Bad Cats 2012 Wall Calendar in the latest office ‘secret santa’, thought “great, a free calendar, I needed one of those!” He proudly displays the calendar on his desk as a gesture of solidarity with his team.  This unassuming office decorator is unaware that people, upon seeing the calendar, may assume this is his taste (disclaimer: not that there is anything wrong with that!) and that that ‘cat lover’ is part of his identity. He is confused when others buy him cat paraphernalia for his birthday.

5. The non-decorator. This person has read the first 4 types and thought “I don’t care about my office and I have never put one second into thinking about how it’s decorated. In fact, I haven’t replaced the stock photo of some random kid from the picture frame on my shelf”. This person is somewhat of an enigma – it’s hard work to get to know her.  Does she have a life outside the office? Is she really just so busy that her calendar is three months off ? Can I really trust her? Hmmmmm. This person could also just be planning her escape route – in the event of getting fired she will never have to clean out personal belongings and endure those looks of pity as she drags out her office plants and pictures in a shoebox.

While I’ve been making up theory for fun (on a Saturday night, yes, I’m lame), research shows that these issues actually do have impact at work. Think about it – do you want a boss who seems ‘human’ in the way he decorates, or do you want one who doesn’t allow any ‘cracks ‘to show?  Personally, when I walk into a Dr’s office that is cluttered with kiddie artwork I instantly relax. Or if a boss displays a picture of his last vacation, or an interesting trinket he was given as a gift, it gives me something to ask about; I start to to see him as human, not some office automaton.  So take a think about how you’re coming across to others, nothing wrong with appearing human at work, right?

The articles I referred to above:

Elsbach, K. D. (2003). Relating physical environment to self-categorizations: Identity threat and affirmation in a non-territorial office space. Administrative Science Quarterly, 48(4), 622-654. 

Elsbach, K. D. (2004). Interpreting workplace identities: The role of office decor. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 25(1), 99-128.



About aly

my blog: www.liveworkthink.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Professional identity, Self Identity, Worklife and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What your office says about you.

  1. Kath says:

    Sadly the majority of people at my work have not a single personal item on their desks. I’m almost the glaring exception with my single little plant and mug with the twins on it! I find it really sterile

    • alym says:

      Wow! That really says something about the office culture doesn’t it? Must.not.appear.human. I wonder if that’s a general trend in Switzerland, or if it’s really just the culture of specific companies? In Australia you’d think that people would be a bit more open…but again, that could be company specific!

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