What the tidiness of your desk says about you

Those of you who have read the chapter in my Management: Theory and Practice text, Managing Priorities (Chapter 8 in the current–5th–edition) or my time management book Making Time Work for You, know that I’m in favour of tidy desks and, to coin one of my Dad’s favourite phrases, ‘a place for everything and everything in its place.’

I wasn’t always a tidy desker; quite the opposite. Then I was put in charge of a team and either that had to change or I’d I knew I’d find myself looking for another job! The reason was simple: no clear follow-up systems and I couldn’t find anything on the storage space that was once my desk. I can tell you from personal experience that no one can manage effectively that way.

But a quote I’ve seen a few times, purportedly from Albert Einstein, has given me pause for thought, as have a couple of articles I’ve read saying that messy desks aren’t all that bad. Here’s the quote:

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind,
of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?

Einstein, Roald Dahl and my husband all work(ed) at messy desks and if messy desks are good enough for them…

But then again, most research shows that tidy desks–a tidy environment in general–leads to better performance. But I’ve just come across a study done at the end of 2012 that sheds a bit of light.

The research was in three parts. The first part showed that people placed in an orderly room chose healthier snacks and donated more money to charity than people placed in a disorderly room. The second part showed that people placed in a disorderly room were more creative than people placed in an orderly room. And the third part showed that people placed in orderly rooms preferred more traditional, classic items while people placed in disorderly rooms preferred items labelled as ‘new’.

The conclusion seems pretty clear: The state of the room you’re in, and therefore the state of your desk–orderly or disorderly–affects your decisions and level of conventionality, generosity and creativity.

This means that when you need to get your creative juices flowing, retire to a messy place. (I don’t advise messing up your office or your home–you only have to tidy it up again!). When you need to think clearly and logically, and maybe ‘tow the line’ a bit, make sure you’re working in a tidy space.

How to turn disappointing performance into good and even excellent performance

Last week, we looked at building already good performance into even better performance by providing regular constructive and positive information. That still leaves a few straggling poor performers, though.

These are the people who give you headaches, but not big enough headaches to show them the door. You’d probably like to shoo them out the door, but when you think about the discussions you need to hold first, the ill will and other problems that could result, and the whole rigamarole of paperwork that would ensue, it’s a lot easier to sigh, wish they’d quit (which they probably won’t) and let their poor performance slide. Meanwhile, the rest of your team becomes increasingly resentful that some people are getting away with not pulling their weight and wonder why they bother. That’s how the slippery slope of a poor performing team begins.

To avoid that and have a team where everyone pulls their weight and does a grand job, follow this guiding principle: ignored problems tend to grow worse. Corrective information is the antidote.

Here are four guiding principles to follow when providing corrective information:

  1. Remember the 80:20 rule of poor performance: 80 per cent of the time, poor performance is the result of the employee not knowing what they’re actually, specifically supposed to be doing or why it’s important; a poor job fit–putting the wrong person in the job; insufficient training or lack of confidence; or cumbersome systems, procedures, poor tools and equipment, lack of time or information to do a job properly; sometimes poor teamwork and even (gasp) poor leadership is at the heart of poor performance. Think through those possibilities or discuss them with the employee before taking further action. (The other 20 per cent is ‘Acts of God’ beyond employee’s control and personal problems.) (Check through Chapter 11 for more on this.)
  2. Deal with one issue at a time. A long chain of information about what needs to be improved and how to improve it, however well intended, is hard to take and even harder to digest. It also invites suspicion and resentment and damages working relationships. People fixate on the threat you pose, not their performance.
  3. Say what you mean but don’t be mean (as the saying goes). You can’t make people do better by making them feel bad.When you make people feel bad about their performance, the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol can increase to such high levels that creativity, memory, planning, thinking and other higher order mental functions shut down and performance worsens–the opposite of what you want. (In fact, when research scientists what to study the highest levels of stress hormones, they give their subjects intense face-to-face criticism, causing the hormones to surge and the heart rate to spike by 30 to 40 beats per minute! Definitely not the result you’re after!)
  4. Your manner in delivering feedback is critically important. When you accompany your corrective information with positive body language signals such as nods and smiles, people feel better than when you frown and look annoyed or angry. You want poor performing employees to feel as good as possible about your information because when people feel better, they perform better; therefore, use positive and supportive body language.

Bearing those four principles in mind, here are some more specific tips.

Even corrective information given in the kindest, most helpful and positive way can still sting. So provide it in private and think through how best to phrase it beforehand. You don’t want your comments or tone of voice to be misunderstood or to crush a team member’s confidence or enthusiasm.


Keep your comments clear and objective. Describe the behaviour or unmet target that concerns you and convey your information in a positive, helpful way. Only address what people can control; that is, behaviours they can change or skills they can improve or develop. Go for the big stuff that can make a measurable difference to results that both you and others can see.

When addressing behaviours, be ultra cautious about what you call them; when you’re having trouble thinking of what to say, think about how the employee might describe the behaviour or their results. At all costs, avoid negative labels and ‘psychologising’ (guessing why someone does something).

Avoid vague statements and generalisations and be careful of confusing your opinions with facts.

Here are three ways to turn your information from a critical ‘push’ into a helpful ‘pull’:

  1. Keep your approach one of exploring, resolving and assisting, not telling or telling off.
  2. Change your ‘You’s’ into ‘I’s’ or get rid of the ‘You’s’ altogether:
    • You never ————————–> Next time, from now on, …
    • You shouldn’t … ——————-> It’s fast/easier/more accurate to …
    • You’re not doing that properly —> Let me run through how I’d like you to do
    • You don’t seem to be able to —-> I see you’re having trouble
  3. Point your comments to the future and on solutions and goals. The past is past. Keep painting the picture of the end result you’re after.


How to easily and quickly turn people into star performers

If you’re a typical leader-manager, a few of your team members are coasting along, doing a good enough job but you know they’re capable of more. Another couple could do with improving their performance because it’s only just barely acceptable. You’re busy and the thought of beginning a performance management process with them, with all the angst that can entail, makes you cringe. So you carry on, and so do they, and not a lot changes.

Imagine what it would be like to easily, and relatively quickly (compared to a formal management process) turn the situation around and have them all performing like stars. You can, and here’s how: You do it with a continuing dialogue of information about how they’re doing. (I don’t like the word ‘feedback’ because to too many people, it means ‘criticism’ and who do you know who enjoys giving or receiving ‘criticism’?)

Here’s your guiding principle for a continuous dialogue with team members: They need, and deserve, to know:

  • how they’re doing
  • that you notice and appreciate their efforts
  • whether they could do what they’re doing more easily, quickly or better and if so, how.

To achieve this, you’re going to provide two types of information: constructive and positive.

Constructive information helps people improve what they’re already doing quite well: ‘Here, let me show you an easier way to do that…’

Try saying ‘could’ instead of ‘should’, ‘not wise’ instead of ‘wrong; ‘a valuable lesson for next time’ instead of ‘a mistake’. Think of how best to offer an improvement suggestion rather than telling someone how to do something better. That makes it an invitation rather than a push and much easier to accept and act on.

Positive information. Most people don’t equate silence with approval, and it’s a mistake to ignore performance that meets expectations. Positive feedback is a great way to build relationships and a positive working climate and make sure people keep on doing good work.

You can make your positive information specific: ‘Thanks, that really hit the mark, particularly the way you presented the data in graphs; it made it much easier to understand.’ This tells people what you appreciate and why and practically guarantees they’ll keep doing it. It’s perfect for new recruits and when training people on something new and while people are building their skills and confidence. Use it liberally while people are learning and gradually reduce it to maintain the new behaviours once their established.

You can also make your positive information general: A friendly smile, a cheerful hello, a ‘Thanks, that’s great’ is a quick and easy ‘feel good’ for everyone.

Make the information you provide balanced because overusing any one type soon makes it meaningless. Even constant ‘Good on yas’ wear thin. And don’t be predictable; intermittent (irregular or random) information works best.

The more you give constructive and positive information, the more your team members come to expect it and appreciate it. They’ll feel noticed, supported, encouraged and valued and as a result, they’ll produce more. They’ll thank you for helping them hone their skills and they’ll thrive in the positive working climate and open, honest communication culture.

Pretty simple, really, isn’t it!

(We’ll deal with how to improve ‘just barely acceptable’ performance next week.)

The answers

How did you do on last weeks pop quiz on management trends, then whens and the whos? Here are the answers:

1.  Scientific management                             a. 1911, Frederick Winslow Taylor

2.  Servant leadership                                    b. 1970, Robert Greenleaf

3.  The balanced scorecard                           c. 1992, Robert Kaplan and David Norton

4.  Beaucratic management
and hierarchies theory                              d. 1922, Max Weber

5.  Business process re-engineering              e. 1990, Michael Hammer

6.  Big data analytics                                      f.  2011, lots of really smart people

7.  Australia industrialises                               g. 1920s, William Lawrence Ballieu and the
Collins House Group

8.  Power with, not power over                       h. 1920s, Mary Parker Follett

9.  Emotional Intelligence                                i. 1995, Daniel Goleman

10. The hierarchy of needs                              j. 1943, Abraham Maslow

11. Management as a profession                    k. 1946, Peter Drucker

12. The Hawthorne experiments                      l. 1924, Elton Mayo

13. Total Quality Control                                  m. 1950s W Edwards Deming and others

14. Moments of truth                                       n.  1989, Jan Carlzon

15. Action Centred Leadership                        o. 1973, John Adair

16. Hygiene factors and Motivators                  p. 1959, Frederick Herzberg

17. Expectancy theory of motivation                 q. 1964, Victor Vroom

18. Empathic leadership                                    r. 1945, Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop

19. Transformational leadership                         s. 1978, James McGregor Burns

20. The continuum of leadership styles              t. 1958, Robert Tannenbaum and
Warren Schmidt

21. Management Grid                                        u. 1964, Robert Blake and Jane Mouton

22. Theory X, Theory Y                                       v. 1960, Douglas McGregor

23. Task-readiness theory                                  w. 1960s, Paul Hersey and Kenneth