Solution Saturday: Dealing with Ms. Clutter Galore

Dear Dan,

I have a question concerning my Assistant Manager. Her performance in most areas is exceptional as she is hardworking, dedicated, and has the respect of her team. She gets results.

My concern is that her office is continually a disorganized mess with files, paperwork, post-it notes, and clutter galore. Her staff has complained about not being able to find things in her office when she is out.

I am concerned because, as the General Manager, I have set a high standard in our office for personal organization in our workplace. I do this because I believe a clean, well organized office sets a better example to staff and potential interview candidates than a cluttered office. I also believe a cluttered workplace can detract from productivity.

I know there are opinions on both sides, but is there a right answer here? Is it fair and right for me to insist she keep a well organized and clutter free workplace? I’m not talking about being a perfectionist and neat freak – just keeping her desk clean and organized.

What message does a cluttered workstation send? How should I address this? I would appreciate any insight as I believe this needs to be addressed. I searched your site and did not find anything on this topic.

Can you help?

Concerned with Ms. Clutter Galore

culture is determined by behaviors we don't confront

Dear Concerned with Ms. Clutter Galore,

Your situation reminds me of Calvin Klein. I was fortunate to be in a small group that spent a day with him. He had strict guidelines for appearance. Everyone wore black and white. No family pictures on desks. Everything was neat and orderly.

Calvin Klein seems obsessive to me. But his attention to detail is one reason for his success. He was a micromanager who created a global brand. You may not be as obsessive as Calvin Klein. 

Exceptional includes obsession.

It seems you’ve made up your mind that a cluttered office in unacceptable. Your challenge is communicating your expectation to a hardworking, dedicated, and respected Assistant Manager. She may feel blindsided, disrespected, under-appreciated, and perhaps de-motivated.

The research indicates that clutter, in most situations, hinders productivity. However, I wonder why paper clutter is unacceptable, while most offices encourage electronic clutter. Employees are expected to respond to text messages and emails immediately.

The trouble with clutter – paper or electronic – is distraction. Deep work requires concentration. However, you indicate that Ms. Clutter Galore delivers results.

Authenticity and clutter

Appearance, not productivity, seems to be the issue. If I was your coach, I’d ask you to reflect on how Ms. Clutter’s mess impacts your image as a leader. 

There’s nothing wrong with being concerned about how a messy office makes you look. However, if your concern is mostly about you – in order for you to be authentic – the way you address this should be mostly about you.

It seems like you have a value that you didn’t communicate until the behavior became an irritation. It also seems like you tolerated this and now feel inconsistent to bring it up. How we deal with personal inconsistencies is part of the leadership journey.

Culture is formed by things we tolerate.

  1. Don’t make a rule for your entire office, when you’re concerned about one person. Conversations are better than rules.
  2. Explain your value. Make it about you, not research on the negative impact of cluttered work-spaces. There’s no reason to make her feel like a loser, if she’s a great Assistant Manager. You might say, “I should have been more clear about uncluttered office spaces.”
  3. Ask her to keep her office uncluttered. Be kind and direct.
  4. Make the conversation about what’s best for you and her.
  5. Protect her from creating an unrealistic picture of an uncluttered office in her head. Give her a clear illustration of your expectation.
  6. Offer support. A few months ago, I eliminated paper when I started writing coaching notes with OneNote on my Surface Pro. I love it.
  7. Keep the conversation going. Once in awhile clutter will return. How will you maintain a positive tone when you bring this up in the future?

Other General Managers might not care about clutter. You, however, should bring it up. I believe your Assistant Manager is a talented hardworking person who is able to meet your expectation.

Another consideration:

I’m reading between the lines a bit, but her staff should be talking with her, not complaining when she’s gone. (Please ignore this if I’m reading too much into your email.)

I wonder if you’ve unintentionally created a culture where you solve other people’s problems. If that’s the case, you’re undermining your Assistant Manager and limiting your own leadership.

If I was coaching you, I’d ask you to reflect on the qualities/behaviors that you exhibit that make it acceptable for staff to come to you, rather than their direct supervisor. This may be a leadership development opportunity for you.

You have my best,


What suggestions do you have for addressing cluttered offices?

*I suspend my 300 word limit on Solution Saturday.

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