Solution Saturday: Dealing with Ms. Clutter Galore
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
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.
- Don’t make a rule for your entire office, when you’re concerned about one person. Conversations are better than rules.
- 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.”
- Ask her to keep her office uncluttered. Be kind and direct.
- Make the conversation about what’s best for you and her.
- Protect her from creating an unrealistic picture of an uncluttered office in her head. Give her a clear illustration of your expectation.
- Offer support. A few months ago, I eliminated paper when I started writing coaching notes with OneNote on my Surface Pro. I love it.
- 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.
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.
Dear Dan and General Manager,
Of course, if she has Adult ADHD or ADD, to remove the clutter means you will have to, usually, also removed the employee.
Perhaps the Americans With Disabilities Act would dictate a closed door and covered windows for her office. And no tourists or other visitors allowed to see it.
Thanks Craig. It’s always possible that trying to help causes harm. Another alternative might be to locate her office at the end of the hall and interview prospective employees in the conference room.
That doesn’t deal with being able to find things in her office. I’m not sure how much of an issue that one is.
Clutter creates dysfunction, you need some expectation guideline clarifications. If the manager is gone a system of checks and balances can be enabled for others to access key components needed while the manager is gone, after all your operating a business, correct?
If clutter is acceptable who pays the price? Customers? Partners trying to get the job done? Businesses as a whole picture become disorganized! Your choices do affect others!
Thanks Tim. Some depends on the sector. It matters more when there’s lots of traffic through the office for example.
At first, I thought just let it go, if she’s doing such a great job. After some contemplation, I came down on your side, although for different reasons. Thanks for jumping in.
From the Bosses standpoint how do others find things when manager is not there? There needs to be functional things happening based on issues be questioned by workers. Lots of different directions to go!
Your insight is so on target with this post – as you almost always are!!! In particular, the point about coming to you. This should be reports coming to her – for resolution among the group. Your input should be a decision by the group!!!
Thanks John. I’m not sure how much of an issue this is. It’s just a gut feeling. I like the idea of having a discussion with the team. Cheers
Ahhh, the memories this post brings back. My desk seemed to get a little cluttered and about every two weeks I’d reorganize and clean it up – not because others couldn’t find something, but I didn’t like the unprofessional appearance. However, as I see this situation, it appears access to information by others in the absence of Ms. CG is the key to engage in a small conversation as a start to address it. If others can’t find information, it may deter productivity or delay progress so maybe the suggestion to minimally straighten up the desk during her absences (for a few hours or a day) will help others and the company overall. As a manager or boss, something as simply as “We (or I) were unable to locate the Smith report the other day while you were gone” is a good way to start as you stare at the mess. Thanks for sharing.
I agree that clutter creates dysfunction. I can’t work in a mess either. That being said, I have seen organizations that take this to the extreme. I once worked for a textile company that would spend thousands of dollars right before a visit from the owner. They would clean, paint, and have landscaping done. The plants were kept pretty clean almost all of the time, but it went a little crazy when the owner came to town.
I am a recovering Ms clutter galore! I am 8 weeks impeccable and mostly liking it – I am a business operations manager in a complex secondary school
The reason for my change – expected from the top down. Happened at same time for our operations areas. 3 leaders including me went to Malaci training with our PA to learn how to achieve it
I am not comfortable with the new standard and need to focus on it to keep my immpeccability standard. This does detract from my other work at times. I was organised enough prior that people could always find things when I wasn’t there – sometimes they would have to ring and could tell them which pile or area it is was in. Not ideal but it worked. I also am and was high performing with no complaints there.
I now find keeping the immpeccability causes me done added stress – I know I have to but it does not come easily. I do like knowing that all my tasks are scheduled but again feel stressed if I don’t complete them in the allocated time and need to reschedule more time.
You notice interruptions more which can be distracting also.
My productivity hasn’t suffered but I But it has improved a little I think – my office looks noticeably tidier to the point people have commented.
Jury is out for me – I never had problems finding things before and I got the work done. I’m still getting used to the new me and I’m still practicing successfully. But my office looks great!
The ole “nothing matters until it matters” comes into play here. Organizations without leadership often suffer greatly in this mantra. You see, establishing expectations is not a “set-it and forget it” process. It takes true leadership to develop the organization by developing the people of the organization. It takes a commitment of purpose to establish expectations. Additionally, organizations need to communicate that purpose so that everyone is moving in the same direction under the same understanding.
I found, when I moved up a notch in the food chain, that leaving work on my desktop overnight was not a wonderful idea, even though the door to my personal office was locked with a Medikey as part of the company’s physical security procedures. Since most of my ken was “client-related” I developed the habit of having a First Thing in the Morning folder. EVERYTHING still on my desktop when I reached a stopping point was put in that folder and locked securely in the middle drawer on the left side of my desk (I’m a righty and that adds a confusion factor). In the morning, after checking inbound email for high priority items, I hauled out the folder and started in where I’d left off (papers in the same order, etc.). This has developed a happystance that holds to this day — whenever I’m stuck on how to handle something it goes into that folder and gets dealt with first thing tomorrow when I’m more likely to give a reasonable and cogent answer. If I can’t postpone until morning, I look for another manager to discuss and unravel the confounding issue(s) and we’re done!
As in sports teams and any other group of people who depend on each other managing around “what I don’t do well” works. including someone in Ms. Clutters life to assist her in a way that works for her frees Ms. Clutter to do what she does best. That really struck me as I read what Julie Heddle wrote.
The Quarterback doesn’t do well blocking those 390 lb. defensive linemen! So let’s not expect him to and find our own linemen.
Another insightful post.
Great job on pointing out that the general manager should not be a beacon for coming to him instead of going to the assistant manager. Those of us who have had managers like this know the additional and unnecessary issues this causes.
Speaking from experience, clutter isn’t like taking out the trash. Some people function well in clutter… and they just can’t help it. I love coachtimward’s comments — and I have always found that you play to your people’s strengths in the workplace. If her people can’t find certain things, then identify those things and find a place for them rather than attacking the whole office. ADD/ADHD could well be at play here and that’s a matter of brain function. And probably that same brain function makes her a great assistant manager. No matter how many rules you lay down, she may not be able to overcome it. So help her find a way around it. That’s what I’ve had to do.
Hi Dan, I really appreciate the way you have crafted the questions from a coaching perspective, I think reflecting and recognising own intentions before seeking to address issues such as this is critical. Your post on confronting like a master would be helpful in this situation.
I am firmly in the camp of organised chaos is closely aligned with creativity and innovation but the flip side of this (and an email is insufficient information), is maybe the assistant manager is overloaded and keeping a tidy office space would take her away from job satisfaction and productivity?
I’m horrified that clutter is being associated with neurobiology or mental health distress, perhaps by people who have no clinical expertise to be making these stereotyped judgements.
Long time reader, first time poster.