Knowing how to read your colleagues’ work spaces can help to nurture your on the job relationships. From environmental clues, you can learn who has the same tastes and values, determine if co-workers are reliable and organized, and even conclude who is committed to the job and who is merely marking time there. The book Reading People: How to Understand People and Predict Their Behavior, by Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, Mark Mazzarella, has a fascinating chapter devoted to reading the work place environment. I would like to share some of the advice offered in their book on how to learn more about co-workers by the items they choose to surround themselves with at work.
Movie set designers add props to the background of every scene to provide context and emphasis to the actors’ words and gestures. In real life, most of us select the props that surround us. Workplace props offer wonderful browsing for the attentive people-reader.
The workplace is sometimes a mini-replica of home, with many of the same elements squeezed into a few revealing items. Someone’s office may contain clues a home lacks. Away from the influence of spouse and family, some people more freely express themselves.
Some of the props most commonly found in the workplace are: artwork, blotter/desk set, reading materials, business card holder, calendar, clocks, collectibles, cork boards and items they display, diplomas, flowers, knickknacks, lamps, mugs, paperweights, pen sets, photographs, plants, posters, Rolodex and trophies. If you make note of such props, you will be amazed at how much information you can accumulate.
Calendars, photographs and frames, books and reading materials are objects that consistently reveal more than others. These items are easily replaceable and relatively inexpensive. For this reason, they are usually a better indication of a person’s current state of mind than permanent fixtures such as a desk, computer, office chairsand carpeting. These items have one other thing in common: they are all available in a nearly endless assortment of styles. Consequently, a person’s choice is going to make a fairly specific statement. There’s always the chance the particular item was a gift, but even so, people generally don’t display gifts unless they like them.
Calendars Does a cubicle boast a Sierra Club calendar, or one that features show cars, pinups, Norman Rockwell paintings, or Far Sidecartoons? Calendars not only broadcast an individual’s hobby or passion, they’re great conversation pieces. Just ask the person about the calendar and your off and running.
Photographs and frames The people or places in the photos, the number of photos, the type of frame (expensive or inexpensive, country craft style or black lacquer), and the type of photograph (snapshot, amateur, professional photo) are all very telling. For exmaple, photos of the person with celebrities, community leaders, or other famous types are often a form of braggadocio. These, and all photos, are great conversation starters.
Books and other reading material The subject matter is important, naturally – a person with a stack of dog eared science fiction paperbacks is probably a fan – but there are other factors to consider as well. Someone whose shelf is filled with unread leather bound volumes by the great masters might be pretentious. Are the shelves lined with well thumbed professional journals, or with magazines unconnected to the job? Is there a Bible or other religious book? What sort of reference work does the person have? Are there plenty of computer manuals, but little else?
The more time you spend reading people, the easier it gets. Try not to jump to conclusions or be judgemental. Instead, use these skills to get to know your co-workers better and improve your relationships.