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Object Language and Impression Management


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Try throwing out the term "object language" at an IT office party, and odds are people will immediately think of JAVA, C++ or some other object-oriented language. However, there is another type of object language, literally the language of objects, which speaks volumes about people. Object language is a form of nonverbal communication suggested by the environmental cues that surround a person, particularly in office settings. Through these cues, others (such as visitors, coworkers, and customers) make attributions about employees' competence, ability, and personality.

What does object language communicate about IT professionals? Can the messages conveyed by object language be used to offset the stereotypical image of a "computer geek?" While the image projected by an IT employee has a bearing on individual career success, it is also important for those who have responsibility for the IT function in their firms. Most IT employees provide support for internal and sometimes external customers. If customers are reluctant to approach IT professionals, or if they approach with a negative predisposition, IT services invariably suffer.

This article reports on how object language can affect impressions that customers and visitors form when they come to see IT professionals in their offices. Based on recent study findings, we assert that technology, in combination with other office design elements, can be a useful tool for managing the impressions others have of IT professionals.

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The IT Professional and the "Geek" Stereotype

For better or worse, computer experts are often stereotyped as geeks.10 The quintessential geek is a loner, introverted, messy, moody, unattractive, can argue effectively for James Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard as the best Enterprise captain, etc. These stereotypical images of geekiness, whether accurate or not, can influence people in ways that inhibit subsequent interaction. Reluctance to seek assistance from IT staff may emanate from many sources including unwillingness to admit one cannot figure out a technological problem or a bad previous consulting experience. But the reluctance can also be traced to the geek stereotype and the perception that IT people are not user-friendly. This may be particularly true in initial encounters where first impressions are powerful, creating a primacy effect that affects future interactions.5

Irrespective of the reasons for technical people's inapproachability, it behooves an organization to develop strategies to dispel the stereotypes and encourage greater interaction. It is in the company's interest to foster an environment where employees feel comfortable approaching IT professionals for aid. Recent research suggests that understanding and using object language may help to break down stereotypes and build more collaborative work environments.

The most prominent place in which object language operates in today's workplace is the design of one's office and the artifacts that are displayed within the office setting. Technology, furniture, pictures, personal items, plants, messiness and desk placement all play a role in influencing visitors' perceptions of an office occupant. Attributions of a person's personality, competence and ability are formed on momentary impressions based on available cues. In his best selling book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell4 describes these momentary impressions or "thin-slices" as unconscious recognitions of environmental or behavioral patterns happening in the blink of an eye. Unconscious or not, these impressions are very real. They help us make sense of the world around us and affect how we respond to that world.

Research has established, for example, that the positioning of one's desk sends messages to potential visitors; messages that make them feel more or less welcome and comfortable. For example, when one's desk is positioned as a barrier between the office occupant and the visitor, what is referred to as a closed desk position, visitors feel less comfortable and less welcome,1, 9 and the office occupant is perceived as being less extroverted7 than when the desk is positioned in a more open manner. Therefore, IT people can appear more accessible by arranging their offices such that their desks are in open as opposed to closed positions.

Moreover, the display of plants and posters also creates positive impressions.1 People feel more welcome and comfortable visiting offices adorned with plants and posters than offices without such accoutrements. While cubicle offices common in corporate environments limit space, the lesson here is that companies should allow IT people to personalize their workspace to some degree.

A third type of office object that communicates to visitors is the degree of messiness or amount of office clutter present. There is some dispute as to whether having a clean office or one characterized by "organized stacks" conveys a more positive impression. Campbell1 found support for the clean office, but did not consider an intermediary level of tidiness (organized stacks). Morrow and McElroy9 reported that visitors had the most favorable impressions of offices characterized by organized stacks. (They felt more welcome and comfortable.) Most recently, however, research showed clean offices to elicit the most favorable responses, even with the intermediary level of ti-diness.8 In any case, there is considerable agreement across these studies that messy offices convey negative messages about the office occupant. Occupants of chaotic offices are perceived as unwelcoming, busy and rushed. Furthermore, they are viewed as unprofessional, low-status employees with limited potential for advancement.3 Thus, messiness sends messages to others which may work to inhibit their approaching IT professionals for assistance. Consequently, if a company wants to maximize the impression of approachability of their IT professionals, office clutter needs to be minimal or its effects softened by other forms of object language such as technology.

Recent research does not indicate that visible technology alone conveys messages to office visitors. Rather, technology influences visitor perceptions by interacting with other sources of object language, specifically messiness.8 Because technology is a tool IT officeholders are comfortable with, creative display of technology presents a unique opportunity for IT professionals to enhance their image and perhaps overcome stereotypical impressions of the IT officeholder.

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Technology as an Impression Management Tool

How might technology exacerbate or offset messages conveyed by messiness? Our research shows that one can actually soften perceptions of the possible neuroticism of the officeholder through the nature of technology displayed in the office (see sidebar, "How the Study Was Done"). We found that visitors viewed officeholders with clean offices and a lot of highly sophisticated technology as less neurotic than if they displayed less technological gadgetry. Furthermore, we found that occupants with very clean offices were thought to be more agreeable when they had high rather than moderate or low levels of technology visible in their office.

But what if your IT person is not the tidiest individual or even a slob? It was once thought that information technology would eliminate paperwork,6 but we are all familiar with the IT professional whose office looks like a disaster. We found that even in the case of the IT slob, the right technology can offset the adverse messages sent by office messiness. For example, if the messy officeholder uses portable technology such as a notebook computer, he/she is perceived to be more extraverted than if the office contained a desktop computer. In other words, given the same level of messiness in a person's office, if the technology is switched from desktop to portable, a more outgoing and approachable message is sent to visitors about the officeholder.

Portability of technology combined with office messiness affects others' judgments about two aspects of office-holder personality: extraversion and openness to new experiences. Technology portability has no effect on perceptions of officeholder extraversion in offices that are very clean. However, when the officeholder has organized stacks of papers, magazines and books, the desktop computer produces the highest perceptions of occupant extraversion, while in messy offices, a notebook computer produces the highest extra-version attributions. It is the opposite with openness. Messy offices with either notebook or desktop computers evoke similar perceptions of the office-holder's openness, but in clean offices, the notebook computer causes the visitor to attribute to the occupant a higher level of openness. Lastly, in terms of perceptions of openness, if the office has organized stacks, it is better to have a desktop computer. Table 1 summarizes these technology/messiness interactions and shows what type of technology creates the most favorable impression for the desired personality trait within each type of office.

To summarize, IT professionals seeking to create the most favorable visitor impressions should design their offices to have an open desk placement, displays of plants, pictures and other humanizing artifacts, and manage office clutter, either directly or by coupling their level of messiness with the appropriate technology. For example, those that maintain very clean offices should exhibit as much state-of-the-art gadgetry as they can muster as a means of reducing neuroticism stereotypes. Research shows that following these guidelines will generally result in creating the most favorable impressions.

Two caveats accompany the recommendations in this paper. First, much of this research is based on student samples. Modern students are more technologically savvy than previous generations. As such, these recommendations may be more predictive of future employee relations with IT employees than as an accurate reflection of today's workforce. Second, should readers take these recommendations and mandate changes in office design, they may run the risk of alienating IT employees who are comfortable with their present office design. The purpose of this paper is not to provide hard and fast rules for office design, but rather to introduce the IT professional to the idea of object language and the messages being sent by virtue of their offices, and how these messages might impact interactions with clients and colleagues, particularly in creating initial, first impressions.

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Conclusion

Organizations know that to ensure success, it is important to encourage an environment where colleagues are comfortable seeking aid and/or information from each other. Stereotypes, whether true or not, can impede such an environment by discouraging interpersonal interaction. While it is not possible to change the personality of employees, our research demonstrates that it is possible to soften harsh edges and encourage perceptions of desirable traits through object language. Best Buy has accomplished this by capitalizing on the "geek" stereotype and caricaturizing their IT professionals as friendly members of a Geek Squad who drive cute VW Bugs to customers instead of waiting for customers to come to them. The point is they have found a way to convey a more approachable image of the IT support function. We believe that the study of object language within the office environment offers a similar mechanism for creating an image of the IT professional as a more approachable, user-friendly resource. What we don't yet know, and what would make for interesting follow-up research, is whether there is any connection between office design and IT professional effectiveness and satisfaction. Furthermore, more research on the best combination of office objects to display is needed. But we do know that appropriate adjustments to the object language of a person's office, including its technology, are simple, yet powerful methods of creating positive impressions.

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References

1. Campbell, D.E. Interior office design and visitor response. Journal of Applied Psychology 64, 6 (Dec. 1979), 648653.

2. Costa, P.T. and McCrae, R.R. Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI-R and NEO Five-Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI) Professional Manuel, Psychological Assessment Resources, Odessa, FL, 1992.

3. Elsbach, K.D. Interpreting workplace identities: The role of office decor. Journal of Organizational Behavior 25, 1 (Feb. 2004), 99128.

4. Gladwell, M. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2005.

5. Hamilton, D.L. Person perception. In Perspectives on Behavior in Organizations, J.R. Hackman, E.E. Lawler III. and L.W. Porter, Eds. McGraw-Hill, New York 1983, 4157.

6. Lewis, B. Electronic authorization - the next wave in automation. Journal of Systems Management 40, 3 (Mar. 1989), 2832.

7. McElroy, J.C., Morrow, P.C. and Ackerman, R.J. Personality and interior office design - exploring the accuracy of visitor attributions. Journal of Applied Psychology 68, 3 (Aug. 1983) 541544.

8. McElroy, J.C., Scheibe, K.P., and Morrow, P.C. Technology as object language: Revisiting office design. Computers in Human Behavior 23, 5, (2007), 24292454.

9. Morrow, P.C. and McElroy, J.C. Interior office design and visitor response - a constructive replication. Journal of Applied Psychology 66, 5 (Oct. 1981), 646650.

10. Williams, L. Debunking the nerd stereotype with pair programming. IEEE Computer 39, 5 (May 2006), 8385.

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Authors

Kevin P. Scheibe (kscheibe@iastate.edu) is an assistant professor of MIS in the College of Business at Iowa State University, Ames, IA.

James C. McElroy (jmcelroy@iastate.edu) is a University Professor and the Bill and Liz Goodwin Faculty Fellow in the Department of Management at Iowa State University, Ames, IA.

Paula C. Morrow (pmorrow@iastate.edu) is a University Professor and the Max S. Wortman, Jr. Professor of Management at Iowa State University, Ames, IA.

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Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1498765.1498800

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Tables

T1Table 1. Technological options that enhance personality attributions for three types of office messiness.

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