One of the most revealing things about a person is their workspace. Not only can a person’s office or desk reveal how they like to work, it can shed light on deep-seated psychological and personality traits, says Colin Ellard, an environmental psychologist and professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, whose latest book, Places of the Heart, explores how our workspaces and other daily environments affect us and those around us.
“For many of us, other than the room where we sleep, our office is the place where we log more hours than anywhere else, so (it) can be very revealing,” says Ellard. And it’s not just whether a person chooses to keep their desk neat or messy that reveals something about them.
“In part, what we’re trying to do is to establish dominance over our territory—to mark it as our own,” says Ellard. “Territoriality has everything to do with interpersonal interaction. We’re personalizing, establishing dominance, as a way to send a signal to others. The signal may be meant to produce an emotional state in visitors (fear, awe, friendliness for example) or to convey a message of some kind.”
In other words, Ellard says, we often use our office space as a way of telling some kind of story about ourselves. Or as he puts it, “The office can be a carefully crafted tableau.”
As of last Friday, the most powerful and well-known office in the world–the Oval Office–has a new occupant: Donald Trump. While the Oval Office generally changes very little with each new president, Trump’s other office–the one he’s held for years on the 26th floor of the Trump Tower in New York reveals a much richer story about the most powerful man in the world.
“At first glance, one might suppose that this is the desk of a man who is busy with a lot of different projects–he’s a multitasker,” says Ellard, who notes that despite having such a large desk only about 10% of its surface is actually visible, the rest of it buried under stacks of items. When I present him with photos of Trump’s business office that were first obtained by the Daily Mail. But on closer inspection, Ellard says, the sheer number of items on Trump’s desk tells a different story. “A remarkably large number of the items on his desk seem to be about Donald J. Trump. That is, it doesn’t look as though his desk is filled with materials related to ongoing projects so much as books, articles, and photographs about (himself)”
Ellard does concede there are plenty of items on Trump’s desk which he can’t easily identify, which might relate to his business interests, but “the top layer seems to contain a lot of Trumposity.” Here are the most telling items in Trump’s office that strike him as revealing:
“I find it remarkable that the only photograph that we see on Trump’s desk, other than those of himself, is an image of his father,” says Ellard. “Note that it’s just his father and it isn’t an intimate family photo, but a fairly stern looking professional portrait of the man in business attire.”
While Trump has frequently talked about the influence of his father’s business acumen, a financially frugal man who was rather ruthless in building a property empire based around low-income housing, not a lot is known about the personal relationship between father and son.
“It does strike me, though, that this photo, occupying pride of place on the desk, near the telephone, might suggest that one of the motives underlying some of Trump’s hard battle to promote his own ego might be some underlying competitive instincts toward his father, or perhaps a deeply rooted primal drive to prove himself to the parent. But what I really want to know is where’s mom?”
“This might seem like an odd thing to pick up on, but in one of the images I can see what I’m fairly sure is a big stack of tablets of yellow Post-It notes. There might be as many as six tablets. If I’m right about this, then it’s quite curious. Why does one need more than one?” says Ellard, who goes on to note that in the images that show the stacks of Post-Its, there are plenty framed pictures on the walls–most of them cover stories in Playboy, Rolling Stone, and other magazines, about Trump. But there also seem to be more stacks of framed images leaning against the wall behind Trump, with at least one of them still in its wrapping.
“All of this, combined with the large stack of newspapers makes me wonder about a tendency to hoard,” says Ellard. “Hoarding disorder is slightly more common in men than in women (though you might not realize this because women seem somewhat more willing to talk about it) and is associated with a range of other difficulties including deficits in self-control and attentiveness.”
“Of course a stack of Post-Its and newspapers is a far cry from a serious case of hoarding that might see junk piled so high that the office door can’t be opened, but this makes me wonder–could the pile of yellow pads stand in weird proxy for the stacks and stacks of real estate holdings of the Trump foundation? Could an inability to let go of objects be related to Trump’s unwillingness to divest his financial self-interests while he is president? Or is it the case that sometimes a Post-It note is just a Post-It note?”
“I can’t see the entire office from the photos, but it makes me note that there is very little visible storage space. Everything I see is exposed—the crowded window sill, the counter space beside the desk, and of course the desk itself. But there’s this one banker’s box, hidden from the sight of visitors, apparently filled with rolled up posters? Plans?” Ellard says, noting his eyes can’t help but be drawn to it.
“What is it that’s so important that it takes a position crowded in beside Trump’s feet? It makes me feel as though perhaps he wants to make the impression that all is visible to visitors, everything is out on the surface, yet there are a few secrets hidden away, out of sight. There’s a little place to put things that he doesn’t want visitors to see and it’s overflowing.”
“This isn’t a single item, but I’m trying to make sense of the framed material on the walls of the office. I see lots of awards and magazine covers and one or two photos of Trump himself (one with JFK Jr for instance), but what stands out for me is that all of the material I see has to do with his business interests. What does the man do for fun? What brings him pleasure? Is it just the running of businesses?” asks Ellard.
“I’m also curious about the group shot that is hung low on the wall beneath all of the Trump plaudits. I’m guessing that this might be a shot from a Miss Universe competition. I’m a little tickled that the only photograph of women that is visible to a visitor (and very close to the line of sight on the visitor’s side of the desk) is one of a large group of beauty contestants.”
The final thing about Trump’s office that caught Ellard’s attention was not a single item but a tightly clustered set of framed photographs sitting on the windowsill behind Trump. “Are these the missing photos of his family?” asks Ellard.
“Their tiny size, in contrast to all of the other images that we see, and their position in the room, suggest to me that these images may be just for Trump and for nobody else (in contrast to much of the other material in the room). If there is any signaling here at all, it is exactly that–a modest nod to the family that he treasures–a little cue to visitors that these people are in his life—but a reminder that he might prefer to keep family matters private. This is in stark contrast to the prominent roles that he has given some family members in his administration and one wonders how this will play out over the next few years – his desire to shield family matters from the eyes of the world but also to surround himself with them in his working life as he takes on what is probably the most public job on the planet.”
Taken individually, every item in Trump’s office tells its own story–just like any item in our workplace tells a story about us. But taken as a whole, the magnum opus the collection of items in Trumps
office–and the state of his office–reveals much about the new leader of the free world.
“The sheer volume of items on Trump’s desk suggests that this is the working space of someone with perhaps a short attention span, but what screams out to me is that this is a man who is very interested in, and perhaps protective of, his image,” says Ellard. “It might not be fair to go so far as to suggest narcissism based solely on the positioning of the objects that I see, but it does strike me, given some of the objects on display that it’s a possibility.”
Ellard says that based on this, he suspects that Trump’s presidential leadership style won’t be much different than what we saw on the campaign trail: someone who can’t always help being preoccupied with how he is seen by others.
“Even when he might have the best of intentions, it will probably be as important to him that he be seen as strong, powerful, and influential,” says Ellard. “There may even be times when his preoccupation with how he is seen by others will overcome his judgment about how best to serve. In addition to this, his clear intention to establish powerful dominance over his territory and to perhaps cow outsiders already seems reflected in the thrust of many of his proposed policies.”