Effects of tidy/messy work
environment on human accuracy
School of Economics and Business Administration, University of Navarra,
Jose Roberto Herna
Universidad del Istmo, Ciudad de Guatemala, Guatemala
Department of Industrial Organization, University of Navarra, San Sebastia
School of Business, Universidad Francisco Marroquin,
Ciudad de Guatemala, Guatemala
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to study the relationship between accuracy and
conscientiousness among people working in a tidy/messy work environment.
Design/methodology/approach – A laboratory experiment was conducted, where participants
performing a simple task in a highly controlled environment were sorted into two different treatments,
a tidy or a messy work environment.
Findings – The results of this study suggest that conscientious people commit more errors in a
messy environment than in a tidy environment. Therefore, one of the most signiﬁcant ﬁndings to
emerge from this study is that a messy environment could be detrimental to the accuracy of
Research limitations/implications – This study is limited in several respects. First of all, the
sample is not large, with 80 participants; some variables, such us IQ levels, fatigue levels, caffeine
consumption, etc. were not controlled for. Third, the task was restricted to inputting data into a
Practical implications – Taken together, these ﬁndings suggest the need to promote excellence in
work environment tidiness, because highly conscientious employees will work with greater accuracy,
while the less conscientious will not be affected. Therefore, overall, accuracy will be better.
Consequently, the managers of the organization should be committed to deﬁning policies about high
standards of tidiness in the workplace environment.
Originality/value – This is the ﬁrst study to provide evidence of the moderation of the tidy/messy
work environment in the relationship between conscientiousness and human accuracy. The present
study sheds light on the impact of messy work environment on accuracy of high conscientious people,
inducing them to work in a defective way.
Keywords Quality, Performance, Personality, Work, Continuous improvement, Distraction
Paper type Research paper
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
This research received a ﬁnancial grant from the Volkswagen Navarra Business Chair for
executing the experiments required by the research.
Vol. 51 No. 9, 2013
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
There is considerable agreement that conscientiousness includes a basic dispositional
sense of accuracy, with adjectival terms such as “reliable”, “dependable”, “dutiful”,
“cautious” and “responsible” used to capture this meaning (Barrick and Mount, 1991,
2000; Costa and McCrae, 1992; Mount and Barrick, 1995). On the other hand, to err is
human. Managers cannot easily change the human condition, but they can change the
conditions of the work environment so employees may work with more accuracy
(Reason, 2000, 2008). From a scientiﬁc point-of-view we need to solve many questions
relating to human error: Why do people make mistakes? What is the interaction
between work environment and human accuracy? What are the most important
personal traits and organizational features in explaining human accuracy?
This interaction between work environment and personal characteristics is a topic
of interest to the person-organization (PO) ﬁt, which is deﬁned as the compatibility
between an individual and his work environment. This ﬁt is high when their
characteristics are well matched (Kristof, 1996). Although seemingly far from
conclusive, there is a considerable body of research on the conceptualization and
empirical validation of PO ﬁt. However, it appears that the extension of the research
about the ﬁt between personality and work environment toward more applied and
practical ﬁelds has not been progressing. In particular, no empirical research has been
conducted to determine what effects a tidy/messy work environment may have on the
accuracy of both conscientious employees and those who are less conscientious.
Accordingly, the present study focuses on the effect that a work environment that may
be described as tidy or messy could produce in people that score high/low in terms of
The present article aims to study if the relationship between the level of
conscientiousness of the employees and their accuracy is inﬂuenced by the tidy/messy
environment in which they operate. To study this, a laboratory experiment was
conducted, where participants performing the same, simple task in a highly controlled
environment are exogenously sorted into two different treatments, i.e. into a tidy
environment and a messy environment. To the best of our knowledge, no previous
study has provided empirical evidence on this topic. Therefore, the contribution of this
article is the novelty of studying the relationships among the following three subjects:
work environment based on order (tidiness), and the conscientiousness and accuracy of
employees. The importance of the topic consists in understanding how
tidiness/messiness in the work environment can change the performance accuracy
response of people according to their level of conscientiousness. The results of the
present study could help organizations, business and other, to understand the
importance of tidiness in the work environment in order to increase accuracy and to
reduce errors. In addition, a more reﬁned understanding of the interaction between
person-organization (PO) ﬁt will be generated. Organizational policy about tidiness in
the environment would not be detrimental to the performance of any person. For
instance, if results suggest that messy environment has a negative impact on some
people and does not affect others, then we would conclude that promoting a tidy
environment will be a key policy for the organization and must be implemented so as to
achieve excellence in quality.
The article is organized as follows. First, we provide a general literature review to
lay the theoretical groundwork for explaining the fundamentals of the relationship
between conscientiousness, accuracy and tidy work environment. Second, we provide
hypotheses about how a tidy/messy work environment may inﬂuence the relationship
between the level of conscientiousness and employee accuracy. Third, we describe a
laboratory experiment conducted to test these hypotheses. Fourth, the main empirical
results are summarized. Finally, the implications of these results, main conclusions and
suggestions for future research are discussed.
2. Theoretical foundations for conscientiousness, accuracy and tidy/messy
2.1 Conscientiousness and human accuracy
The ﬁve-factor model (FFM) of personality is a hierarchical organization of personality
traits in terms of ﬁve basic dimensions:
(4) neuroticism (also known as emotional stability); and
(5) openness to experience (McCrae and John, 1992).
In addition, a considerable amount of research indicates that Conscientiousness is one
of the best predictors of performance in the workplace (e.g. Barrick and Mount, 1991;
Barrick et al., 2001; Hurtz and Donovan, 2000; Oh et al., 2011; Ones et al. 2007; Ones
et al., 2005; Salgado, 1997, 2002).
With regard to stable individual differences, some personality characteristics may
predispose individuals to being more susceptible to experiencing cognitive failures than
others (Wallace et al., 2002). Cognitive failure is deﬁned by Martin as a “cognitively based
error that occurs during the performance of a task that the person is normally successful
in executing” (Martin, 1983). According to Wallace and Vodanovich, cognitive failure in a
workplace is negatively related to Conscientiousness (Wallace and Vodanovich, 2003).
Indeed, it is not hard to conceive that an employee makes more errors because he/she is
careless, irresponsible, lazy, impulsive and low in achievement striving (low
conscientiousness). Therefore, employees with high scores on conscientiousness should
obtain higher accuracy at work. In general, conscientiousness is associated with error
detection, because employees who are highly conscientious are more alert to discrepancies
between expected and actual performance, i.e. they are more attentive to fulﬁlling
standards and, therefore, make more effort to avoid committing many errors. Mount and
Barrick (1995) found that conscientiousness is strongly correlated with quality (
“This makes sense because conscientious people plan and organize their work, and are
careful, thorough, and detail oriented. Such individuals are more likely to spot problems
and errors in processes and output” (Barrick and Mount, 2000, p. 19). This leads to fewer
errors and enables highly conscientious employees to produce better quality work.
Most organizations have understood that a neat and clean work environment helps
workers to perform their duties better. They make a signiﬁcant ﬁnancial and personal
effort to clean and tidy up daily. For this reason, many of the scientiﬁc studies conducted
about the relationship between conscientious people and quality have been carried out in
a neat and clean work environment. So the relationship between conscientiousness and
quality established in many studies is based on a work environment oriented to tidiness.
The question, therefore, concerns what would happen if highly conscientious people
were to work in an environment that is not kept clean and tidy.
Therefore, conscientiousness is a key concept for human accuracy in most
organizations where good housekeeping is standard.
Nevertheless, we would like to know more about the behavior of conscientious
people in environments where there is no such match between personality and
environment. How do they work when there is no proper ﬁt between the order in their
brain/personality and tidiness in the work environment? What are the factors
underlying this ﬁt or lack of ﬁt? How valuable is this ﬁt? This paper explores new data
to account for the importance and value of this ﬁt between tidiness in a work
environment and worker personality.
2.2 Human accuracy and tidiness in work environment
Human accuracy is the ability of a person to perform correctly. Person-organization ﬁt
theory states that the behavior of the person is inﬂuenced by his/her interaction with
his/her organization. This is included in the interactional psychology ﬁeld. Interaction
psychology explains the behavior of people in terms of the personality itself and the
situations in which people act. According to this theory, personal behavior can be
explained as a result of the interaction between the person and his/her situation.
Kristof-Brown et al. (2005) indicate that concept of person-organization ﬁt has been
conceptualized in many ways, such as person-organization ﬁt, person-job ﬁt,
person-group ﬁt, person-supervisor ﬁt and person-vocation ﬁt. Person-Organization ﬁt
is deﬁned by Kristof as “the compatibility between people and organizations that
occurs when: a) at least one entity provides what the other needs, b) they share similar
fundamental characteristics, or c) both” (Kristof, 1996). The ﬁt may be supplementary
or complementary. The former is related to the grade of compatibility between
individual and organization. The latter is reached when one ﬁll gaps in the other. In
this case, there are two kinds of gaps; demands-abilities [D-A] ﬁt or needs-supplies
[N-S] ﬁt (Cable and Edwards, 2004; Kristof, 1996; Muchinsky and Monohan, 1987). In
the case of organization evaluation, researchers have established two ways: an
objective assessment based on quantitative organization and personal variables, and a
subjective one, based on the opinion of subjects. Objective ﬁt is based on information
that is gathered separately from the person and the organization (Cable and Parsons,
2001; O’Reilly et al., 1991). In contrast, perceived ﬁt relies on information collected from
the person. (Cable and DeRue, 2002; Lauver and Kristof-Brown, 2001).
As we mentioned, conscientiousness is key for explaining human accuracy.
Conscientiousness is a key trait of the personality dimension. This personality
dimension is important for explaining individual performance. Order is one of the six
facets of conscientiousness and, because of that, is very relevant for this trait. However,
order in the personality dimension is different from order in the environment, namely
tidiness. A worker may score high in terms of conscientiousness but work in a messy
environment. In this case, the organization does not provide what the personality of
workers would like. As there is an interaction between person and organization, this
research tries to address whether a tidy/messy environment may affect personal
behavior in terms of accuracy.
As has been pointed out before, the objective of our research is to determine if the
relationship between the level of conscientiousness of employees and their accuracy is
inﬂuenced by the type of work environment in which they operate – that is, depending
on whether this environment is tidy or messy. To the best of our knowledge, little work
has been done to investigate this type of inﬂuence. Distraction is the change of
attention of an individual from the chosen object (target) to the source of distraction
(distracter). Frequent sources of external distraction are noise and visual stimuli. Any
sudden change in work environment may disrupt the activity, generate distraction and
affect work performance. Noise has been researched as a source of external distraction.
Many researchers have studied and found the effects of noise on performance. Most
have stated that intensity affects stress and impairs performance (Kjellberg, 1990;
Kjellberg et al. 1996; Knez and Hygge, 2002; Knez and Niedenthal, 2008; Szalma and
Hancock, 2011). Few studies have carried out as regards visual distraction (Kim and
Hopﬁnger, 2010) or emotional distraction (Dolcos and McCarthy, 2006; Perfect et al.,
2012). Kim and Hopﬁnger studied the neural basis of distraction in the case of the
abrupt appearance of new objects. The results of this research suggested that
distraction reduces the capacity to code the location of the targets. If the distracter is
perceived as a new object, the subject increases the processing of distracters in the
brain and reduces target processing (Kim and Hopﬁnger, 2010). The research done by
Dolcos and McCarthy reported the ﬁrst direct evidence that the detrimental effect of
emotional distracters on working memory maintenance is associated with
cognitive-affective interactions. The mechanism is associated with the interaction
between activity in the brain regions responsible for active maintenance of
goal-relevant information in working memory and for emotional processing. These
activities take place in different parts of the brain but interact with one another. These
results shed light on the neural mechanisms underlying the impairing effect of
emotional distraction (Dolcos and McCarthy, 2006). Perfect et al. analyzed the quality
and quantity of answers in the presence of irrelevant visual distraction. Forty eight
participants watched a video clip and then answered questions about the video in
several conditions of distraction. More distraction led to more incorrect answers. This
research concluded that the impact of environmental distraction on memory quality
and participant accuracy is signiﬁcant. Therefore, distraction is one ﬁeld that may help
us to interpret what is happening in the brain of participants so as to understand their
behavior (Perfect et al., 2012).
There is some research which has found how tidy and messy environments
inﬂuence people depending on their tidiness preference. Speciﬁcally, in an experiment
conducted by Radomsky and Rachman (2004), participants differentiated between
photographs of tidy and messy scenes by how comfortable they would feel in that
scene. The results support the suggestion that there is a general preference for tidiness
over messiness. Participants indicated that they would feel more comfortable or
relaxed in tidy environments than they would in messy environments. According to
these authors, this preference is adaptive, and it is not surprising to ﬁnd an association
between messiness and discomfort. Moreover, the degree of this preference was
strongly correlated with participant scores on a psychometric scale of ordering and
arranging behavior, indicating that increases in ordering and arranging beliefs and
behavior were associated with increases in the degree to which participants preferred
the photographs of tidy scenes over messy scenes.
In addition, the research study mentioned above (i.e. Radomsky and Rachman, 2004)
conducted another experiment in which participants were divided into two groups
depending on their scores for ordering and arranging behavior. All participants were
instructed to prepare a ﬁve-minute speech on any topic that would be graded on
content and style by faculty. To prepare their speech, participants were randomly
assigned to either a tidy room or a messy one. This research found that participants
with a strong preference for tidiness who had prepared their speech in a messy
environment were signiﬁcantly more anxious than those in a tidy environment, and
participants with a low preference for tidiness did not differ in anxiety levels in
different environments. It is true that the conscientiousness assessment criteria were
different to those used by Radomsky and Rachman (2004) to measure ordering and
arranging behavior. However, it would also not be surprising to ﬁnd that people who
spend a great deal of time ordering and arranging their surroundings (e.g. people with
high conscientiousness) experience some anxiety or, at least, more distraction and
uncomfortable feelings when they are surrounded by a messy environment.
Furthermore, the suggestion about discomfort and more sources of distracters for
conscientious individuals in a messy environment is a reasonable position because of
the lack of ﬁt between person (conscientiousness) and organization (messiness) in the
physical environment they occupy. Speciﬁcally, Gosling et al. (2002) studied links
between individuals and the physical environments they occupied and levels of
conscientiousness. For both ofﬁces and bedrooms, occupant self-ratings of
conscientiousness were strongly correlated to tidiness cues in the environment
(clean, organized, neat, and uncluttered) where they were. Therefore, individuals
organize their physical environments to reﬂect and reinforce who they are in terms of
the conscientiousness personality trait (Gosling et al. 2002). Based on the most recent
research, we hypothesize that a messy environment could have a negative impact on
the accuracy of conscientious people because of the lack of ﬁt between person and
organization in the work environment. Moreover, to the best of our knowledge, as
regards individuals with low conscientiousness, little work has been done to
investigate if there are differences in their accuracy between working in a tidy or a
messy environment. On one hand, we know that they may have a certain preference for
messiness, although not so much as people who score high on orderly behavior. On the
other hand, we know that the physical environment they occupy (ofﬁce or bedroom) is
related to messiness cues (Gosling et al. 2002); and they do not experience any anxiety
when they are in a messy environment (Radomsky and Rachman, 2004). Therefore,
there is no study or evidence to ground a hypothesis that a tidy environment has some
inﬂuence on the accuracy of people with low conscientiousness.
Therefore, human behavior could be affected by a lack of ﬁt between organization
tidiness and highly conscientious person.
Therefore, conscientiousness is a key concept for human accuracy. A tidy or messy
work environment may affect human behavior. Therefore, a tidy or messy work
environment may affect human accuracy.
Therefore, we hypothesize that, in a tidy organization, people with high
conscientiousness perform better in terms of accuracy because of a ﬁt between their
personality trait and organization tidiness. There is a match between person and
organization. We propose the following hypothesis:
H1. In a tidy work-environment employees with high conscientiousness make
fewer errors than employees with high conscientiousness in a messy
In addition, we hypothesize that, in a tidy or messy organization, people with low
conscientiousness behave similarly in terms of accuracy because the lack of ﬁt between
their personality trait and organization tidiness does not affect their behavior.
H2. In a messy work-environment employees with low conscientiousness make
similar errors to employees with low conscientiousness in a tidy
Based on the above hypotheses, Figure 1 depicts the comparison of the average relative
errors of the groups, according to their level of conscientiousness (high or low) and
work environment (tidy or messy).
3. Research methodology
3.1 Study design
A laboratory experiment was conducted to test these hypotheses, where participants
performing a simple task in a highly controlled environment are exogenously sorted
into two different treatments. The experiment manipulated one independent
variable: things in the work environment were out of place but, at the same time,
with no effect on the work itself, i.e. the workplace was messy but people were able
to do their work in the same conditions as in a tidy work environment. There are
two levels or treatments:
(1) A messy work environment, i.e. an environment with many papers and other
objects scattered across the desk and workplace, where it is evident that these
objects were not in their proper places.
(2) A tidy work environment, i.e. an environment where nothing is out of place.
The focal dependent variable is the accuracy level of the individual. Accuracy is
measured by computing the relative error of the individual, i.e. the number of incorrect
answers divided by number of total answers. The experiments took place on the same
hypotheses: H1-H2 in a
day of the week (Friday) and during the same time period (from 16:00 to 18:20) but in
All of our participants are university students recruited from different Schools of the
University. The ﬁnal dataset comprises 80 students, of whom 31 are male and 49 are
female. Their median age is 20 years. In the announcement, it was stated that the job is
a one-off two-hour job paying e14 (EUR 1 <USD 1.35). Moreover, the announcement
also explained that the job is part of an academic research project and that they would
ﬁll out a questionnaire for a personality test.
Each participant was assigned randomly to one of the two treatments and informed
about the precise date and location to carry out the job. A total of 39 participants were
in the messy work environment treatment and 41 in the tidy work environment
treatment. Both treatments were performed in a computer lab at the University.
3.3 Procedure and task
A simple work task requiring no previous knowledge was chosen. In this task,
students transcribed the results of a survey from paper to computer.
Before the experiment, we ﬁlled out the survey we had designed in the online
program, in order to create the responses of 80 supposedly different individuals. Each
survey contained 44 answers (inputs) to transcribe (to enter) into the online program.
The survey data, type and model of computer, identiﬁcation numbers and order of the
surveys were the same for all participants.
They worked for one hour on the transcription of the surveys. Afterwards, they
ﬁlled in the NEO PI-R personality test, and ﬁnally they ﬁlled in a brief questionnaire
about their impressions of the physical work environment in which they worked.
Payment was independent of output and was paid by electronic transfer. The
procedure was exactly the same for both treatments.
In the messy treatment, participants were in a work environment with many
unnecessary papers and documents on the desks; pencils, clips, staples scattered on the
desks and ﬂoor; many papers and some empty boxes scattered on the ﬂoor. It is
important to clarify that the location of these things did not interfere with the operating
capacity of the participants, i.e. they had sufﬁcient free space on the desk to deal with
the surveys. In contrast, in the tidy work environment treatment, there were no untidy
or unnecessary things, either on the desks or the ﬂoor. Thus, only the survey forms and
the computer were on the desks of the participants.
.Individual accuracy. Accuracy is measured by computing the relative error of the
individual, i.e. the number of incorrect inputs divided by the number of total
inputs. Each survey answer that the participant clicked on was counted as an
input. The identiﬁcation number of each survey that he/she had to transcribe was
also counted as an input. An input was considered to be correct when the
participant entered an answer that corresponded to the respective survey received
at the beginning of the work task. If a participant omitted or repeated a survey, this
was counted as 44 incorrect inputs, i.e. the total number of inputs of the survey.
The online program has a tool that collects, in an Excel spreadsheet, all the
answers (inputs) ﬁlled in by the participants. This allows us to compare the
answers entered by the participants with the answers ﬁlled out previously by us.
.Conscientiousness. The Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO PI-R) (Costa
and McCrae, 1992) was used to measure conscientiousness, extraversion,
agreeableness, neuroticism and openness to experience for each participant,
which is a 240 item set of self-statements that assess the ﬁve dimensions of
personality along with six facet scales for each factor. Items are answered on a
ﬁve-point Likert scale ranging from strongly disagree (0) to strongly agree (4).
Scales are roughly balanced to control for the effects of acquiescence. Data on the
accuracy and validity of the instrument is summarized in the Manual (Costa and
McCrae, 1992). The reliability of the conscientiousness factor is 0.9 (Costa and
McCrae, 1992). Forty-eight statements relating to conscientious are included in
the NEO-PI-R. All items are a single coherent factor denominated
.Work environment. A short anonymous questionnaire was used to ask
participants about how they perceived the physical environment of work:
tidy/messy and other physical conditions. The aim of this questionnaire was to
conﬁrm if the participants perceived the environment according to the type of
treatment that they had been assigned.
Clustering with respect to conscientiousness. In order to study the hypotheses stated
above, two clusters of high and low conscientiousness individuals were formed for
each treatment (tidiness and messiness) separately. This clustering procedure yielded
the following four groups (G) of individuals from the sample:
.high conscientiousness (h) individuals in the tidiness treatment (t).
.low conscientiousness (l) individuals in the tidiness treatment (t).
.high conscientiousness (h) individuals in the messiness treatment (m).
.low conscientiousness (l) individuals in the messiness treatment (m).
Each treatment is clustered separately instead of clustering the pooled sample for both
treatments because the fact of tidiness or messiness may affect the measurement
quality of the conscientiousness variable, and clustering the two treatments separately
may control for this problem and, therefore, provide more robust results. Under this
clustering method, the level of high and low conscientiousness is relative to the sample,
i.e. conscientiousness levels do not coincide, necessarily, with the absolute levels that
are indicated in the NEO PI-R manual (Costa and McCrae, 1992). The clusters of
conscientiousness were created using the Ward’s linkage clustering procedure (Ward,
1963), and the Euclidean distance measure was used in the clustering procedure. In
addition to cluster classiﬁcation, individuals with high and low conscientiousness were
identiﬁed in the sample using the absolute levels indicated in the NEO PI-R manual
(Costa and McCrae, 1992) for conﬁrming both alternatives.
Comparison of cluster means. After forming two groups for each treatment, the two
hypotheses stated previously were tested by comparing the mean relative errors of
each set of the two groups mentioned in the hypothesis. First, the following notation
was introduced for the mean relative error of individuals in each group (G1-G4) deﬁned
in the previous subsection:
denote the mean relative error of high conscientiousness individuals in
the tidiness treatment.
denote the mean relative error of low conscientiousness individuals in the
denote the mean relative error of high conscientiousness individuals in
the messiness treatment.
denote the mean relative error of low conscientiousness individuals in the
Using this notation, the two hypotheses presented above may be reformulated as
H1. The mean relative error of high conscientiousness individuals in a messy
is greater than the mean relative error of high
conscientiousness individuals in a tidy work environment
H2. The mean relative error of low conscientiousness individuals in a messy work
is the same as the mean relative error of low
conscientiousness individuals in a tidy work environment
The hypotheses were veriﬁed by the two-sample mean difference tests (T-test).
Table I summarizes some descriptive statistics of conscientiousness and relative error
variables for the pooled sample of individuals and for various subgroups of the full
sample. The pooled sample is divided by two binary variables: the type of treatment
(tidiness and messiness) and the cluster of level of conscientiousness (high or low).
Table I provides information about the distribution of individuals in the different
groups, reporting the number of individuals for each group. Moreover, Figure 2
presents the dispersion graph by treatment and cluster.
Table II summarizes the results of the two-sample mean comparison tests. These
tests evaluate the hypotheses of this article. First, the mean comparison test accepts H1
hypothesis (p,0:01), i.e.
ht. Thus, when high conscientiousness individuals
Conscientiousness Messy WE Tidy WE Total Relative error Messy WE Tidy WE Total
LC Count 21 34 55 LC Count 21 34 55
Mean 34.00 39.21 37.22 Mean (%) 1.43 1.56 1.51
SD 3.63 6.53 6.12 SD (%) 1.72 2.62 2.30
HC Count 18 7 25 HC Count 18 7 25
Mean 46.61 59.43 50.20 Mean (%) 3.92 0.68 3.02
SD 3.90 5.03 7.18 SD (%) 4.48 0.63 4.07
Total Count 39 41 80 Total Count 39 41 80
Mean 39.82 42.66 41.28 Mean (%) 2.58 1.41 1.98
SD 7.37 9.91 8.83 SD (%) 3.48 2.42 3.02
Note: The SD denotes standard deviation. The Messy WE and Tidy WE refer to messy work
environment and tidy work environment, respectively
Descriptive statistics of
are considered, the level of relative errors they have committed is higher in the messy
treatment than in the tidy treatment. Second, the mean comparison tests cannot reject
H2 hypothesis (
lt). Thus, we ﬁnd that tidy and messy environments do not
have an inﬂuence on the relationship between low conscientiousness individuals and
The results of the work environment questionnaire conﬁrm that most participants
perceived the environment according to the type of treatment that they were assigned. In
particular, all participants in the messy treatment answered that the room was messy
and 84 percent participants in the tidy treatment answered that the room was tidy.
5. Discussion and conclusions
There are many studies that suggest that conscientious people tend to have a better
performance at work and, therefore, better accuracy. Nevertheless, the results of this
study suggest that a physically messy environment can reduce the degree of worker
accuracy. Thus, the accuracy of these individuals is lower when they are compared
with conscientious individuals in a tidy work environment. This variability in the
accuracy of conscientious participants is consistent with the person-organization ﬁt
approach, which claims that mismatch between personal characteristics and
organizational context can have deleterious effects on performance and attitudes
(Kristof-Brown et al., 2005).
One way to explain this negative inﬂuence of the messy environment on conscientious
people could be that they prefer the appearance of tidiness, i.e. they have a tendency to
keep their environment tidy and well organized, and being in a messy environment,
errors: dispersion graph
treatment and cluster
Notation Work environment Level of conscientiousness Mean Mean differences tdf Sig. (two-tailed)
Tidy Low 0.0156
Tidy High 0.0068
Equal variances not assumed 0.00877 1.725 37.775 0.093*
Messy High 0.0392
Tidy High 0.0068
Equal variances not assumed 0.03246 2.998 18.632 0.008***
Messy Low 0.0143
Messy High 0.0392
Equal variances not assumed 20.02497 22.228 21.259 0.037**
Messy Low 0.0143
Tidy Low 0.0156
Equal variances not assumed 20.00129 20.220 52.763 0.827
Note: *p,0:010; ** p,0:05; *** p,0:01
comparison test results
conceivably, makes them feel uncomfortable. The present ﬁndings seem to be
consistent with Radomsky and Rachman (2004), who suggest that people with a strong
preference for tidiness are more likely to be disturbed (e.g. feel anxious) when they
work in a messy environment. Some researchers in the ﬁeld of distraction have stated
that worker performance may be altered as a consequence of distraction, both internal
and external. Stimuli such as noise, light, movement, object, emotions and perceptions
can affect people (Dolcos and McCarthy, 2006; Kim and Hopﬁnger, 2010; Kjellberg et al.
1996; Knez and Hygge, 2002; Knez and Niedenthal, 2008; Perfect et al., 2012; Szalma
and Hancock, 2011). Brain specialization allows it to operate and feel as a whole.
Nevertheless, although brain function is divided into two hemispheres, both are
connected and one affects the other. When a person is processing information and
preparing for action, any distraction can slow down this process and provoke mistakes.
If the person cannot complete the preparation phase then the execution may be carried
out with mistakes, i.e. without accuracy. Because of that, a tidy/messy environment
may be really important for accuracy. Distraction could come from the interaction of
personality and work environment, mainly when the work environment is the source of
On the other hand, when high conscientiousness people are in a tidy environment
they fulﬁll the predictions of greater accuracy. This result indicates that tidiness in a
work environment could lead individuals with high conscientiousness to feel more
comfortable and behave with the level of accuracy that characterizes their personality
In contrast, people with low conscientiousness make a similar level of mistakes in a
messy work environment as in a tidy work environment. This lack of inﬂuence from
the tidy/messy environment may be due to the fact that their discomfort in a tidy
environment is not so strong. Perhaps tidiness is the expected situation for low and
high conscientiousness people and they are aware of this. There is no distraction from
the external environment and the brain is focused only on the target activity. The lack
of inﬂuence from a messy environment on people with low conscientiousness is a
reasonable result if we take into account the earlier observations, which showed that
low scores on the conscientiousness scale correlate with people who are described as
dirty, messy, untidy, disorganized, slovenly, and sloppy (Costa and McCrae, 1998); and,
therefore, their personality dimension of conscientiousness matches well with a
disorganized and messy environment.
5.2 Implications for practice
It can, therefore, be assumed that messiness may inﬂuence the accuracy of
conscientious people and prevent them from doing their best. Their increase in task
errors may be explained by the fact that conscientious people are intolerant of
messiness, which leads them to feel uncomfortable. Their discomfort in this kind of
environment could inﬂuence their accuracy, inducing them to work in a less effective
way or to make more errors. This poses a signiﬁcant challenge in the production
process since it would involve a greater waste in consumed resources. This fact is even
more signiﬁcant in the case of work environments where professionals are working
with people’s lives, such as in operating rooms, pharmaceutical laboratories, air trafﬁc
control towers, nuclear power plants, etc. It is important that the physical working
environment in these places be tidy so as to avoid errors, defects, mistakes or accidents
that could have fatal consequences.
People are fallible; even the best make mistakes. It is human nature to err. Because
of such fallibility or innate tendency towards imprecision, human beings are
vulnerable to many external and latent conditions that cause them to be unreliable.
Vulnerability to such conditions makes people susceptible to error and, therefore,
countermeasures are needed. “Countermeasures are based on the assumption that
although we cannot change the human condition, we can change the conditions under
which humans work” (Reason, 2000, pp. 393-4). To have high conscientiousness is, of
course, essential for accuracy and effective performance but it is not enough. The
results of this research suggest that the relationship between conscientious employees
and their accuracy are moderated by the tidy/messy environment in which they
operate. A tidy environment ﬁts better with the preferences of conscientious people
and, therefore, with their disposition to perform better. A messy environment matches
poorly with conscientious employees because this condition can affect their feeling of
comfort. This mismatch can cause a variety of errors that result in deviations from the
organization’s expectations. This ﬁnding suggests that a messy environment could
inﬂuence the accuracy of the employees with high conscientiousness, inducing them to
work in a less effective way. It may be regarded as a latent condition. Consequently, the
management of the organization should be committed to deﬁning policies about high
standards of tidiness in a workplace. Thus, conscientious employees need to ﬁt their
personality with the environment and, as a result, will be able to perform with the
accuracy expected. It can, therefore, be assumed that a tidy environment is not
detrimental to accuracy for anyone. By contrast, a messy environment would be
detrimental to the accuracy of conscientious people but not to the accuracy of people
with low conscientiousness.
5.3 Limitations and research needs
This study is limited in several respects. First of all, the sample is not large, with 80
participants; some relevant variables as IQ levels, fatigue levels, proximal caffeine
consumption, smoking/drug use, participant levels of obsessive compulsiveness, etc.,
were not controlled for, and may have a strong inﬂuence on experimental performance
and on whether participants perceive a messy environment as distracting or not.
Second, the task was restricted to inputting data into a computer. There are several
kinds of tasks where the response of workers to the tidy/messy work environment
could be different. It is necessary to develop new experiments with other tasks. Third,
although the ﬁndings of the current study are consistent with those of Radomsky and
Rachman (2004), who found that people with a strong preference for tidiness feel more
comfortable/relaxed if they work in a tidy environment than in a messy environment,
the current research was not speciﬁcally designed to evaluate uncomfortable feelings
related to a messy environment; also the conscientiousness assessment criteria are
different to those used by Radomsky and Rachman for assessing ordering and
arranging behaviors. Nevertheless, this is the ﬁrst attempt to study the importance of a
tidy work environment in terms of its inﬂuence on the relationship between
conscientiousness and human accuracy, and may contribute to reducing wastage and
errors in many types of businesses. Further investigation and experimentation into the
moderating inﬂuence of a tidy/messy environment on the relationship between
conscientiousness and accuracy could provide more deﬁnitive evidence and contribute
further to the Person-Organization ﬁt theory.
The purpose of the current study was to examine the interactional effects of a
tidy/messy work environment and conscientiousness on human accuracy. One of the
most signiﬁcant ﬁndings to emerge from this study is that the right ﬁt between person
and organization in tidiness will reduce errors and improve accuracy in employees
with high conscientiousness, without being detrimental to people with low
conscientiousness. The results of this study suggest that people with high
conscientiousness commit more errors in a messy environment than in a tidy
environment. Therefore, a messy environment is detrimental to the accuracy of
conscientious people. A possible explanation for this might be that conscientious
people and a tidy work environment ﬁt well, i.e. they have a tendency to keep their
environment tidy and well organized, and being in a messy environment conceivably
makes them feel uncomfortable and provoke distraction. More generally, our research
shows how beneﬁcial it can be for the organizations if they promote policies about
housekeeping in the workplace. This tidy environment is beneﬁcial for all, the highly
conscientious will work with accuracy, and the less conscientious will remain
unchanged. Otherwise, the lack of decisions or omissions as regards tidiness policies in
the workplace, by the management of the organization, may be regarded as a latent
condition for error which has a greater impact on conscientious employees. In closing,
given the important role of conscientiousness as one of the predictors of job
performance, we hope that our article will stimulate further research about the
importance of person-organization ﬁt in increasing human accuracy and excellence in
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About the authors
Ricardo Mateo is an Industrial Engineer, MBA-IESE and PhD in Management and Economics
from the University of Navarra. He is Professor of Strategic Management, Quality and
Entrepreneurship. His research is mainly focused on continuous improvement in organizations.
Ricardo is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: email@example.com
Jose Roberto Herna
´ndez has a degree in Business Administration, Master and PhD in
Governance and Culture of Organizations of University of Navarra. He is Professor of Business
Ethics and Consumer Behaviour at University of Istmo, Guatemala. His research is mainly
focused on interactions of personality traits and virtues in work environments.
Carmen Jaca is an Industrial Engineer and received her PhD in Industrial Engineering from
the University of Navarra. She has worked in different industrial companies as a Quality
Manager. Her research activities are in continuous improvement and teamworking.
Szabolcs Blazsek has a PhD in Economics from the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. He
teaches several courses of ﬁnance and econometrics both in undergraduate and graduate levels
at Universidad Francisco Marroquı
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