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To Perform Better, Own Your Space

There’s something different about playing at home. It feels familiar, welcoming, and less threatening. Back in my competitive running days, whenever I competed at my home track, it was as if I knew every inch of the track surface. Sure, every track is the same distance, but on your home track, it’s a different kind of feeling.

We’re all familiar with the idea of a home-field advantage in sports. Whether we attribute it to the supportive crowd, the familiarity, or a bias of referees to the home team, there’s a clear and small bump in performance we get when playing at home. We tend to be more confident, going for the win instead of settling or trying to avoid the loss. But what if the same concept applies to you, sitting at your desk, in your home office?

For many of us, our desks, or if we are lucky, our office, is where we do most of our work. It becomes a part of a routine, even if your physical office got shifted to your actual home over the last two years. And what research shows is our desk can serve as a home-field advantage, boosting our performance. The key is what psychologists refer to as “psychological ownership.” We feel like the space is ours. The desk, office, table in the corner of the coffee shop, or that sporting field is part of who we are.

As Annie Murphy Paul wrote in The Extended Mind, “When people occupy spaces that they consider their own, they experience themselves as more confident and capable. They are more efficient and productive. They are more focused and less distractible. And they advance their own interests more forcefully and effectively.” In familiar spaces we feel more in control. Even if that space consists of merely the same desk every day.

In their book Top Dog, Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson outline the benefits of taking ownership over your space. In negotiations, individuals who make the space their own before the negotiation perform 160% better. Similarly, feeling ownership of your workspace in the office leads to an increase in positive feelings and greater commitment to the work. Outside of the office, if you feel a sense of connection and ownership to the lake you kayak on, or the trails that you walk on, you’re more likely to take care of that public space: picking up trash, volunteering to help, or donating to the park affiliated with the space.

Psychologists have tied the benefits of such ownership to fulfilling some of our basic psychological needs: self-efficacy, identity, a sense of belonging, having a place to call our own.

There are simple and subtle changes that can make us feel this sense of ownership in our own work arenas, whatever they may be: putting up pictures of our family, organizing it in our style, have sticky notes of quotes that resonate. Decorating might seem trivial, but those pictures, books, or whatever your style is send a constant subconscious message that this space is mine.

It’s not just your desk that matters. We also feel ownership of a space when we belong to the greater team or community. When we feel like our co-workers can drop by and chit-chat, or that they can come into your office whenever the door is open, makes our environment feel more like our actual home.

Which brings me to the bridge too far of ownership, when we shift from feeling like we belong and have some control over space, to where we are the dictator. Researchers call this subtle nuance “territoriality.” Here, instead of just feeling connected to the space, you become like your dog in the backyard: extremely protective over your space. You are afraid of others intruding on it. When we adopt such a mindset in the workplace, our co-workers start to see us in a negative light, and it can greatly diminish teamwork and creativity. Territoriality is particularly harmful when we see ourselves as separate, independent individuals, not connected to a group or team. It’s as if we’ve moved from a feeling of comfort and oneness with the space to an experience of mine-ness, greed, and protection. It’s as if that track, desk, or space belongs to you and only you.

In the end, it’s about creating a sense of connection, a feeling of your space as reflecting who you are, but at the same time not being so intertwined with it that you start acting like the dog in the yard barking up a storm whenever someone gets near. You want to feel comfortable, that your space is inviting, to both you and your friends and colleagues. It’s why experiencing awe out in nature leads to a feeling of psychological ownership. Not because we think we own the mountain, lake, or forest that gives rise to such feelings. It’s that we feel a connection to nature, that we are home, but also that we belong to something much greater than just ourselves.

— Steve

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2 Comments

  1. Liz F on February 10, 2022 at 5:26 pm

    This is great. Thank you for sharing. Question- we are currently planning a return to the workplace, and things have shifted. Our staff have grown, but the amount of space we have hasn’t. And our staff will be teleworking more. So it sounds like there will be a “hoteling” policy for many staff that, when they do come into the office, they may find themselves at a different desk each day. What suggestions you have to optimize performance in this new environment?

  2. […] we feel psychological ownership over our work space, we boost our performance, confidence, self-efficacy, identity, and sense of […]

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