Effective Seating Arrangements for Leaders
Collaborative leaders watch where they sit
In most of the meetings you attend or lead, the seating arrangement may not be an issue. But if you are designing a collaborative session, it can make a big difference. I’m not suggesting that you use place cards for attendees, but you should be aware that strategic positioning is an effective way to obtain cooperation – and that neglecting this dynamic can inhibit your collaborative goals.
Have you ever noticed that when two people sit at a table, they often choose chairs on opposite sides? This is automatically adversarial in terms of territory – the kind of seating arrangement that divorce attorneys and their clients typically adopt. Groups of people may also sit on opposite sides of a conference table and unwittingly divide into an “us” and “them” mentality. If you intentionally mix up the seating arrangements you can discourage the tendency to “take sides.”
Sitting at right angles is the arrangement most conducive to informal conversation. Sitting side by side is the next best. This is important to remember if you want to foster personal ties between team members. The outcome of any collaborative effort is dependent upon well-developed relationships among participants. People are naturally reluctant to share information with others when they don’t know them well enough personally to evaluate their trustworthiness. So if you notice that the same people are taking the same seats at every meeting, rearrange the seating to stimulate conversation and encourage new relationships to develop.
You might even try something unusual, like the leadership at Tata Chemicals did: “We experimented with a unique process during the integration meeting after one of our early M&A's where seating arrangement during employee integration made a positive difference. We arranged chairs in concentric circles, rather than in a theatre style or around a conference table that might have made one group seem dominant. This very subtle nonverbal communication was very powerful and ensured a feeling of equality among the managers from both the organizations. The participation level was much higher.”
Remember, also, that there are two power positions at any conference table – the dominant chair at the head of the table facing the door and the “visually central” seat in the middle of the row of chairs on the side of the table that faces the door.
The unconscious impact of these seating positions is so strong that it can even help create leaders. For example, it’s been noticed that people who sit at either end of the table in a jury room are more likely to be elected foreman and that persons in visually central positions (that mid-point previously mentioned), are also more likely to be perceived as leaders.
In the jury scenario, choice of foreman is mainly about the symbolism of the head-of-the-table position, and with the central position, it is more about the power of eye contact: Because the person seated in this central location is able to maintain eye contact with the most group members, he or she will be able to interact with more people and as a result, will most likely emerge as the leader. (So, if you wanted to enhance the leadership credibility of a junior team member, it would be wise to seat him or her in one of these two positions.)
Choosing a dominant chair may be the most effective way for a leader to control the agenda or dominate the meeting, but it also stifles collaboration. When the leader takes this spot, ideas are then directed to him or her for validation (or rejection) rather than to the entire group. So, before your next meeting, think about the relationship you want to establish with team members.
Then choose your seat accordingly: Sit at the head of the table or at mid-point on the side if you want to exert control, and choose any other position around the table if you want to state symbolically that you are an equal member of a collaborative team.
Which brings me to your office and how seating arrangements there send their own messages.
Because you are a leader, you already have acknowledged status in your organization, but there are many ways your office can reinforce that status:
- You can occupy the largest (or the corner) room, have a picture window with a great view, or sit behind a massive desk (obstructing a visitor’s view of your lower body).
- You can choose a tall chair with armrests, a high seatback that tilts, a swivel seat, and rollers for feet.
- You can then put the visitor in a smaller, lower, and fixed chair on the opposite side of your desk.
- You can even seat visitors on a low sofa across the room and place a coffee table in front of them. Arranging your office in this manner allows you to control the space between you and others, keeping them at a distance and in essence saying that you won’t come to them – they must come (and only if invited) to you.
An office that projects power, authority, and status may be a key part of your nonverbal strategy to impress potential clients, customers, and investors – and I often advise clients to think of their office space as a symbol of their (and their company’s) prestige. But when it comes to building collaboration within your organization, status cues like these can send a conflicting, distinctly unwanted message.
It's a small nonverbal signal -- but if creating a collaborative culture is essential to meeting your business objectives, then you might want to rearrange your office furniture to reflect this. For example, instead of seating people directly across from your desk, place the visitor’s chair at the side of your desk, or create a conversation area (chairs of equal size set around a small table – or at right angles to each other) and send signals of informality, equality, and partnership. You may be surprised at how this small sign of inclusion speaks volumes.