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Collaborative Leaders Watch Where They Sit

August 2012

by Carol Kinsey Goman

 

In most of the meetings you attend or lead, the seating arrangement may not be an issue. In a collaborative session, though, 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 make it harder to reach 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 to encourage an “us” and “them” mentality. If you intentionally preclude this kind of division, 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 among team members.

The outcome of any collaborative effort is dependent on well-developed relationships among participants. People are naturally reluctant to share information with others when they don’t know them personally well enough to evaluate their trustworthiness. So if you notice that the same people are taking the same seats at every meeting, rearrange the seating to encourage new relationships to develop.

You might even try something unusual, as the leaders at Tata Chemicals did. They experimented during the integration meeting after an early M&A by arranging chairs in concentric circles, “rather than in a theatre style or around a conference table, which 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.”

 

Power Positions Pros and Cons

When you do use a conference table, remember that it has two power positions—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 people in visually central positions (that midpoint 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. The central position has more to do with the power of eye contact: Because the person seated in the central location is able to maintain eye contact with the most group members, that person 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 the potential leader in one of these two positions.)

Choosing to sit in a dominant chair may help a recognized leader control the agenda or dominate the meeting, but it also stifles collaboration. When leaders take this spot, ideas are then directed to them for validation (or rejection) rather than to the entire group.

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 midpoint 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.

 

Messages Your Office Sends

Which brings me to your office and how seating arrangements there send their own messages.

If you are a leader, you already have acknowledged status in your organization, but your office can reinforce that status in many ways. 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 a 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 colleagues, customers, potential 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. If creating a collaborative culture is essential to meeting your business objectives, then your office furniture might 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) to send signals of informality, equality, and partnership. You may be surprised at how such small signs of inclusion speak volumes.

 

Carol Kinsey Goman, a leadership communications coach and keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events, is an expert contributor for the Washington Post’s On Leadership column, a leadership blogger on Forbes.com, a business body-language columnist for The Market magazine, and the author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead. To learn more: 510/526-1727; CGoman@CKG.com; SilentLanguageOfLeaders.com; and CKG.com.


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