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Why You Should Watch Where You Sit


Dr Carol Kinsey Goman - Expert Author

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Last week, the United States Congress disrupted their traditional seating arrangements for the “State of the Union” address. In a symbolic show of unity, instead of an audience divided along Democratic and Republican lines, the political parties were mixed.

I don’t know if Congress will adopt this arrangement for more than a single event, but the concept has interesting implications for business leaders.          

In most of the meetings you attend, the seating arrangement may not be an issue. But it can make a big difference in a collaborative session. 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. 

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. Choosing the 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 take a moment before your next meeting and 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.

Seating positions may 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.)

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 p attorneys and their clients typically adopt. Groups of people may also sit on opposite sides of a conference table and unwittingly divided into an “us” and “them” mentality. If you intentionally mix up the seating arrangements (or hold your meeting at a round table – or forego the table and simply place chairs in a circle) 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. 

But, back to Congress: I’m not saying that this symbolic seating arrangement will foster actual collaboration. But I do think it’s a move in the right direction.

About the Author

Carol Kinsey Goman, an international Keynote speaker on collaborative leadership and the impact of body language in the workplace. Communications coach to executives to improve their leadership presence and effectiveness.
Leadership blogger for Forbes and author of "The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help - or Hurt - How You Lead.”
Office: 510-526-1727
Berkeley, California

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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2011-02-11 08:24:34 in Personal Articles

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