Last week, I was conducting a training for a team of customer service managers. As always, I was the first one to arrive at the venue. Closely behind me, trooped in the security guard and the technician. We went through the standard drill of setting up the system, projector, speakers and all. After an hour or so, we were all set and ready. Just about 5 minutes before the session was to start, participants started walking in. Usually I prefer a round table seating in close groups which allows people to work in groups.
I find it fascinating to observe the chair the first participant chooses. 99% of the time, the first person to walk in will choose the furthest seat (read back bencher). They might walk up to me all the way to the front of the room to greet me, but he will also walk all the way back and choose the last seat to sit. And God forbid if the first person to walk into the room happens to be the one who is heading the team – he will not choose any chair. He will greet me, loiter around and walk up & down. But no, he will not choose a chair or the table to sit. The front seats are usually empty. The late comers are forced to sit in the front!
It is also equally fascinating to watch the seat dynamics in a meeting. The person who usually chooses the seat facing the door is generally the prime decision maker or one of the key stakeholders or someone who automatically has an affinity to power. We, humans, have the tendency to keep a guard on who is entering our domain. By sitting at a vantage view point, this person can see who is entering the room first, giving him a slight edge over the others. The reverse is also true.
Equally interesting is the chairs people choose when they come for an assessment centre. Sometimes just by assigning a leadership chair at the head of the table can help in understanding how much the participant is open to leadership roles.
I also remember an instance when I met a powerful HR head of a PSU. His chair was positioned so high that anyone sitting at the other end of his large desk would feel like a tiny worm. Since we were negotiating a big contract, I knew that I needed to bring him out of this zone or face the downside. As most top executives’ cabins have, there was a sofa also. I told him that we are expecting a couple of more team members shortly and if he would mind moving into a conference room or the sofa. That helped us in getting him to understand our view point on the contract.
Usually, by the way one chooses the seating option, a smart observer / assessor can easily identify the opinion givers, the gate keepers, the decision makers, the influencers etc. in any meeting. During our meetings, I notice the seats my team members choose. When we select our meeting “real estate”, we send messages about ourselves to the other members of the group. Trust me and the countless research that has gone around this, the seat choosing decisions are not random.
Observing a person’s seating choice, like observing their body language, can tell us the individual’s motives, their own perception of where they belong in the hierarchy and more. We can also use seating arrangements to help us achieve our objectives. Round tables allow for more collaboration as there in no “head” position – everyone has a chance to have an equal footing in the conversation. People seated in the middle of long tables tend to ask questions and keep the discussion moving forward. Being surrounded by others is a safe position, which can give people who need a confidence boost some added support.
I also know of an organisation in UAE, where the meeting rooms have no tables or chairs. You are expected to stand and arrive at a decision in 20 minutes or less. The objective is if it is a discussion, do it at your workplace; if the meeting has been called to make a decision, it would be good if the data points are shared ahead of time so we don’t waste each – others’ time – in which case, we can take a decision in 20 minutes.
We may no longer fear someone pulling a sword on us when they sit on our left – hand side, but we still tend to trust the person sitting on our right more. The history of certain seating arrangements carries meaning, even as many of the early justifications for these traditions have been forgotten. Pull up a chair at a round table to collaborate or sit at the head of the rectilinear table to define your dependable power position.
Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org to know more about how we conduct assessments and trainings. I would love to share our view points and help you.