The client was a senior female executive at a major global company. She was hardworking, bright, and well-liked, but she had one big frustration: People often ignored her ideas at meetings.
After watching the woman interact with colleagues, executive consultant Constance Dierickx offered several suggestions. One of the most important: "I told her to stop sitting against the wall and sit around the table instead." Within six months, co-workers were commenting that she had more "executive presence and spoke with greater conviction," says Dierickx.
The moral of the story: Where you sit influences where you stand. If you take away their Brooks Brothers suits, Manolo Blahnik shoes, and BlackBerrys, managers are little more than naked apes--social mammals with primal methods of expressing group power hierarchies. Over the past few years, psychologists and consultants have begun to decode the secret meaning of office behavior and to understand one of the business world's deepest mysteries: Why do people tend to sit in the same place at routine meetings?
Blame it on the boss. The person with the most power determines how everybody else positions themselves around the typical rectangular or oblong office table. As a rule, leaders like to sit at the end of the table facing the exit so no one can sneak up on them.
From there on, things get quite complicated, according to Sharon Livingston, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Livingston Group, a marketing consultancy. Livingston has met with more than 40,000 people in her career at dozens of large companies and has found that people fit into one of seven personality types based on where they sit, which she explains using the nomenclature borrowed from Snow White's seven dwarves. Those sitting opposite the person leading the meeting tend to be Grumpy or Doc, or a combination of the two, says Livingston. Grumpy is openly argumentative and may be hard to control. Doc is the person who faces off against the leader to show off his or her intelligence.
The person who sits on the leader's right is Happy--a yes-man. In her Web-based questionnaire that quickly determines one's dwarf personality, 59% of the 20,000 people who have taken the test fall in the Happy category. "We've been trained in American society to be helpful and support the leader," says Livingston.
With an understanding of the psychology of office seating, managers can move people around to improve their chances of influencing them. Managers should, for instance, place potential foes on their right. Suspected brownnosers may offer more frank opinions if they are on the opposite sides of a table.
On the other hand, there's something to be said for ignoring the issue entirely. Some experts, such as leadership consultant Patrick Lencioni, believe that if too many people are worried about where they're sitting it signals a dysfunctional group. "If there's a strong insecurity, people are more aware of all the trappings like, What am I wearing? Where do I sit? When a team is functional and has a high amount of trust, you worry less about those details."
By Aili McConnon