Did you know that where people sit at a meeting table influences their behavior?
Using the most common table arrangement, a single rectangular or oval table, there are three positions that deserve some planning effort. They are the head, the opposite end, and anywhere else on the side.
This is the end that people will perceive as the front, typically because there is a white board or screen on that wall. This is the most powerful chair in the room. And if something as simple as a chair can create more power, you may as well think about who should sit in it.
In most cases, it should be the meeting leader. It’s the best place from which to direct the meeting. If you predict the meeting might get a little rowdy and will need to be heavily controlled, then this is definitely the chair for you.
It’s possible you can’t sit in that chair. You are running the meeting and your supervisor will be there. Some supervisors are like family members at a dinner table. In my family, nobody took dad or mom’s chair, unless they weren’t there.
If you know you must yield the chair to the supervisor, so be it. You might tell her before the meeting that you’d like the chair at the head because you’ll need the leverage to keep things on track. She will look at you like there really was no need to ask (if you’re worried, ask anyway), and then give you the spot.
Instead of thinking about who should sit in this chair, it is often just as important to think about who should not be in it.
You certainly don’t want to give the loud, chatty, or overbearing types a chance to sit in that chair. They’ll take it, if given the opportunity, and that will just make their bad behavior even worse, and by worse, I mean harder to control. If it’s not you, make sure to fill it with someone who won’t use the power for evil.
Opposite the Head
The second most powerful chair in the room is at the other end of the table. This is the perfect place from which to launch your meeting heroics, especially if you aren’t the leader.
Let’s say you have a manager who typically runs the meeting and usually takes the power chair. The problem is that this person is clueless about how to run the meeting. You’d like to help.
This chair is a good choice, because you and he can easily see each other. The others in the meeting will likely be pointing slightly toward him, which means they won’t see you, unless of course you are talking.
If you and the manager have a decent relationship, you may be able to help direct and influence his behavior simply by providing feedback using your facial expressions. It’s subtle, but can work well for both you and him.
You should know that this chair is popular and will go to waste unless you arrive early and claim it.
If you auctioned off the chairs in a meeting, my guess is that this one would receive the highest bids. Others want it, but not for the reasons I just mentioned. First, those who don’t like meetings usually gravitate toward the back. Second, if they perceive they will mostly be watching and listening, it provides the best sight lines.
The third position is anywhere else on either side. It’s true that not all side seats are created equal. If there’s a chair at the head of the table, typically the side positions immediately to the leader’s left and right are viewed as relatively important chairs.
The two side chairs farthest from the leader are the least important chairs and also the best place for someone to hide who isn’t interested in participating.
Sometimes two equal and opposing groups come together. An example would be a team of sellers meeting with a team of buyers. In these circumstances, it’s possible that nobody will sit at either end, because there’s a desire to create a sense of equality in the room. In this arrangement, the center chairs on either side are considered the most powerful and those toward the ends least powerful.
But for our purposes, let’s keep it simple. We’ll just think of any of these chairs as the side.
The question you need to consider is when it makes sense for you to sit in one of these chairs. Pick a place on the side when you want to exert less control and want the other participants to take on more responsibility. It’s a subtle way of saying that this is your meeting, not mine.
To get people in the right chairs, you can use one of two strategies. The first is to arrive early and claim the seats for you and one or two others.
Placing some personal items in these spots is usually sufficient for saving them. If you are saving a spot for someone specific, when the person arrives, guide him or her to the right seat. You may want to give these folks a heads-up about this, so they know why you singled them out.
A second strategy is to specify where you want people to sit. When people arrive, they will probably grumble a bit about this, especially those that get “stuck” near the front of the room when they would have preferred to sit in the back. Those with more bold natures will still sit where they want and simply rearrange the assignments to their liking.
Here are some of the reasons I sometimes use seating assignments:
- Manage where my likely troublemakers sit, so that I can more easily control them during the meeting.
- Mix it up, so that people make some new acquaintances.
- Increase the breadth of perspectives for small group discussions.
- Balance out the power in the room. When there are people from varying levels, I may want to mix it up or keep peers together. In either case, I’ll need a seating plan.
- Certain people bring something unique to the room. When they sit next to each other, I hope to create some interesting chemistry.
In meetings with a single long table or a horseshoe shape, you can print table name tents and put them where you want people to sit.
In large meetings with lots of tables, you can number each table and then provide each participant with a table assignment when they register for the meeting.
Small Stuff Matters
The table arrangement isn’t likely to make or break your meeting, but it can have an impact. You may as well have that effect work in your favor.