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Carol Kinsey Goman
Leadership consultant

Carol Kinsey Goman

Carol Kinsey Goman is an executive coach, author and keynote speaker. Her latest book, The Nonverbal Advantage, will be followed by "The Silent Language of Leaders," to be published in April by Jossey-Bass.

Why Congress should watch where they sit

In a symbolic show of unity, the U.S. Congress will disrupt their traditional seating arrangements for Tuesday's State of the Union address. Instead of an audience divided along Democratic and Republican lines, members of the political parties will be mixed.

While the "who's sitting where?" game may seem just as juvenile as the "my side, your side" division of the past, the fact is that seating really does make a statement. Sure, few of us need to think about our seats Tuesday night, but just about all of us have hovered awkwardly around a meeting table at one point or other. Congress is right to understand that where they sit sends a signal about their power dynamics and willingness to cooperate--and 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, the one in the middle of the row of chairs facing 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 spot) 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. 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 largest number of group members, he or she will have more interactions and 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 down at a table, they often choose chairs on opposite sides? This is automatically adversarial--the kind of seating arrangement that divorce attorneys and their clients typically adopt. The same goes when groups are across from each other, such as historically at the State of the Union. It unwittingly creates an "us" and "them" mentality. If you intentionally mix up the seating arrangements (or, for businesses, if you hold your meeting at a round table or place chairs in a circle), you can discourage the tendency to "take sides."

If you're hoping to foster informal conversation, sitting at right angles is the most conducive. Sitting side by side is the next best arrangement. This is important to remember if you want to forge closer 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 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 one evening will foster actual, long-term collaboration. But I do think it's at least a scoot in the right direction.

By Carol Kinsey Goman

 |  January 24, 2011; 2:51 PM ET
Category:  Congressional leadership , Organizational Culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I hope the Dems bring some snacks and coloring books with which to amuse their Repub "dates" so they will behave during the hour or so affair. I also hope the Chief of Protocol or House Officer has a "cry room" available for those who do not know how to control their impulses so that the rest of us, the People, are not subjected to their juvenile behaviors that are disrespectful to us, more than to anyone else.

Posted by: nana4 | January 25, 2011 9:59 AM
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There was a time in the not too distant past when senators from opposing sides would have their families dine together and their children play with each other establishing a commity missing from today's politicians. You hear remnants on the floor with my good friend from the great state of MS, but polarization seems to be the order of the day. I don't think the seating will change that, but it is a step in the right direction.

Posted by: jameschirico | January 25, 2011 8:59 AM
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We the people of the United States, in order to try and give off the image of a more perfect Union, have devised another public relations schema, to avoid really addressing the fact, that we have a gun problem. So, in order to kindle the vaguest notion of the principles of liberty, we shall sit at this State of the Union Address together. We shall show very little emotion, in order not to tip the scales of temperance, in the direction of the general welfare of the people, for that may adversely affect polling numbers. Finally, in order to preserve my occupational posterity as a representative, I shall go on either MSNBC, or Fox according to party and rank, following the State of the Union, and still not talk about the policy issues that affect the American people. There shall also be a CNN, for representatives to posture themselves as moderates, but still there shall be no talk about guns, the homeless, the violence against women, nor shall there be any talk about how to make college and medical care more accessible to everyone.

Resolved that the preceding artificial ideas be glutted through airwaves, so that people believe that we are making progress as a country.

Posted by: jrjaiusa | January 25, 2011 1:01 AM
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Interesting points. I guess it explains why I avoid the end seats, and generally aim for a middle seat when attending meetings; unlike at group meals, where as a lefty, I feel obligated to sit in one of the leftmost seats at either side of the table to avoid collisions :)

Posted by: iamweaver | January 25, 2011 12:36 AM
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If they think I voted for them to go up there for where they sit, you are sadly mistaken. I want them to get to work and quit fooling around. This is serious business. We are drowning in debt. We need spending cuts now. We have little families hurting with this terrible economy and the ignoring of joblessness. We see people losing their homes and starving. We see thugs and drugs running over a border. We had Obama care dumped on us and our concerns and opinions landed on deaf arrogant ears. We see states with huge deficits and giving iou s and you are concerned about where these people sit?
This is enough to make one sick. This is sheer madness. I do not want them to hold hands and dance in a circle. This is not a popularity contest. You know what I will think about someone who cares where they sit? I will think they care more about what people think than doing what is right.

Posted by: greatgran1 | January 24, 2011 10:55 PM
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Its a wonderful idea !!! but how about turning down the lights and playing a little soft music..some hand holding certainly is acceptable and some slight gentle caressing would be sweet... I would prefer not to sit with Barney Frank..

Posted by: james_m_reilly1 | January 24, 2011 9:55 PM
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Arranging the deck chairs on the U.S.S. Titanic.

Posted by: politbureau | January 24, 2011 7:47 PM
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Let's do it like that Who concert in Cincinnati back a few years ago.

Posted by: colonelpanic | January 24, 2011 7:26 PM
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Both parties sitting together is indeed "symbolic" in a number of ways.
One could interpret the move as a message to the Tea party to "drop dead" by the Guardians of the Status Quo.
It could also be a subconscious message to Amerika that there really is no difference among the Statist/Progressives of the "official" Left and Right.
Once again, the GOP talks the talk at election time, yet, somehow, they never quite get around to walking the walk.
Symbolic, yes. Of the vacuum that envelopes Washington, D.C.

Posted by: BigSea | January 24, 2011 6:33 PM
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They are still sitting on their same dumb a**es no matter where they are in the room.

Posted by: sufi66 | January 24, 2011 6:19 PM
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