First, we were supposed to dress for success. Now, we’re supposed to plop our well-dressed behinds on the most strategic seat in a meeting. Seriously? Well, the answer is yes (or maybe).
There is evidence that a more calculated approach to the game of musical chairs in a meeting could place you in a power position or mark you eternally as a subservient wretch.
OK, that’s stretching it, but this stuff matters, mostly because we all seem to fall into fairly recognizable patterns. Want to see what you really look like in your favorite seat (and what it's really saying about you)?
Maybe you always sit near a door so you can be the first to leave a meeting. (Heads up: People notice.) Maybe you’re the boss, so you like to sit at the head of the table. Maybe you sit right next to your boss (at the right), because you are an ally, or as most would say, a “suck up.” Maybe you’re down at the other end of the table, while subtly sending signals to your boss that you are in opposition.
About 40 years ago, a pivotal study by noted environmental psychologist Robert Sommers showed just how these positions do matter.
In his work Sommers, analyzed kids and students in various social situations. That data was then matched with data about business meetings and how individuals felt about the attributes of various seating positions. The gist: We’re all animals trying to mark our territory.
Low profile versus master of the universe
Generally, people fall into two camps when it comes to meetings, said Dr. Richard Winters, an emergency medicine physician with the Mayo Clinic and an executive coach for healthcare leaders. There’s the stealth camp of “please don’t call on me” and “please don’t look at me.” Or the master-of-the-universe camp who wants to get the show on the road.
If you’re in stealth mode, choose the chairs that are on the outside of the realm of influence of power players.
“You know the (chairs) behind the chairs that actually sit at the table,” said Winters. In other words, “the kid’s table,” he said.
But if you have to sit at the adult table because of seating arrangements, find a spot where the fewest number of people can see you, even the person running the meeting. But you do want the meeting leader to see you at least sign in or enter a room, so you prove you showed up, Winters advised.
Another choice: Sit in a chair between two colleagues who can act as a human shield.
But if you actually want to get things done, sit in a location where you can see everyone, and hopefully that location will help you pick up on the subtle gestures and talking points of other meeting members, Winters said.
For more mojo, pick a chair where you are close enough to the individual leading the meeting so you can have his or her ear.
Most of us wind up at rectangular-shaped tables when we slog off to meetings. The shape of the table makes for some interesting dynamics, according to body language expert Janine Driver, who heads the Body Language Institute in Alexandria, Virginia.
“Everyone has equal space and that can be a competitive advantage or disadvantage, depending on where you sit,” Driver said.
Indeed, the table itself is like a barrier, especially when the meeting only involves two people sitting face-to-face. “That position is about opposition,” she said, adding that sitting side-by-side encourages intimacy.
And if you really want to seal a deal, sit to someone’s, like your boss', left. “That may seem counter-intuitive, but it works,” Driver said.
There actually has been some research about this phenomena. One study found that teachers kind of ignore students who sit to their right, and students who sit to the left, generally perform better and are called on more.
The same holds true in business: Research shows more deals are made when you sit to the left of a potential client.
Though in the real world, many of us don’t have the luxury of being so strategic. We’re busy. We sit where we can. Don’t worry if you wind up sitting to the right of your boss: There’s no research showing that every single titan of business became successful because of their seat choice during a meeting.
And before your next meeting, ask yourself this question: Do you even need to be at the meeting? If the answer is no, then the best place to sit is somewhere outside of the meeting, Winters said. Like back in your office where you could be doing something productive that actually makes a difference.
The bottom line is, you should sit where you are most comfortable. Just don’t sit on someone’s lap or push someone out of the chair you want.