Thursday, March 10, 2005

Where would you sit?

Today, I’m going to describe a business meeting and ask you where you would sit. Many people never give it a thought, but choosing the right chair at a meeting is an art.

Imagine that you’re a developer or a creative employee; you build websites, or you design and make things. Your manager invites you to a meeting. It seems that Marketing has a few unknown complaints to discuss. Your boss’s opposite number in Marketing will be there, bringing someone in their group. You’ll to be there to answer technical questions. Both boss’s bosses will be there also, making six in all. “I’ve reserved room 128 at 2pm”, says your manager.

You're the first one to arrive - a few minutes early - and you check out the room. It is smallish and windowless, has a narrow rectangular table and adequate seating for six, three on each side. Where do you sit?

Actually it’s too dangerous to be the first person to choose a seat in this room. Come back in a few minutes, or busy yourself cleaning the whiteboard. … In a few minutes your boss arrives, gives you a cheerful hello, and sits down in the middle chair on the side nearer door. Now where do you sit?

There are two good chairs. I would take the seat on the opposite side farthest from the door, but you might go for the chair directly opposite your boss.
The first consideration is that the two high-level managers will appreciate the chairs nearest the door. They have the greatest right to duck out for a phone call or an emergency. No point getting in their way.

The bigger point is that your boss may have been targeted for a hailstorm of dangerous criticism. If so, you want to stay out of the line of fire. If the meeting is going to be friendly, it’ll matter less where you sit.

Now you may feel that you want to sit at your boss’s side, the two of you a team against the world! But I’ve already hinted about your boss’s lack of self-preservation (more about that later), so perhaps you shouldn’t count on that support so much. In any case, you probably want to avoid a complete “us versus them” meeting, with all of Marketing on one side of the table, and your team on the other. (I almost always choose a seat that will break up the “teams.”)

If you sit opposite your boss, you prevent the worst scenario – the top Marketing person staring straight across the table and attacking your hapless manager. (I once watched my director get shelled like that, and it was an ugly sight.) But for this very reason you may appear too “uppity” if you take that seat. I would play it safer and shift one to the side. If the dreaded confrontation occurs, you will be separated from the victim and appear, by your choice of seat, simply loyal to the company.

Why am I worried that this meeting will be contentious? The presence of the higher level managers is a warning. Whatever these “complaints” are, how come they were not already resolved a level or two lower in the hierarchy?

Now why am I worrying about your boss's sense of self-preservation?

  • Your boss should have chosen a safe chair after some of the Marketing people sat down.
  • Some attempt should have been made to define and settle the complaints already, without bringing higher-ups into the meeting.
  • The lack of an agenda is ominous. An agenda could specify the issues, and might allow your boss to control the meeting.
  • You were given no useful information to prepare for the meeting.
  • Maybe there was no choice, but the meeting room is a trap. A larger room, windows, or better yet a round table would all reduce contention. (Round tables tend to make people feel more like equals at a meeting.)
  • Perhaps your boss should not have invited you to this meeting. Excluding you would allow your boss to temporize, handling any awkward query by offering to respond after talking to staff. Since you're there, you may have to come up with some brilliancy on the spot, and you won’t even have a chance to ask privately what your boss does not want you to say.

Take that far seat on the other side of the table. It’s going to be a rocky afternoon…

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