Marketing guru Dr. Ned Roberto noticed many years ago that Filipino families generally sit in the same pew in church for Mass on Sundays. Moreover, we usually arrange ourselves in exactly the same order from left to right every week: father, mother, sister, brother or some such. We are plainly people of habit. But it’s more than that. The same seating phenomenon takes place in classrooms; and it seems much easier to attach significance to it there. The slow “ropor” students sit at the back, in row four; while the star pupils and teachers’ pets occupy the seats up front. The noisy girls sit together, of course. Those who sit beside the window or near the door would rather be somewhere else.
In our board rooms and conference rooms, we see similar behavior. It doesn’t take very long for people to gravitate toward “regular” seats at every meeting. Vittorio (not his real name, or is it?) always positions himself near the food. Gene likes to be with the ladies. Pedro must be close to an electrical outlet because his laptop battery is always dying. Yes, there are often primal needs involved in the choice of seats, but could there be some other, deeper reasons to explain who sits where and why?
To begin with, the Boss gets the best seat in the room, usually at the head of the table—padre de familia at the kabisera, capo di tutti capi at the ultimate position of power. We don’t need to be any kind of expert to figure that one out. In the old days, the Boss would take the end of the table facing the door. The late Brig. Gen. Benjamin R. Vallejo used to say this was a matter of being “security conscious.” You don’t want anybody to be able to sneak into the room behind you and make you batok, “Uhm, loko ka!” In these days of PowerPoint presentations, however, the best seat in the house might be one close enough to see the figures on the screen but far, far away from the gofers who press the arrow keys on the presenters’ laptops.
Once the Boss has determined where to sit, things begin to get more interesting. According to psychologists and consultants who have studied the deepest secrets of office behavior, what gives a particular seat meaning is its position relative to the chair of the boss.
Immediately to the right of the Boss we find who else but the Right Hand Man. He’s the No. 2 guy in the room, the extension of the Boss, the heir apparent, and the only one allowed to whisper into the Boss’s good ear. He doesn’t want to do anything that might jeopardize his exalted position; therefore, he tends to agree at least in public with everything the Boss says. In extreme cases, he will look like a bobblehead doll on the dashboard of a car constantly nodding as the Boss talks. If he could, he would punctuate every sentence of the Boss with a resounding “Amen!” He will be rewarded at the end of a morning meeting with an invitation to have lunch with the Boss.
To the left of the Boss sits the Yes, but Man. He supports the Boss, BUT he has ideas of his own. He agrees on general principles, BUT he differs on the details. He enjoys the proximity to power, BUT he is not quite in the inner circle. If work relationships were described on Facebook, this one would be “It’s complicated.”
The Mediator takes a seat somewhere in the middle where he can quietly engage everyone around the table. No one really knows whose side he is on because he is a friend of all mankind. He knows all the company gossip, and if you want something to reach the other side, you tell him and make him promise to keep it a secret.
The Opposition takes up a post directly across the Boss and his cohorts. He is not necessarily after the Boss’s job. He is just naturally argumentative. He might ask questions because he is genuinely concerned or because he wants to display his expertise or because he likes to hear his own voice. Watch out for Oppositionists who also happen to be lawyers. They are trained to ask What If questions until the cows come home and go back out again.
Finally, there’s the Wallflower. He sits at a far corner of the conference table or even away from the table in the peanut gallery against the wall. When the Boss surveys the room, he will lean back in his chair and hide behind the guy beside him. He will wait to hear the opinions of others before venturing his own view; and when he does speak, nobody listens. Then he wonders why he even came to this dance.
Why is all this important? An understanding of the psychology of the seating at meetings can be quite an effective management tool. Let’s say you are about to preside over a meeting and you expect some opposition to your pet project. First, you need to make sure you sit at the head of the table to declare to everyone that you are, in fact, The Boss. Then, you can effectively neutralize a potential foe by inviting the guy to sit beside you. Somehow he will feel uncomfortable asking tough questions from the favored Right Hand Man’s seat. Your confused enemy will think he can whisper his concerns to you instead, or maybe even take them up with you later over lunch. Conversely, if you are sorely in need of honest feedback, you can move your fanboys to the opposite side of the conference table to encourage them to express frank opinions out loud. Brilliant, right?
Well, not really. Some experts say that a preoccupation with seating arrangements is a sign of deep insecurity. Managers who worry too much about things like what pen they’re using and what they’re wearing are probably part of a dysfunctional team. After all, in an ideal world, what should matter in any discussion is not where you sit, but where you stand.