One of the things I think about most often is where people place themselves in a room during meetings. The seat taken often suggests to me about individuals’ self-esteem and their understanding of their position in an organization. It stems from a conference session I attended on women in leadership. While I didn’t leave that session entirely convinced (but I am now), I did take a note on their recommendation to read: Her Place at the Table: A Woman’s Guide to Negotiating Five Key Challenges to Leadership Success. More recently, the best selling book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, the subject is raised again of your place at the table.
Both books have influenced how I manage my career and what I take notice of in an agency. They also strongly influenced where I sit in meetings.
Imagine you arrive to the meeting a few minutes early. You have your choice of seats.
Question: Where do you sit?
- At the table but as far away from the head seat as possible.
- At the head of the table.
- In a seat on the edge of the room, away from the table.
- At a seat about centered from each end.
- In the seat next to the head seat.
Answer: It depends.
The answer largely depends on why you are at the meeting.
- Did you call the meeting?
- Where you invited to the meeting to provide an opinion or share information uniquely yours?
- Does the outcome of the meeting impact you or your team?
- Where you invited to the meeting to observe?
You called the meeting
Traditionally, the person leading the meeting will sit at the head of the table. It’s a clear position of power and wordlessly tells other attendees who is running the meeting (if they didn’t know already). If you’re new to a position or to the organization, this may be an important place to sit to demonstrate your role. More recently due (I believe) to emphasis on more collaborative relationships with employees, the new ‘head of the table’ is the seat approximately centered from each end.
While this may seem ‘old fashioned’ there are still enough people in organizations today that expect this tradition and will be confused if you don’t take the seat at the head of the table. Don’t believe me? Try sitting somewhere else. Then observe the body language of those arriving after you trying to figure out where to sit. More than likely, the seat at the end will remain empty unless it’s the only seat remaining.
If you are still hesitant to sit at the head of the table, it may be valuable to explore why you’re experiencing that hesitance.
You are invited to share information uniquely yours
This is perhaps a more ambiguous decision. On one hand, you are a visitor. On the other hand, you are a critical member of the meeting. In this scenario it’s not unusual for people to gravitate to seats far from the head of the table or around the edge of the room. More than likely, a person gravitating towards these positions is feeling like an ‘outsider.’
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The decision, however, will influence others’ view of the authority you hold and the importance/credibility of the information you present. It is critical that you try to push down the uncomfortable feeling of being an outsider to sit as close to the head of the table as possible. The closer you sit near the person running the meeting, the greater the perception that what you have to say is important and is something to be acted upon.
Note: Some senior executives may have assistant staff members that sit directly next to them. In that case, leave a few seats between the head of the table and yourself open.
The outcome of the meeting impacts you or your team
This is another instance when some will gravitate to the edges of the room. Presumably you are there to receive information. However, a seat around the edge of the room suggests you are a passive receiver of information. From that position in the room it’s harder to have a say, to engage in discussions, or even ask questions. For that reason, if there’s seats at the table…that’s where you want to be.
You are invited to observe
If you were invited to observe the meeting, it’s unlikely you will be asked to provide input or ask questions. So, if there’s ever a time to sit at the edge of a room – this would be it. Were it me, I still would take a seat somewhere at the table. I’d just be willing to move if the room became full.
I’d love to hear what you think about the importance of where people sit in meetings.