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Article: What does your office say about you?

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What Does Your Office Say About You?

by Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.

Have you noticed that executives often communicate their attitudes about power and status by the way they utilize their office space?

Here's what I mean: If you walk into someone's office and find a conversation area (chairs of equal size set around a small table - or at right angles to each other), you'll probably infer that the occupant likes to speak with guests more casually and personally than he or she could from behind a desk. That office layout "tells" you that the person is informal and most likely collaborative. On the other hand, the message you get from someone who conducts all interactions from behind a large desk, with his or her guests seated in smaller (and almost always more uncomfortable) chairs stationed in front of the desk, is one of control or superiority.

Not everyone is an executive and not all workspaces have enough room for a separate conversation site. But many offices could be made more inviting to guests simply by moving the visitor's chair to the side, rather than in front of the desk.

Savvy leaders know that their office layout may be viewed as a metaphor for business relationships. That's why many successful professionals choose not to speak with clients, customers, or employees from behind a desk, but instead come around their desk and sit next to them. A manager in a manufacturing company uses this strategy with new employees: "When I first meet with members of my staff, I pull my chair to the opposite side of the desk so that we are sitting next to one another. I tell them that sometimes I may physically be seated behind my desk, but that this is the way I think of us - as partners working side by side."

I'm not suggesting that sitting next to staff members is all that a manager needs to do to communicate inclusion. But it's a start.

Contrast that with the senior project manager who conducted meetings in his office by placing a worktable perpendicular to the front of his desk. He sat in a comfortable chair behind his desk while the rest of the "team" sat in armless chairs at the table. This arrangement allowed the manager to reinforce his role as the authority figure in the room. In the words of one participant in those meetings, "There he'd be, leaning back in his big chair, while the rest of us sat upright at the table. We felt like peasants who'd been summoned by the Lord of the Manor!"

Office arrangements are important as symbolic cues - and we human beings are more strongly influenced by symbols than anything we read or hear.

As a change-management consultant, I've seen the powerful role that symbols play when an organization is going through transformation. And I've come to realize that most leaders don't understand how to harness that power. For example, one organization I worked with was filled with symbols of executive privilege (corporate dining room, executive washrooms, reserved parking spaces, etc.). All of that would have been fine - except for the fact that a large part of the stated change message was: "We're all in this together!"

Now, if that company really wanted to get the "together" message across, its leaders should have been practicing open door policies, roaming the corporate halls and factory floors, parking in employee lots and eating in the company cafeteria.

You may not be leading a Fortune 500 company, and you may not be in charge of a major change effort, but you can still use symbols to communicate with impact. And you can start with how you arrange and use the furniture in your office.

First of all, make sure that your seating arrangements are congruent with your business objectives. If, for instance, you want to project authority or maintain control, sit in a larger or higher chair behind a desk - or at the head of a rectangular conference table. If you want to accentuate the adversarial nature of a situation, sit at a table, directly across from your competitors. (Think of the seating arrangement that would be typical for a meeting of a divorcing couple and their attorneys.) But if your goal is to enhance teamwork or build a culture of collaboration, get out from behind your desk and don't put any object between you and the person with whom you're talking.

If an organization wants its offices to say something that gets national attention, it could take a tip from this Canadian advertising agency: AdFarm uses office placement to symbolize organizational values. According to Art Froehlich, a senior partner with the firm: "In our company, the owners have windowless offices and staff members are assigned the nicer rooms with views. No one has a corner office. All of those are turned into meeting rooms. Using space like this is one way we communicate our values (in which relationships are primary) to employees and clients."

I don't think it's coincidental that AdFarm was selected as one of the 50 best workplaces in Canada. Those offices were definitely speaking up!

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is a coach, consultant, and keynote speaker who helps her clients thrive on change. She addresses association, government, and business audiences around the world. This article is based on Carol's latest book, "THE NONVERBAL ADVANTAGE - Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work," to be published by Berrett-Koehler in May 2008.  For more information, contact Carol by phone: 510-526-1727, email:, or through her website:


Reports I have written:

Measuring the impact and ROI of social media
Measuring the impact and ROI of social media - for Ark Group
Making social media work for your business
Making Social Media work for your business - for Ark Group
Social Media: the new business communication landscape
Social Media: The New Business Communication Landscape - for Ark Group
How to get started with podcasting in your organisation
How to get started with podcasting in your organisation - for Melcrum Publishing
How to use social media to solve critical internal communication issues
Contributing author to How to use social media to solve critical internal communication issues - for Melcrum Publishing

How to use social media to engage employees
Contributing author to How to use social media to engage employees - for Melcrum Publishing

Contributing author to How to communicate with hard-to-reach employees - for Melcrum Publishing



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