What Your Office Design Says About You As a Leader (And It Isn't Pretty)

What Your Office Design Says About You As a Leader (And It Isn't Pretty)
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The corner office is a symbol of success and power. It is the modern-day throne room where you rule your realm. You beckon people to your presence and cast down rulings, hirings, and firings. However, your castle can be everyone else’s dungeon.

While communication experts typically coach leaders on what to say, how to say it, and when to say it -- one important aspect is often overlooked: where to say it.

Location and atmosphere can color a message and change behavior. Think about the difference between speaking with someone at a bar versus having a conversation in the park. Mood, tone, body language and energy shift.

It doesn’t matter if your office is mahogany-lined or modern minimalist, the boss’s office is powerful. As you bring people into your space, think about the messages it sends to your guests.

1. Are you always behind your desk during a meeting?
Think of the setup in an interrogation room. Walk into one and you would see a table and two (sometimes 3) chairs. One chair is stationary, moderately low, and usually uncomfortable. That’s where the suspect sits. The other chair will have wheels, sit higher, and be clearly more comfy. That’s where the interrogator sits.

This simple set-up creates a subtle psychological dynamic between interrogator and suspect. The suspect is stuck in one place while the interrogator can freely move around the room. Similar to a throne, the interrogator sits higher than the suspect. With these two pieces of furniture, a message is subconsciously sent: I’m in charge and you’re not.

Now, take a look at your office. See any similarities? Are you setting the same tone? Do you relax in a wheeled chair while they sit in lower, stationary chairs? Do you add an extra element of power separation by sitting behind your desk?

If reinforcing your status is the message you want to send, great! Keep it up.

However, if you want to elicit connection and open conversation, your space is contradicting your intention. Consider adding a small round table with chairs in your office or a comfortable sitting area with lounge chairs and a couch. Use those sections of your space for more personable or difficult conversations.

2. Do you have a communal space to share with visitors?
If you have to have a difficult conversation in your office, sometimes cutting to the chase isn’t as effective as warming someone up.

Interrogators usually walk into the room carrying two cups of coffee; one for them and one for the suspect. This small gesture is psychologically significant because it can shift the tone from ‘me against you’ to two people having a chat over a cup of coffee. Plus, some studies have shown the correlation between warm beverages and warm feelings

Create an atmosphere of camaraderie with a hospitable gesture. This small maneuver will set things up for a more relaxed conversation.

3. Is your office decor all about you?
Pictures, awards, memorabilia and other tchotchkes are a great way to personalize your space. However, they may unintentionally work against you.

I once visited a CEO in his office, the place where he held all of his company meetings. During our discussion, he regularly mentioned that the company’s culture was all about collaboration and teamwork. As he spoke, my eyes drifted towards the walls filled with pictures, awards, and accomplishments achieved solely by the CEO, both professionally and personally. The room felt like a hall of fame of him.

When he asked for my advice about building a better culture of communication and collaboration, I walked him out of the boardroom and shut the door behind us. As we stood in the hallway, I made him recite the company mission and values. After he was done, I said, "Great," opened the door and said, "show me where that message is conveyed in this room." He took a moment to take it all in. His eyes widened as he said, "Oh dear. We’ll have to do something about that." Later on, he took a few things home and added more items that highlighted other team members and team accomplishments.

Does your space send mixed messages?

As the boss your office isn’t just an extension of you; it’s an extension of your company. A message is sent and received the moment someone walks in. Take a good look and see if it supports your intentions, is aligned with your mission, and sets the tone you want for your guests.

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