Body Language – Power Plays


Have you ever been for a job interview and felt overwhelmed or helpless when you sat in the visitor’s chair? Where the interviewer seemed so big and overwhelming and you felt small and insignificant? It is likely that the interviewer had cunningly arranged his office furnishings to raise his own status and power and, in so doing, to lower yours. Certain strategies using chairs and seating arrangements can create this atmosphere in an office.

The factors involved in raising status and power by using chairs are: the size of the chair and its accessories, the height of the chair from the floor and the location of the chair relative to the other person.

Chair Size and Accessories

The height of the back of the chair raises or lowers a person’s status and the high-backed chair is a well-known example. The higher the back of the chair, the greater the power and status of the person sitting in it. Kings, queens, popes and other high-status people may have the back of their throne or official chair as high as 250 centimetres (over 8 feet) to show their status relative to their subjects; the senior executive has a high-backed leather chair and his visitor’s chair has a low back.

Swivel chairs have more power and status than fixed chairs, allowing the user freedom of movement when he is placed under pressure. Fixed chairs allow little or no movement and this lack of movement is compensated by body gestures that can reveal a person’s attitudes and feelings. Chairs with arm rests, those that lean back and those that have wheels are better than chairs that have not.

Chair Height

The acquisition of power using height was covered in Chapter 14 but it is worth noting that status is gained if your chair is adjusted higher off the floor than the other person’s. Some advertising executives are known for sitting on high-backed chairs that are adjusted for maximum height while their visitors sit opposite, in the competitive position, on a sofa or chair that is so low that their eyes are level with the executive’s desk (Figure 162). A common ploy is to have the ashtray just out of the visitor’s reach, which forces him to be inconvenienced when ashing his cigarette.

Chair Location

As mentioned in the chapter on seating arrangements, the most power is exerted on the visitor when his chair is placed in the competitive position. A common power play is to place the visitor’s chair as far away as possible from the executive’s desk into the social or public territory zone, which further reduces the visitor’s status.


Having read this book, you should now be able to arrange your office furniture in such a way as to have as much power, status or control over others as you wish. Here is a case study showing how we rearranged a person’s office to help solve some of his supervisor/ employee relationship problems.

John, who was an employee in an insurance company, had been promoted to a manager’s position and was given an office. After a few months in the role, John found that the other employees disliked dealing with him and his relationship with them was occasionally hostile, particularly when they were in his office. He found it difficult to get them to follow his instructions and guidance and he heard that they were talking about him behind his back. Our observations of John’s plight revealed that the communication breakdowns were at their worst when the employees were in his office.

For the purpose of this exercise, we will ignore management skills and concentrate on the non-verbal aspects of the problem. Here is a summary of our observations and conclusions about John’s office layout.

1. The visitor’s chair was placed in the competitive position in relation to John.

2. The walls of the office were timber panels except for an outside window and a clear glass partition that looked into the general office area. This glass partition reduced John’s status and could increase the power of a subordinate who was sitting in the visitor’s chair because the other employees were directly behind him and could see what was happening.

3. John’s desk had a solid front that hid the lower part of his body and prevented the subordinates observing many of John’s gestures.

4. The visitor’s chair was placed so that the visitor’s back was to the open door.

5. John often sat in the both-hands-behind-head position (Figure 96) and in the leg-over-chair position (Figure 132) whenever a subordinate was in his office.

6. John had a swivel chair with a high back, arm rests and wheels. The visitor’s chair was a plain low-backed chair with fixed legs and no arm rests.

Considering that between 60 and 80 per cent of human communication is done non- verbally, it is obvious that these aspects of John’s non-verbal communication spelt disaster. To rectify the problem the following rearrangements were made.

1. John’s desk was placed in front of the glass partition, making his office appear bigger and allowing him to be visible to those who entered his office.

2. The ‘hot seat’ was placed in the comer position, making communication more open and allowing the corner to act as a partial barrier when necessary.

3. The glass partition was sprayed with a mirror finish, allowing John to see out, but not permitting others to see in. This raised John’s status and created a more intimate atmosphere within his office.

4. A round coffee table with three identical swivel chairs was placed at the other end of the office to allow informal meetings to take place on an equal level.

5. In the original layout (Figure 163), John’s desk gave half the table territory to the visitor and the revised layout (Figure 164) gave John complete claim to the desk top.

6. John practised relaxed open arms and legs gestures combined with frequent palm gestures when speaking with subordinates in his office.

The result was that supervisor/employee relationships improved and the employees began describing John as an easygoing and relaxed supervisor.


Certain objects strategically placed around the office can be subtly used non-verbally to increase the status and power of the occupant. Some examples include:

1. Low sofas for visitors to sit on.

2. A telephone with a lock on it.

3. An expensive ashtray placed out of the reach of the visitor, causing him inconvenience when ashing his cigarette.

4. A cigarette container from overseas.

5. Some red folders left on the desk marked ‘Strictly Confidential’.

6. A wall covered with photos, awards or qualifications that the occupant has received.

7. A slim briefcase with a combination lock. Large, bulky briefcases are carried by those who do all the work.

All that is needed to raise your status, increase your power and effectiveness with others is a little thought given to non-verbal gymnastics in your office or home. Un- fortunately, most executive offices are arranged like the one in Figure 163; rarely is consideration given to the negative non-verbal signals that are unwittingly communicated to others.

We suggest that you study your own office layout and use the preceding information to make the positive changes needed.

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