The case against this power play by Trump.

Why he shouldn’t lord over guests from be­hind his big desk

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - ON LEAD­ER­SHIP BY JENA MCGRE­GOR jena.mcgre­gor@wash­

In an in­ter­view with CBS’s John Dick­er­son to mark his first 100 days, President Trump showed off changes he’d made to his new digs. Chat­ting in the Oval Of­fice, Trump said he’d kept sev­eral “beau­ti­ful” armed forces flags in the room. He put up a por­trait of An­drew Jack­son “be­cause they said his cam­paign and my cam­paign tended to mir­ror each other.”

And he said he added some new fur­ni­ture: Chairs across from the Res­o­lute desk — the seat of power for pres­i­dents in­clud­ing John F. Kennedy and Ron­ald Rea­gan — where he asks his vis­i­tors to sit. “I changed the — the way it works,” Trump said, mo­tion­ing to­ward chairs right in front of the fa­mous desk. “I’ll have peo­ple sit­ting here. Used to be they never had chairs that any­body can re­mem­ber in front of the desk. But I’ve al­ways done it this way, where I’m at the desk and I have peo­ple here.”

Trump goes on to say that “usu­ally, they would sit on the so­fas. But this is the Res­o­lute desk. This is a great desk with a phe­nom­e­nal his­tory. Many great pres­i­dents were be­hind this desk.”

The re­marks re­in­force Trump’s fas­ci­na­tion with the power his new of­fice ex­udes — he is of­ten seated at the desk in photo ops with vis­i­tors — and his be­lief that it’s a great ne­go­ti­at­ing lever.

But Trump seems less fo­cused on the po­ten­tial down­sides that the aura and sym­bol­ism a pow­er­ful of­fice and a big desk can have and its po­ten­tial to make his staffers less will­ing to speak up or feel less re­laxed in con­ver­sa­tions.

Mean­while, ne­go­ti­a­tion ex­perts sug­gest that sit­ting across a desk or table from others con­veys an op­po­si­tional ap­proach — ben­e­fi­cial in cer­tain ne­go­ti­a­tions de­signed to show who’s boss but less so when try­ing to com­pro­mise or work with peo­ple to come up with so­lu­tions to com­plex prob­lems.

Writ­ing in the Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view, Ethan Bur­ris (Univer­sity of Texas at Austin) and James Detert (Univer­sity of Vir­ginia) ar­gued last year that lead­ers of­ten dis­play sub­tle cues in their of­fice that “can cause em­ploy­ees to clam up,” they wrote.

When a leader sits be­hind a big desk, while an em­ployee sits in a small chair, they wrote, “you’re in­ad­ver­tently telling him to watch his step around you.” Sit­ting on a sofa to­gether puts both on a more level play­ing field.

Mean­while, ne­go­ti­a­tion ex­perts say that sit­ting across a table or desk from an op­po­nent doesn’t usu­ally sig­nal co­op­er­a­tion. “It’s fair to say that if you de­lib­er­ately have peo­ple sit­ting across the table from you, you’re con­vey­ing less of a col­lab­o­ra­tive ap­proach and more of an ad­ver­sar­ial ap­proach,” said Guhan Subra­ma­nian, a Har­vard Busi­ness School pro­fes­sor.

For a president who still seems in awe of where he has ended up — “Hey, I’m president! Can you be­lieve it, right?” he said in the Rose Gar­den — a fas­ci­na­tion with the most pow­er­ful of­fice space on Earth isn’t sur­pris­ing.

But while that may help when fac­ing off with a for­eign power, it can hurt when it comes to work­ing with his own team or find­ing room for com­pro­mise from Congress. Said Bur­ris: “By sit­ting be­hind a big desk, it cre­ates a psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tance that can cre­ate a more dif­fi­cult en­vi­ron­ment to speak truth to power.”

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