The case against this power play by Trump.
Why he shouldn’t lord over guests from behind his big desk
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.”