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What Does Your Office Say About You As a Leader?

Your office says a lot about your leadership style. As tempting as it is to take the corner office with the great view, it may exact a steep toll in a time of crisis. Here are 5 reasons to sit in the trenches.
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When we took over the entire floor of a building, I chose an office tucked into a corner, which allowed me to hide, unseen by my staff. Taking a partially hidden, somewhat removed office was an intentional tactic to empower our new general manager, to whom I gave the largest, most public office. I wanted our general manager to be viewed by our employees as the leader and the first port of call for staff who needed guidance.

Soon after my general manager was hired, we both realized it was a bad fit. I knew it wouldn't last and so did my employees, some of whom started to leave; within the space of six months we had four people quit. As my general manager and I continued to butt heads, the office became a divided battle zone with some employees lining up behind my general manager and others behind me.

Finally I parted ways with my general manager but the damage was done. Morale was low, clients were complaining, and some were leaving.

As my company teetered on the brink, I decided to ditch my corner office and move into a small, very public office in the middle of our floor plan. It was an instinctive decision born out of the need to get closer to the problems in my business.

Once in the thick of things, I started to understand my employees better. I learned what got them excited, what made them angry, and what their fears were. Collectively we managed to turn the company around and I came to love sitting side-by-side with my team. Here are five reasons to take the middle seat in your company’s office:

1. The lunch pack

When you sit in the middle of your office, you can see who goes to lunch together. People can put on a fake smile when they walk by the corner office, but watching from the trenches who goes out to lunch together is a sure-fire way to know where the cliques and loyalties lie among your staff. You may want to foster some positive cliques who throw off good energy; others you’ll want to break up so they don’t become a vortex of negativity sucking in those around them.

2. Grit is contagious

When things are good, your employees will want some space and autonomy to prove they can do it on their own. But when things go pear-shaped, your employees need to see you working just as hard as them to turn things around. By taking a seat in the middle of the office, they’ll see just how focused you are and your determination will rub off on them.

3. Stem the gossip

When you sit in the corner office, you're the last to know the rumors–which is probably fine in good times, but when your company is falling apart around you, the scuttlebutt on who is planning to leave and who is mad at who is vital information. 

4. The 9:15 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. employee

There is nothing that kills a team's morale faster than a slacker who continues to get away with coasting. When things are broken, and your company is in crisis mode, you want to know when people come in and when they go home. If someone comes in after nine and leaves before five, knowing they have to walk by your office, they’re either oblivious to the crisis or ignoring it–either way, you want to know so you can deal with it quickly for the sake of the rest of your team.

5. They can see you

Not only is sitting in the middle good for cultivating a feel for your culture; it also helps your staff see how you’re reacting to a crisis. Are you walking out at 4 p.m. to get nine holes in or staying past six? Are you checking your Facebook stream or calling prospects? Are you looking despondent or focused?

I once heard that the definition of leadership is to put others' needs ahead of your own. When you're leading through a crisis, as tempting as it is to hide in a plush corner office, there is no better place to sit than right in the middle of the mess.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Nov 3, 2011

JOHN WARRILLOW | Columnist | Sellability

John Warrillow is the author of Built to Sell: Creating A Business That Can Thrive Without You and the founder of The Sellability Score, a cloud-based software company that helps business owners improve the value of their company.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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