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Lessons from elevator school

Ro Crosbie is president of Tero International, a premier interpersonal skills and corporate training company.

Do you remember what you learned in elevator school? Interview_man 

Let me refresh your memory. When you are waiting for the elevator to arrive, it is permissible to talk. When the elevator arrives, you board the elevator, push the button for your floor, go to the back of the elevator (corner, if available), look up and silently watch the floor numbers.

Everyone knows that the only time it is permissible to talk on an elevator is when there are only two people or if they love each other a lot.

How do you feel about someone who boards the elevator, faces you, and talks? Uncomfortable! Clearly, they have not been to elevator school.

You’re standing too close to me

We protect a personal distance around us of 18 inches. We don’t allow anyone in that space unless we love them a lot or we’re going to hit them. This space is violated on an elevator, and that’s why we don’t talk. It is also the reason a handshake is an excellent method of greeting someone. It allows us to make a human connection while preserving personal space.

How is this relevant to your leadership?

It is amazing how many leaders set up their meeting rooms oblivious to the personal space requirements of others. Individuals who are crammed into a room are challenged to interact. They may even find it difficult to concentrate on the topic at hand. By simply providing everyone with personal space, you are also providing them with think space that allows them to interact more openly and freely.

Try this with friends

The next time you are in a restaurant, observe how the room is set up. We are provided with about 18 inches of table space for our stuff – plate, flatware, napkin, water glass. In the center of the table is the community space. This is for the community stuff – salt, pepper, bottle of wine. 

Have fun the next time you are out for dinner, and mess with the community stuff. Put the bottle of wine in your personal space and watch the reaction of your dining companions. Or, crowd a member of the dinner party with the community stuff (put the salt and pepper or mashed potatoes in their personal space). This is a great way to carry out your own research in human behavior and discover how sensitive we are to personal space. 

Meeting environment tips

The next time you are leading a meeting, give some thought to room set-up. Ensure everyone has at least 18 inches of personal space on each side of them. 

Where should people be seated? Eye contact is the driver in seating selection. Research reveals that the person you are most likely to argue with in a meeting is the one sitting across the table from you. That is direct eye contact, and it is the harshest form of eye contact.   

The person you are least likely to argue with in is the one sitting next to you. It is difficult to argue with someone in your personal space that you can’t easily get eye contact with. 

The ideal seating for a collaborative discussion is a 90-degree angle. This is a softer form of eye contact. 

Other things that contribute to a challenging meeting environment include:

  • Differences in chair height (the person in the highest chair has the highest eye contact advantage and has greater perceived power).
  • Doors and windows to someone’s back create an unconscious sense of threat.
  • Bright lights in eyes are challenging.
  • Cold or overly warm rooms hinder productivity in meetings.

When you are preparing to lead your next meeting, give some thought to the meeting environment in addition to crafting your meeting agenda.

For more professional development content:Rowena_Outside

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Website: www.tero.com


Well said, Ro. From an architects perspective, we preach this a lot, and strive for these concepts in all of our designs. In a separate discussion, though, there are times when we will intentionally design around the concept to introduce 'collisions' of people to help spark interactions and collaborations. This is being seen more and more with modern office design, although it still remains true to the ideas of comfortable, personal space.

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