Roger was a senior manager in an advertising agency.  He had a large team working for him – designers, graphic artists, copy writers as well as support people.  His team were talented and creative and often won prestigious awards for their work.

Roger was a Jekyll-and-Hyde character.  With outside clients, the media,  anyone more senior and with certain favourites in his team, he was charming.  He was highly articulate, with a deep voice, a quick sense of humour and an engaging smile.  He was a large man, with photogenic facial features underneath a high forehead and a big bald head.  When he was setting out to please, it was impossible to imagine that he could ever be anything other than delightful and charming.  But in different circumstances a sinister Mr Hyde would appear.

If you weren’t one of his favourites you ran the risk of being picked upon and victimised.  This would take many forms.  For example, Roger would select a piece of creative work, seemingly at random, and demolish it with criticism.  He would threaten the unfortunate author with instant demotion unless they produced something better.  Another of his ploys was to pick on a victim, give them a project to tackle and then browbeat them. Often this entailed phoning them at home at unreasonable times (usually early in the morning since Roger was an early riser) to demand an update.  This would happen regardless of the agreed deadline for the project’s completion.

However, by far the most trying aspect of Roger’s darker side was the way he would pick on people during the regular team meetings he chaired.  Hardly a week passed without someone in the team being singled out for special attention.  It would start with a seemingly innocuous question about the progress of a given piece of work. Roger would find the answer inadequate and this would lead to another question, then another.  The process would rapidly spiral into a full-scale public grilling and culminate in dire threats from Roger that things had better improve or else.  Any defiance on the part of the victim merely prolonged the attack.

Over coffee one day, a number of the team were grumbling together about Roger’s tyrannical behaviour.  One of the newer members of the team, a young woman who had suffered a number of verbal assaults, said she thought she might have made an interesting discovery.  She had noticed that when she sat opposite Roger at meetings, she was far more likely to be picked upon than if she sat alongside him.  This observation led to an impromptu review of the correlation between seating positions in recent meetings and Roger’s attacks.  They decided it was a hypothesis worth testing.

The plan was for the people most often victimised by Roger to sit on his side of the table and for his favourites to sit opposite him. It was agreed to try this for an experimental four-week period and then to look at any trends that might have emerged.

To their surprise, it worked!  Over the course of four meetings, members of the team tucked away in Roger’s peripheral vision, never got picked on.  Admittedly, some of his favourites, sitting opposite him as planned, did get picked on – but it was relatively mild, half-hearted stuff.  Roger definitely soft-pedalled with his favourites. Armed with this insight, the team agreed a seating plan to ensure that Roger’s favourites always took the chairs on the opposite side of the table.  Fortunately, this was easy to accomplish since Roger never varied his seating position – dead centre on one side of a rectangular table.

One day the agency’s personnel manager joined the meeting to brief Roger and his team on plans to refurbish their floor of the building.  In passing, he suggested they might prefer a round table in the proposed new meeting room.  To his surprise, this met with fierce resistance.  For reasons he couldn’t fathom, everyone seemed immoderately attached to the long rectangular table!

 

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