In an interview with CBS's John Dickerson to mark his first 100 days, President Trump proudly showed off the changes he'd made to his new digs. Chatting inside the Oval Office, Trump told Dickerson about how he decided to keep 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 "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 opps with visitors -- and his belief that it's a great negotiating lever.
"I feel very warm toward the Oval Office. It's a great symbol," he told Dickerson earlier in the interview, noting that he does much of his work there. When he's negotiating, such as on a fighter jet contract, Trump said, "calling from here and meeting here and having meetings on that contract, I think gives you great additional power, if you want to know the truth."
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, feel less relaxed in conversations and even have an effect on his own behavior, too. Meanwhile, negotiation experts suggest 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, Austin) and James Detert (University of Virginia) argued last year that leaders often display subtle cues in their office -- what social psychologist Richard Hackman called "ambient stimuli" -- that "can cause employees to clam up," they wrote. When leaders are sitting behind a big oak desk, while an employee sits in a smaller chair, they wrote, "you're inadvertently telling him to watch his step around you." Sitting together on a sofa together, meanwhile, puts both people on a more level playing field.
Such nonverbal power cues, the two wrote in another HBR article, are a "looming presence" that are at odds with the hope of getting honest, unfiltered feedback. "After about 15 years of studying why people do or don’t speak up to those in charge, we’ve seen, in case after case, that leaders send 'I’m the boss' signals without realizing it – and those signals prevent others from coming to them with new ideas," they argued. To get around that, Burris said in an email, executives like Pixar Animation Studios president Ed Catmull have done things like replace a long, skinny boardroom table where the senior-most executives sat together at the middle with a square one where everyone was on more equal footing.
Other studies suggest other downsides to having interactions at a big desk. Research on medical doctors has shown that the presence of a desk between them and their patients when delivering news makes the patient feel less relaxed. According to one academic textbook on negotiation strategies, "it often creates increased levels of tension in negotiations that could be detrimental in cases where an integrative climate is important to the parties."
Sitting behind a powerful desk can have an impact on the person who uses it, too. Wharton professor Adam Grant points to a 2001 paper describing experiments in which college students were asked to complete tasks while sitting either at an elevated seat behind a professor's desk or in a simpler chair in front of it.
Their response to the powerful seat, interestingly, depended on whether they were a person naturally inclined to think of power as something that lets them help others -- or something that helps them with their own self-interest. (In Grant's lingo, they're called either "givers" or "takers.") In the study, sitting in the powerful seat accentuated the participants' existing views on power. They became more generous if they were a giving-minded person -- but even more selfish if they were already inclined to be self-interested.
Meanwhile, negotiations experts say that sitting across a table or desk from an opponent doesn't usually send a signal of 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 a hierarchical or adversarial approach," says Guhan Subramanian, a professor at Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School.
He says he always instructs students to think about managing the physical space of the place where they're negotiating, and that seating arrangements should depend on the outcome people want. "Sitting on the couch signals a more collaborative, joint problem solving approach," he said, noting that some law firms have even banned rectangular tables from conference rooms and replaced them with round ones to send the signal to clients that they are working with them.
For a president who still seems in awe of where he's ended up -- "I’m president! Hey, I’m president! Can you believe it, right?" he said in the Rose Garden Thursday -- a fascination with the most powerful office space on earth isn't surprising. And it may be in character that Trump, who has said "I alone can fix it" and loves to presents himself as a hard-nosed negotiator, would like projecting a hierarchical, authoritative image in the place where he works.
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. Says Burris: "By sitting behind a big desk, it creates a psychological distance that can create a more difficult environment to speak truth to power."