Cutting Workplace Strife Means Seeing Eye-to-Eye

August 20, 2010 ( – If you want to get the right credit for your contributions to work teams at the office, sit where others can see you.

In fact, a new academic study about minimizing work team conflict suggests it might be as simple as using circular tables or, at least, a room with an open floor plan to allow employees to eyeball each other in action.

The research from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University contends that where individuals sit in a group can impact how much they think they contributed to the group’s output. Since workplace tension often surrounds disagreements over how much each person contributed to the group effort, researchers Brian C. Gunia and Brice Corgnet contend, different seating plans can improve a group’s overall functioning.

According to a university news release about the study, three-person groups seated in rows were asked to complete a numbers task requiring them to identify as many numbers as possible that met complex, predetermined conditions – using a shared instruction sheet and answer sheet to encourage collaboration. The participants were then isolated and asked to fill out a questionnaire about their relative contribution to the group, as well as the contributions of the other group members- all in percentage terms.

The outcome: the person seated in the middle routinely took about one-third of the credit for the task – his or her “fair share” of credit on average – while the other two participants took substantially more credit (about 45%).

The news release said members sitting on the outside of the rows  undervalued contributions made by the other outside members, believing that the person contributed less than one-third, but they appropriately valued the contributions of the middle member. At the same time, researchers say, middle-seated members appropriately valued the contributions of both outside members.

“These last findings are consistent with the visual access members had to the people in the other seats,” Gunia said in the news release. “People consistently appreciated their ‘neighbor’ and underappreciated those far away.”