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What Happens When You Sit Next to the Boss


The old saying goes, you’re only truly yourself when you’re alone. That’s because it’s human nature to change the way we behave, even just slightly, depending on who we’re with. This is just as true in the workplace as it is in our personal lives.


(Photo Credit: grahamhills/Flickr)

New research from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, in partnership with Cambridge University, examined the way office seating arrangements impact the behavior of managers. Researchers engaged in five different studies, collecting data from business students and a large variety of workplace populations. Let’s take a look at the findings.

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1. Distance isn’t as negative as we thought.

The conventional wisdom is that seating workers, and managers, far away from the boss is a bad thing. The idea is that this distance opens up opportunities for unethical (or even illegal) behavior. Maybe without someone looking over shoulders, folks might feel they can get away with something.

This study challenges that belief. Distance between bosses and managers can be a good thing, if the boss himself is unethical. Finding a right balance in regards to distance might be the smartest option.

2. Distance can help middle managers break the chain of unethical guidance.

The bottom line of the researchers’ findings is that managers maintaining some distance, both socially and physically, from a misbehaving or unethical boss can stop them from carrying on the cycle of poor guidance.

“We demonstrate that higher level management unfairness can have detrimental effects throughout the organization,” said Dr Gijs van Houwelinger who prepared the study. “and it is passed down from high management to middle management, but only if the spatial and social distance is low.”

3. Beware the manager who only identifies with an unethical boss.

Keeping some distance between a manager and a misbehaving boss makes a difference. The research indicated that the closer managers feel to their boss, the more they mimic their behavior. Therefore, a manager who identifies only with the boss, spending time together almost exclusively, might not be guided by her own moral compass, but by the boss’s instead.

For more information, check out this four-minute video which explains the research findings on the RSM Discovery platform:

Tell Us What You Think

What have you noticed about how distance impacts behavior? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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I found that managers sitting next to their group disrupt the evolution of the team work, especially if they are only focused on their daily tasks and do not spend time on socializing with their team. I think people are more enthusiastic about their work when actually boss is not around.


I absolutely love this article: no longer are our managers, directors LEADING us, but if we dare to mimic them or spend too much time with them, they might MISLEAD us. It was not so very long ago when our bosses were LEADERS that could drive an organization to great heights by their very presence and involvement with the rank-and-file. Sad that the takeaway is that Managers and above are more than likely detrimental to our ethical health. Thank you!


When the Boss is constantly looking over your shoulder, people either leave or fill their day with routines that keep them busy, but destroys their motivation for innovation.
Hard Work pays off, but Smart Work not so much.


Management visibility goes a long way. Doesn’t have to be, nor should it be “helicopter” style as workers like to have the freedom to do their job creatively. Just be visible, available, and responsive. However, when the manager is regularly not around to observe operations and/or be available to resolve challenges, the workers that don’t have initiative DO tend to take advantage of the situation by texting, surfing the internet, etc. Those workers that do take pride in seeing that… Read more »

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