The hidden symbolism in how tech leaders were seated in their meeting with Trump

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Skye Gould/Business Insider

Earlier Wednesday, President-elect Donald Trump met with a who’s who of tech-industry leaders in a summit at New York City’s Trump Tower to discuss how they could work together during his presidency.

A lot of these leaders had spoken out against Trump or some of his statements during the presidential campaign, and so much was made about the seating arrangement at the event. Was there some kind of rhyme or reason as to who got to sit where? Does it even matter?

Turns out, the seating arrangements at high-powered meetings like this one can make a huge difference, according to Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School and coauthor of “Friend & Foe,” a book on collaboration and competition in the workplace.

“Where people sit has both physical and symbolic effects,” Galinsky tells Business Insider.

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Skye Gould/BI Graphics

As for Trump’s tech summit specifically, Galinsky said two things stood out to him about the seating arrangement:

Trump sat in the middle of the table. This is standard practice for the leader in cabinet meetings, unlike business meetings in which the person calling the meeting sits at the head.

“This makes it hard for people on his side of the table to see him but it increases the symbolic connection these people have with Trump,” Galinsky said. In other words, physically sitting on his side of the table increases the perception that you’re on his side politically, too.

This arrangement also means that most of the photos taken of Trump at the event will also include some of tech’s biggest and most recognizable leaders, like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

The inclusion of Sandberg and Oracle co-CEO Safra Catz on that side of the table may be especially significant, Galinsky speculates, because it “might have been designed to ensure that a female would appear in the photos.”

People from the same company were seated separately. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, was represented at this meeting by Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, while CEO Satya Nadella and chief legal officer Brad Smith were there on behalf of Microsoft.

In both cases, however, Trump’s team separated the colleagues – Smith and Nadella, notably, are seated at opposite corners of the table. Galinsky said there were a few reasons to seat people across the table from each other like this. “Seating arrangements can also be strategic in helping create connections or reduce communication,” he said. “Think wedding seating arrangements!”

There’s another possibility, too, Galinsky said: “Here it could be entirely symbolic as a way for Trump to assert his authority.”