No less than once a week I’ll get a call, or question online, that goes a little like “I have a problem with a staff member, they are getting their job done but they aren’t being a great team member, I can’t quite put my finger on it but every time I raise an issue with them they have an excuse, there is always some reason things haven’t gone to plan”. Does this sound familiar to you? Have you had someone like this on your team before?
Sure enough, after a few questions my typical conclusion is – you have someone who is below the line. What line? Great question!
I first became aware of this framework probably about 10-15 years ago, I’d heard about it conceptually but when I really noticed this as a powerful framework for teams when I worked with a business who really embraced the concept so much that their team used the language in their day to day operations – this is when I really started to pay attention to this concept.
Who conceptualised this idea seems uncertain, despite research there seems to be no clear answer. Carolyn Taylor certainly discussed this in her book ‘Walking the Talk’ but she herself credits Robert Kiyosaki (Rich Dad Poor Dad) with where she first came across the idea.
In a nutshell it’s this simple. Imagine a piece of paper with a line right across the middle. You have an area that is above the line, and an area below the line. Above the line are people who display characteristics like owning their work (and their mistakes), accountability for what they do, and what gets achieved and a sense of responsibility. Below that line we have characterises which employees display like denial, a multitude of excuses (none of which are based at all on them, always external), defensiveness and blaming.
Above the line is where your best, highly engaged and reliable employees like to play. Below the line is where poor performers play, but also, sometimes more frustratingly, it’s also where staff who can perform, but who don’t have a great attitude and are not great team members like to play as well.
When your employees are playing above the line they tend to be open minded and curious, and have a genuine interest and emotional investment in the success of the project, the business, the resolution and the task at hand. They will be solutions focused, and always be willing to accept ownership and responsibility – good or bad. In fact, they will often be quick to recognise others and the contribution they make, ahead of their own contribution or involvement.
On the flip side, below the line players are the exact opposite. They are closed to opportunity, often change resistant and when something goes wrong, they blame, shame and justify something that is external to themselves – put simply nothing is ever their fault.
Above the line cultures are built on trust, below the line cultures have no trust in the team at all.
The goal – get everyone above the line, of course, but it’s not always easy.
Like any change, moving a below the line employee upwards and above the line requires a level of self-awareness and willingness to change. This is not something that everyone innately has, so this may be where you need to start. The sooner you can identify below the line behaviour, and the more clearly you can articulate this to the employee directly, and equip them with the knowledge, skills and resources to make a change, the more effective this shift can be.
One of the most powerful ways I have seen businesses master the above the line culture is by embedding it into the language of the organisation, and empower peers to hold each other accountable, in a positive and respectful way to remain above the line. To do this effectively you must have a culture built on trust, but when done effectively it can be so powerful, because in reality we are less willing to let down our teammates and peers than we are our managers. If someone who we consider ‘like us’ calls us out on something we pay attention and are more likely to want to make change.
As always, the secret is to set clear boundaries with our teams and uphold them, and in this instance that includes clearly communicating what is acceptable, above the line behaviour and performance, and what is not.
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