This post is about one of the most impactful behavioural models we've come across in the last 18 years. It’s called ‘above the line and below the line’ where the line represents choice. We can choose to operate either above the line or below it. If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. But in its simplicity, lies its strength.
One of the reasons this tool is so impactful is that it brings values to life in a tangible way. For the teams we’ve worked with, it’s absolutely galvanised the language they operate in and really brought their values to life. We're going to explore the original model here but also how you can adapt it and bring it to life for your own needs.
Imagine a blank piece of paper with a horizontal line drawn through the centre of it. The line signifies a choice between how you thoughtfully respond to a situation or automatically react.
This model is useful for just about anyone and particularly those who operate within a team. (We've even used it in a family context.) The fact that it’s visual is part of its power because when you can see clearly where you’re operating below the line, you can start to have the conversation. The idea is that when you have a group of people operating above the line, you can expect far more effective outcomes.
Above the line thinking is about being open and curious. It’s being able to respond effectively and usefully in any given situation. It’s about starting with an intention and then working out how you can actually bring it into play, e.g.
When your thinking is below the line, you're protecting and defending yourself either passively (not contributing at all), or aggressively (by attacking others). This type of thinking is about trying to avoid responsibility, criticism and loss of control, e.g.
Think about the last time you felt curious about something. Were you enthusiastic enough to take action on it? It might have been as simple as Googling something you were interested in. Above the line feelings are action-oriented, e.g. there’s an energy in enthusiasm, and above the line feelings are connected with that energy.
These feelings are negative and often characterised by disconnection and misalignment with words and behaviours, e.g.
While asking ourselves ‘why’ can be powerful, when we ask someone else ‘why’ it can feel like we’re questioning their judgement. When we have to ask the ‘why’ question, we can make the question sound less judgemental, e.g. instead of asking, ‘Why did you do this as opposed to that?’ say, ‘Tell me more about that decision. What was the thinking behind that?’
These take responsibility, e.g. ‘When you do this I felt this…’ or ‘I’d like to say the impact of this on me was…’
When we say things like, ‘I always come down with a cold in winter,’ or, ‘I can never get a parking space’, we’re using below the line language which is often absolute, black and white and limiting. Notice when you're using absolute language because it's telling you something isn’t sitting right. Remember, your language is the antecedent to your thoughts which is the antecedent to your beliefs about yourself and the world in general. Examples of below the line language include:
Because we believe it’s such a powerful game changer, we’re making this tool as practical and easy for you to use as possible with a template that has all the phrases we've used here as examples.
Simply use it as a reflection tool, marking how you or your team have operated above the line and below the line at the end of each day. Does it balance? Is there more activity above the line or below?
Why not engage your people in a team building activity and discuss how different members exhibit above the line and below the line thinking and behaviours? You could produce and distribute a document to make it tangible and even display it. Then, you can have the conversation about how you’ll make it really real.
The important thing to remember is that unless you continue to use this as a tool, it just becomes something you did once that was an interesting exercise that's now plastered on the wall. That’s below the line behaviour. Operate above the line and use it in a practical way because this is what you want to become ingrained.
You get what you focus on so in your agendas, team meetings and one-on-one conversations, bring in the concept of above and below the line and discuss how you think you're tracking. Ask your people, ‘How many times do you think you've gone below the line this week? Can I support you with that?’
The next level is to ask, ‘What happens if we go below the line and we're getting off track with what we want to do? How do we hold each other to account?’ It’s always worth having the conversation. And even though some teams will be more open to the idea of being called out on below the line behaviour and thinking, the best thing you can do is to give it a go. Practise calling each other out in ways like, ‘Oh, that was a bit below the line Michael.’ Remember, if you want to make anything change, there has to be accountability.
It might be tricky at first to remember what you did, felt and thought, but doing it every day will fix it firmly on your radar. Then you make it physical and tangible by writing it down. Remember, it’s not just about thoughts, words and understanding – we live in a physical world and when you want to change, it’s about action!
We came across this concept through organisational culture expert Carolyn Taylor and her classic book Walking The Talk. In it, she mentions that she was introduced to the idea by her friend Robert Kiyosaki of Rich Dad Poor Dad fame. There’s certainly now a whole lot of material based on this model. In fact, it’s considered so powerful that, as Carolyn says in her book ‘…it appears, always unattributed, in programs run by the largest consulting firms in the world.’