Case Study: Why Use the ‘Above the Line, Below the Line’ Leadership Tool?

By People Leaders | Leadership

One of our most popular downloadable leadership tools, Above the Line, Below the Line, is a must in any manager’s or organisation’s toolkit. The accountability framework can be used by teams and organisations to foster clear and cohesive ways of working. 

The premise of the tool is that there are ‘above the line’ ways of operating, which are usually constructive, responsive and adopt a growth mindset. And then there are ‘below the line’ ways of thinking and behaving that usually result in a lack of accountability or responsibility. 

We’ve introduced this framework to many teams and organisations over the years. Here’s how to introduce this simple, yet powerful system to transform your team or organisation to thinking and behaving ‘above-the-line’ based on our work with teams so far.

Identifying ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’ thinking

Whether your team is already high performing or is under performing in certain areas, there are always opportunities for improvement, starting with understanding your behaviours. That’s where the Above the Line, Below the Line framework comes in. It gives you a chance to look at the types of behaviours or commitments the team could make and start experimenting. 

So, how do you introduce it to your team? 

The best way to get everybody on board is to split the team up into small groups and ask them to discuss what ‘above the line’ behaviour and language looks like in certain situations. 

Michelle’s most recent work with a team that was using the framework looked at behaviour and language in relation to meetings and when sending emails. It very quickly became clear that there were some norms within the group that weren’t particularly healthy. 

Interestingly, the performance of the team was great; they received very good feedback but it was at a cost. People were working harder and therefore became more siloed. It was also clear there was an air of command and control because the workload was so high. Leadership wasn’t direct and the team was left to solve problems on their own. These sorts of negative behaviours were creeping in. 

When you've got that hierarchy where senior leaders get paid more and have more freedom, they tend to be more engaged in the process and expect everyone else to be just as engaged. But as a senior leader, you have to manage your expectations of people in your team. 

Creating new norms

After unpacking what it means to think ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’, it’s a good idea to ask your team to use the framework as a self-reflection tool. This is why introducing this tool to use at the beginning of a meeting is a great way of keeping your team’s behaviour in check. That way, you can create new behavioural norms within the team, but you first need to identify what needs to change. 

For example, does your team spend a lot of time in meetings or presenting? Could your team work on better communication or more respect? Identify a couple of issues within your team and use them to outline above and below the line thinking and behaviours. 

In the case of the team Michelle has been working with, respect was a big thing, so they created an ‘above-the-line, below-the-line’ framework specifically related to this. 

They looked at what respecting yourself looks like, what showing respect to others looks like, and they highlighted positive and negative behaviours. This included identifying some of the phrases they’ve heard people use that show disrespect, and other more positive phrases used when things go well. 

They also identified issues with psychological safety (wellbeing), which is a common theme among teams that often drops by the wayside. 

But how do you successfully bake above-the-line thinking into the system? Perhaps the easiest and most impactful way is by making it a habit to reflect on the framework at the beginning and end of meetings. And when it comes to ensuring psychological safety and wellbeing, you could make it a habit to discuss it in your one-to-one meetings.

Research shows that any training in psychological safety does not work unless processes and systems support it. So, by having check-ins, and making sure to be inclusive in meetings, it  ensures each member of your team has the opportunity to share insights, while using the framework at the beginning and end of meetings reminds everyone to think about their actions and language and gives them feedback to work from to improve for next time. 

Nurturing your relationships

Aside from making it a habit to reflect on at the beginning and end of meetings, it’s all about focussing on your relationships. 

So often we think that our work in teams is about getting a particular task done or delivering a project, but what people tend to forget is that it can’t be done alone. We need people, we need a team. That's why this team development aspect, the people and the relationship side of things, is as important as the task. 

We see many people focus solely on the task and forget about the people and relationships. When that happens, it shows and it doesn’t work over time unless you’re extremely lucky. You need to invest time, energy, effort, and resources into the team development side of things.

You must remember that as a leader, you are a role model. You lead that leadership shadow wherever you go, so it is incumbent for you to create an environment of psychological safety and to nurture your relationships. 

So, how can you do that? By being open and vulnerable with your team. For example, admitting a mistake in front of them. Be real and let your team know you are also facing challenges, tough days and setbacks. Schedule it in and chat to them about it fortnightly or once a month. 

It’s just as important to focus on feedback, too. Being aware of and creating behaviours around that will take you far. 

But what does ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’ look like for giving and receiving feedback? 

Below-the-line behaviour might be giving somebody unsolicited feedback, while above-the-line behaviour is actually asking for feedback. That's a whole cultural change for all teams and organisations – shifting to this notion of asking for feedback instead of waiting for it, or expecting your manager or colleague to give it to you. High-achievers ask for specific feedback. Remember, the more specific you are when asking for feedback, the better the quality of feedback you’ll receive.

It’s for these reasons and more that we introduce the Above the Line Below the Line tool and have seen so many project teams use it as their number one tool for nurturing their relationships. Because when you get the relationship right at the beginning of the project, you know how to ask for feedback, how to set it up, and the strengths and weaknesses of people. It sets you up for success. 

Holding people accountable 

Using this framework gives you a solid plan to work from. But sticking to the plan and making sure it continues to work for you is key. It's easy to look at what's working and what's not working, but how do you use it to hold people accountable for their behaviours? It all comes back to asking for feedback. 

The feedback received from Michelle’s team was that the decision-making process wasn’t fair. Senior leaders would make a decision without consulting with the team first. This was identified as ‘below-the-line’ behaviour. 

To improve, Michelle asked the team to introduce a system where anyone who had to make a decision would put it on the table for everyone to agree to it. It gave people the opportunity to ask questions about the particular issue or problem, and therefore promoted inclusivity. And by asking questions, it holds people accountable. 

Since doing this, the quality of decisions and acceptance of decisions has greatly improved for the team. You could make a logical decision but if you don’t have the rest of the team on board, it won’t make the difference you need it to. It should all be part of a process. 

This particular solution to a problem within the team also builds the skills of asking questions. It also gives everyone in the team the chance to understand how people think. This is especially good when it comes to understanding the more introverted members of your team. 

The power of simplicity 

One thing that’s clear about the Above-the-Line, Below-the-Line framework is that it’s not a difficult concept to get. It’s incredibly simple but incredibly powerful, so we encourage every leader to introduce it to their team and organisation. Print it off and put it on the wall in your break room and introduce it at a meeting as a template. Just have a go and reap the benefits. 

If you have a leadership or management question or subject you'd like covered on the podcast, please contact us at info@peopleleaders.com.au