Living Above the Line

Above the Line on Paper by Vanessa Garber

What’s Below The line?

According to Dr. Deming, operating “below the line” — blame, shame or justification — is a total waste of money, resources, time, and energy. Being “below the line” means you get hung up in the past and focus on what people have done, rather than what they could do given the right process and infrastructure. It blocks you from improving.

Justification — Excuses

  • “I’m working from home today because the rest of the team works from home more than I do.”
  • “I bought another pair of shoes even though I know I shouldn’t because I need something blue for a wedding this weekend.”
  • “I know I raised my voice, but she deserved it.”
  • “Do you have a copy of my resume? My printer broke this morning on the way to this interview.”

Shame — Inadequate & Undeserving

  • “I don’t have the qualifications for this job, or any of the jobs I want. I’m never going to have them either, and I should just settle for something else.”
  • “Of course the client quit after I submitted my presentation, I’m terrible at this.”
  • “I don’t deserve her, she is better than me.”
  • “I never should have hired you, I knew and against my better judgement I let you have a chance. Boy was I wrong.”

Blame — Victim Mentality & Fault of the Other

  • “If my manager cared more about me, I would have gotten a raise and a new title by now.”
  • “I didn’t get this user story done in this sprint because the acceptance criteria weren’t clear.”
  • “If I never married you I would have been happy.”
  • “My dog ate my homework.”

So, What does Responsibility look like?

Being responsible, at the most basic level, is about being the cause of something. You take an action and there is a response. This true for all things that you do — work, chores, relationships, etc.

Responsible — Authentic Ownership

  • “Turns out we didn’t get the contract. We should regroup to see how we can improve next time.”
  • “I apologize, I should have been at the meeting on time.”
  • “I feel like this isn’t working. Maybe we should try something else?”
  • “I’m here to ask for a raise and I want you to know that I’m ready to take on more responsibility.”

Why Responsibility Improves Performance & Creates the Space for Innovation

  1. Think to the Future, Not of the Past
    If you’re interested in innovation, spending loads of time talking about what has happened does very little to push you towards what could be. If you stop dwelling on the past, you can start working towards what’s next. Innovation requires forward thinking minds.
  2. Increase Collaboration & Trust
    Once you’ve omitted “below the line” conversations at work, teams have a chance to trust one another. They don’t have to fear feeling insecure, embarrassed, or ashamed. There has been loads of research lately pointing to the correlation between psychological safety and high performing teams, so it stands to reason that teams work better together when they do so responsibly.
  3. Allows a Team to Try New Things
    People are almost always unwilling to try something new if they fear being blamed or shamed for making mistakes. Innovation doesn’t happen when you follow the “tried and true” methods. Historians don’t make history. If you want to innovate, you have to try and fail and try again.

Yea, Sounds Nice, but Does it Really Make a Financial Difference?

Okay, so maybe you think this sounds good but don’t see where it makes cents on the dollar. Or you don’t see how it could improve your company culture, or your home life, or your relationships with friends. I use this as a mindfulness tool, but this system has made large financial impacts. Check out what Marshall did.

Moving The Conversation Over the Line

If you’re interested in thinking more about keeping conversations “above the line”, there are a couple of simple ways to get started:

  • Make your own Post-It: At your desk or at home, make yourself a reminder. Put it somewhere you will see at least once a day. I prefer physical to digital reminders, but do what works best for you.
  • Catch Yourself — Don’t Blame / Shame / Justify Yourself: Make sure that when you’re being mindful of speaking and thinking “above the line” that you don’t end up punishing yourself if (and inevitably when) you mess up. It’s also important not to use this tool to justify behaviors, or shame others if they don’t want to participate or understand what you’re doing. Self awareness is the most important part of this process.
  • Ask Management, Family, or Friends if They Will Play the $2 Game: You may work for a company that is interested in playing this game or live in a household where it will work. See if you have support, and try it out. Buy some jars to get started. You can make the fee $2 or ¢10, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s a meaningful amount for the group. Also, choose a charity and give yourself a timeline to run the experiment. If you are interested in really shifting behavior, try the 90 day version!



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Vanessa Garber

Vanessa Garber


Geek, Philosophy Nerd, Hiker, Women in Product Chapter Lead and Product Innovation Leader on Sabbatical