Living Above the Line
There’s this Post-It I’ve held onto, for over a decade, that I got from a gentleman named Marshall Thurber at a seminar back when he ran the Positive Deviant Network. He talked about “dealing above the line” which is about working and living with responsibility and accountability. This concept originates from Dr. Edwards Deming, who found that innovative change requires an entire workforce to operate from a place of responsibility.
This has been a critical, continual lesson for my personal and professional growth that I’ve kept taped to my closet door until it finally fell apart. Below is the new version that I’ll be using.
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.
When you focus on the faults of others, it is impossible to review the systems they operate within. Nor does it encourage you to help others improve. It also means you probably have a pretty toxic culture. People can only perform as well as the system allows, which Deming explains in The System of Profound Knowledge® (SoPK).
If you’re wondering what “below the line” behavior looks like, here are a few examples.
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.”
How to Identify Justification: Explaining why bad behavior is okay, providing data to support an excuse, clear logic behind why a thing is or is not possible, defensive.
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.”
How to Identify Shame: People share their shortcomings, blaming or laying guilt on themselves or others, imply a gap in proficiency between themselves and others, telling others they are bad.
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.”
How to Identify Blame: References to circumstance, pointing fingers at someone or something else, never speaks about themselves when something goes wrong.
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.
When you’re responsible, you tell the truth. You’re honest about what’s happened, take ownership, and look to improve in the future. This mindset encourages change and progress. Ultimately this is how Dr. Deming created quality systems that are used the world over.
In the same vein as before, here are some examples of “above the line” statements that you can look for.
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.”
How to Identify Responsibility: Acceptance statements, focused on the future, fixing or changing language, inclusive.
Why Responsibility Improves Performance & Creates the Space for Innovation
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
The “Below the Line” Game (aka The $2 Rule)
A while back, Marshall Thurber went to a fortune 500 company and implemented the $2 Rule based on Deming’s teachings. If anyone said anything “below the line”, they had to contribute $2 to one of the many jars across the campus. Everyone participated, both in terms of submitting the cash as well as asking their co-workers, “Hey, is that 2 bucks?”.
After 90 days they counted the total value of the $2 Rule contributions, and they had collected over a quarter of a million dollars. The charity was well funded, their productivity skyrocketed, and everyone got a raise. Not too shabby, eh?
You can see Marshall talking about the $2 Rule from a seminar back in 2006.
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!
While I would love to bring this tool to work and implement it organizationally, even just using it as a personal tool supports my goals and makes an impact on my relationships. I’m aware that I’m not always “above the line”, but I think about it every day. I also have a jar at work, with a few dollars in it, holding me accountable.