As far as I can discern, the phrases “above the line” and “below the line” were first coined at Procter & Gamble in 1954 when accountants and marketers tried to make sense of the return on investment (ROI) of all their different advertising efforts. They needed terminology to help them decipher what the purpose and targets of their efforts were.
Since then, countless consultants and teams have utilized the phrases in a number of different ways to help people identify behaviors that either fit with what they are trying to accomplish or fall short of their desired culture.
Above-the-line actions are aligned with the culture companies and organizations are trying to build. They are actions where individuals take ownership for their role in having a positive impact on the outcome. They are actions that seek solutions and create change. They are actions that communicate that each person recognizes they are accountable to one another and the team as a whole. Above-the-line actions are the best of a group’s core values being lived out. The core values posters on the wall are being displayed within the people.
Below-the-line actions are the behaviors and mindsets that suffocate others and are not aligned with the temperature the team is trying to set. They focus on blaming, complaining, and eluding any sense of accountability or ownership in the overall outcome. Below-the-line behaviors often show up as individual pursuits outweighing the mission of the team.
In any group of people aiming to design their new culture or shape their existing one, the needle on results truly begins to move when ideas and thoughts are put into action. But the people within your ecosystem must be able to identify the actions that will contribute to building the culture they want as well as the actions that will get in the way. Every culture is dynamic and evolving moment by moment based on the actions that are put into motion. Culture change initiatives require buy-in, focus and energy.
As Roger Connors and Tom Smith put it in their great book Change the Culture, Change the Game, “Below the Line people spend time covering their tails, just in case the culture change effort gets derailed and they need to explain away their involvement and try to justify the lack of progress. Still, in our estimation, the greatest Below the Line threat to the progress of any culture change is a ‘wait and see’ attitude. In this state of mind, people simply wait and see if anything at all is going to happen, pretending they are enrolled in the change process, when all along they do nothing meaningful to move it forward.”
Engaged and compelling cultures are filled with people who are enrolled in meaningful work to move things forward. They buy in to the future they are trying to create. They understand they must be a part of the future they wish to see. They understand that they too must put actions into motion. They must set the temperature for those around them.
Jason V. Barger is a globally celebrated keynote speaker, leadership coach and author of Thermostat Cultures, Step Back from the Baggage Claim and ReMember. He is founder of Step Back Leadership Consulting, a Columbus-based company that works with businesses and organizations worldwide. Connect via email at jason@JasonVBarger.com or on social media at @JasonVBarger.
P.S. If you liked this blog post, you may also like these!: