I was talking to a friend recently about above the line and below the line behaviours, how and when they show up in our work and personal lives, and what it looks like.

Operating above the line is open and optimistic. It’s about ownership, accountability and responsibility. Operating below the line is closed and negative. It’s about denial, excuses, defensiveness and blame.

We all can find ourselves defaulting to below the line behaviours. Your power lies within recognising and having awareness of when you drop below it and within your ability to get yourself back above the line as soon as possible.

These behaviours can show up in how we are thinking, feeling, and behaving. Here's a quick rundown of above/below the line stuff in these areas:


Below the line thinking is when you are protecting and defending yourself either passively (not contributing at all), or aggressively (by attacking others). This type of thinking is about avoiding responsibility, criticism, and loss of control. It includes blame, denial, excuses and justification, and thoughts of 'They are wrong, and it's not my fault’.

Above the line thinking is about being open to looking at yourself and being reflective. It's about asking yourself 'how can I accept what's happening without blaming someone else?'. Where can I take ownership and accountability?'. ‘What are my responsibilities here?’. ‘How may I have contributed to this?’.


Below the line feelings are negative and include frustration, suspicion, resentment, fear, tension and being overwhelmed 

Above the line feelings are more optimistic and include compassion, curiosity, enthusiasm and feeling empowered.


Below the line behaviours look like doing nothing, waiting for others, ignoring issues, pointing out faults in others, speaking unkindly and acting passive-aggressively.  Below the line behaviour focuses on the person, not the issue. How you speak is all 'no's’, ‘buts’, ‘shoulds’, and absolute language. Gossiping, sarcasm and being cynical are all below the line. At their worst, below the line behaviours look pretty ugly.

Above the line behaviours include taking positive action, asking why questions, using inclusive language like 'we’, ‘us’ and ‘our' (instead of 'you’, ‘them’, ‘they’). It includes being solution focused and issue focused.

Below the line behaviours are one of the tell-tale signs that a team is in trouble. 

We are all 100% responsible for our thoughts, our feelings, and our behaviours. How you chose to show up, respond, and behave is 100% on you.  No-one can make you behave in a certain way – it’s a choice that you are making, for yourself and the line represents a choice point.   

In my Meaningful Leadership workshops with senior leaders, I use a coin as a visual reminder for them for trying to stay above the line. The coin sits in front of them 'Heads up' (heads being above the line, tails being below it).  I ask them to consider their coin and think "Is what I am about to say operating above the line or below the line?” before they speak and contribute. It's also a great tools for other team members to be able to point out below the line behaviours in a non-confrontational way, especially if they are not used to calling their colleagues out on bad behaviour. They often do this by suggesting that the person might want to 'flip their coin', which starts the conversation about being below the line. It creates an increased self-awareness of that person’s behaviour and builds courage amongst the team to be able to speak up.

Learning: You are 100% responsible for your behaviours. You are choosing how you respond all the time. Choose to be above the line.

Question: When do you notice yourself slipping below the line?  What types of situations? What could  you do about it?

Action:  For the next week, when you go to meetings, put a coin out in front you, heads up, and try stay above the line during the meeting. Be prepared to answer questions from the attendees asking, 'what's up with the coin?'. You never know, it might be a good opportunity to have a conversation about above and below the line behaviours in your workplace.