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Organizational Culture Has Only Two Flavors

Did you know that organizational culture comes in two flavors: above the line or below the line? In his book Above the Line: How To Create A Company Culture That Engages Employees, Delights Customers And Delivers Results, Corporate Anthropologist Michael Henderson explains the difference between the two.

An above the line culture is one that creates a positive and inspiring work environment. A below the line culture is an ineffective, toxic, or even dead culture. In my role as a leadership consultant, I am watching organizations consistently engage in below the line behavior. With the growing leadership skills gap, this topic becomes more important each day (see my last blog on ineffective leadership).

The key to improving profits is not continually asking executives, managers, and employees to do more with less. It is about designing a culture where people engage in above the line behavior. Henderson observed that culture has more influence on an organization’s performance than strategy; and business strategy without an aligned culture is powerless.

Henderson wrote that

High staff turnover, lack of collaboration, increased absenteeism and poor quality output are just some of the symptoms of a culture rejecting an organisation’s business strategy or leadership. In an increasingly competitive business environment, business leaders need to understand that their organisation’s culture is a key component of success.

Here are the significant aspects of an above the line culture: Giving, Fast (speed at which it can function), Sense of humor, Belonging, Attention turned out (confident in self and others so can allocate attention to the world around them), Mature, Adaptive, Thought leading (organization is willing to support the development of their staff to become thought leaders), Willing (has many expressions – one such is not blaming circumstances or others for their challenges), Optimistic, Strong employee value proposition.

Here are the significant aspects of a below the line culture: Misaligned to strategy, Fearful, Angry, Taking (like taking credit for something you should not), Draining (tiring, exhausting), Empty (of energy, meaning, fun, joy, hope, purpose), Lost, Disingenuous (losing a sense of authenticity), Sense of rumor (lost sense of perspective and blow things out of proportion), Adopting silo mentality, Attention turned in (thinking mostly about self), Childish (immature), Reactive (always on the back foot and unable to adapt quickly), Blame storms, Pessimistic, High staff turnover.

Culture is the most important competitive advantage your organization can create. Need examples of above the line cultures? Check out Forbes Best Companies List.  The number one company on the list, Salesforce, is renowned for its corporate culture.

To design a culture that operates above the line requires these things:

  • The organization must have a mission, vision, and values so that behavior can be rooted or grounded in those attributes.
  • Everyone understands what above the line behavior looks like and what below the line behavior looks like for each value.
  • Your department, business unit, or piece of the organization needs to have its own mission and vision that are in support of the mission and vision of the larger organization. 
  • Your department, business unit, or piece of the organization needs to have its own set of values (preferably 3 to 5) that are in support of the mission, vision, and values of the larger organization. 
  • Everyone understands what above the line behavior looks like and what below the line behavior looks like for each value.
  • Leadership (executives and managers) must walk the talk.
  • It must be safe to call each other out on below the line behavior, regardless of the chain of command.
  • Calling out below the line behavior must be done with grace rather than with accusation.

As the culture changes and moves toward above the line, not every employee can survive in the culture. That means understanding how to deselect employees and how to hire new ones. I provide my clients a simple framework for making these decisions:

1.    Does this employee (or new hire as applicable) believe in and align with the values of the organization?

2.    If no, deselect them or don’t hire them.

3.    If yes, does this employee believe in and align with the values of this piece of the organization (business unit, department, etc.)?

4.    If no, deselect them or don’t hire them.

5.    If yes, does this employee have the skill set to perform this job or a growth mindset and can learn the skills to perform this job in a reasonable time?

6.    If no, deselect them or don’t hire them.

7.    If yes, retain the employee or hire the person because you are on your way to building a powerful above the line culture!

Note that an above the line culture requires care and candor. Creating a culture where people thrive is a commitment – it doesn’t happen by accident. If your looking for your organization’s next big competitive advantage, it doesn’t rest with your products and services. It rests with your people and investing in a culture that is positive and inspiring.

Until we meet again, busy seeing the Champion in you.

Dr. Tomi 

*Thanks to Michael Henderson for letting us leverage his material.

Dr. Tomi W. Bryan