Above The Line, Below The Line

(For those who have read my previous English post – I found my car keys!)

I was introduced to a concept “above the line, below the line” during one of the classes I attended for my coaching certification program. “The line” is a demarcation separating two types of attitudes; when you are below the line, you act, think and say things from a victim-like mentality or state of mind, and when you are above the line, you have ownership of whatever the circumstances you are in. Examples of “Below the line” attitudes are blame, justify, and denial. “Above the line” attitudes center around being accountable or taking responsibility for your actions or situation.  The instructor of the coaching class I had attended asked us “Who has not gone below the line today?” One person replied that she hasn’t. But when the instructor asked “Really?”, she admitted that it was a day off for her and she didn’t have to interact with the office people. People in the class laughed hearing this response, but then we got sort of quiet – was it also her way of blaming her office people? It could imply that she would have gone below the line if she had to interact with other people. That is not really being above the line – it’s blaming others for causing her to be below the line.

When I look back these past few days, I have been acting with “below the line” attitude more than I’d care to office-space-cc011admit. There has been a big issue going on at my day job, and everyone in our office has been affected. The overall mood in the office has been that of stressful, defensive, almost fearful and it was neither very inspiring nor relaxing. Thankfully I had a lot to do before the end of Friday, so I tried to focus on my own tasks rather than getting involved too deeply with this seemingly never ending story where there were lots of blaming, denying, justifying and making excuses going on. This incident created an opportunity for me to contemplate how one could take “above the line” attitude on a situation which you are not the person in charge of, but you can’t help but being involved because it’s happening to people close to you – to your colleagues or to your family members. I thought the first step is to consider what my role is in that situation. Does my position in the organization require for me to step up and be more involved? How is my decision of not being involved too deeply helping? Am I perpetuating the problem by doing so? When I complain about people acting “below the line”, I am also adopting the victim attitude. I am blaming those people for being below the line! I did that a lot this week, by saying “so-and-so is not taking responsibility” “this should have been done that way, not this way” or “she doesn’t know how to ask things from people” (the phrase “who do you think you are” followed in my head). Even when I read these phrases, I know I have been below the line when I said or thought those things.  The thing is, when you are in a victim mindset, it is hard to be creative and come up with solutions. If you blame everyone and everything around you for causing you the difficulties you are having, there isn’t much you feel you can do. The moment you take the ownership of the situation and realize that there is a part that you play in that situation, you could naturally feel empowered to start doing something about it.

What would be an appropriate, taking-charge attitude if you are dealing with someone who does not take responsibility?  I thought of a few options;

1. Address the issue with that person, in a calm, professional manner without bringing ego in – in other words, don’t get personally offended by the other’s lack of responsibility, but just address it in a matter-of-fact way. In Eckhart Tolle’s book “New Earth” (my favorite book, even though I don’t care for his voice reading it), he explained this concept by using an example; In a restaurant, your server brought to you a bowl of soup. It was not hot as it was supposed to be. You could simply point out that a bowl of soup was cold. That’s merely letting the person responsible for the soup being hot know that it should have been hot, but it was not. But when you say “how could you do this to me”, that’s your ego talking.

2.    Help the person in the authority and has responsibility (i.e the person’s supervisor) address the issue with this person, if I am not in a position to do so directly because of the organizational chain of command. I have to admit that it is not easy, especially in a working environment with Japanese culture. Also, this feels a bit like stepping on someone’s toes. Is it just me being Japanese?


3. Stop complaining, period. Complaining about how the matter is not handled in a most effective way, or how much time and energy got taken away because of it, does not do any good. If it does not serve any purposes other than taking time away from doing actual work (sometimes this makes time passes faster in the office, which is not a bad thing!), I might as well just stop doing it. After all, it was my choice to work there and I am making the same choice everyday by going in the office.

I might still be in a victim mindset as it seems like I can’t think of other options to try out. Am I being below the line for saying this? Please share your ideas about some creative solutions!

9 comments on “Above The Line, Below The Line

  1. Another great blog post Etsuko!
    Interesting terminology, “above the line” and “below the line”.

    I would skip #3 except in the rare cases that are just ‘beyond hope’ and there are no other options, like leaving the environment.
    I personally wouldn’t do #2. Many cases it’s akin to taking an aspirin; it disguises the pain, even though the issue is still present.
    #1 could work if the conversation comes out as an agreement on how you both agree to interact with each other. You both strike up a conversation about what each likes and doesn’t like about the environment and interactions of the workplace. Socially interacting within an ‘agreed-upon framework’ allows us to consensually conform. It’s like a ‘code of honor’. Us humans are funny; without rules or a framework we create our own personal rules or framework, which unfortunately tends to work best for just ourselves.

    The method in #1 tends to work well if your counterparts yearn for a solution, as you’ve indicate you do.

    But for the ‘tough cookies’, a more ‘covert’ approach may be need. mah hahahahaha!!! (just kidding on the diabolical laugh :-).

    The Value System Approach
    (sorry, too long, I typed it out here):


  2. Etsuko,

    This is another great subject, and a tricky one too! Here is my personal take on this.

    I agree with Henry on #3. As you mentioned in solution #2, I notice often too, that there are more than a few Japanese social rules I’d brought with me, that influence my decision making process, even after 30 years of living in the US. Sometimes they even cause unnecessary hardship. (Also, because of the diverse cultural presence in the US, it’s not so easy to figure out what’s appropriate and what works, as a solution to difficult problems involving working relationships with your co-workers.)

    When I worked with a rather large number of people at a medical facility, I usually talked directly with the person who was dropping the ball during any process we had. I made a point of not seeing the person as “an irresponsible worker”, to avoid labeling him/her as such in my head. This was for my own good to keep my mind open, so that I could continue to be courteous toward him/her. I just asked the person to do a specific job, each time I noticed it wasn’t getting done. Sometimes I chose to bypass the person and did the job myself, especially when I grew inpatient or if a particular problem had a potential to lead to a critical situation if left to uncertainty.

    And when all failed… after all possible attempts were made on my side to be a team player, I did go to a person in supervising position. I felt it was his/her job to handle issues on workers who consistently lacked responsibility. In other words, I delegated the extra work of managing the person that severely interfered with fulfilling my own responsibilities, to appropriate people. I didn’t see anything wrong with that.

    So my tendency was to do #1 to a certain point. And then if it repeatedly failed no matter how I approached the problem myself, then go to #2.

    So, no, I don’t think you are “being below the line” by bringing up your problem at work here. I think it can sometimes cause an entire team to spiral down into the bottomless pit of mud, if anyone takes on more than he/she should, in fear of being “below the line”. I feel we will get “above the line” by taking responsibility in creating a reasonable healthy working environment for ourselves, which, in a long run, will lead to a better environment for the entire team.

  3. Thanks for your comments Henry & Yuko-san! I wonder if I explained myself well when I said “Stop complaining” as it seems both of you are saying “don’t bother trying that one”. Don’t you hate it when people just complain and complain without taking any actions to resolve the issue? Also, the act of complaining brings me down mentally. I think it’s a victim language and definitely not above the line attitude.

  4. Etsuko-san,

    Yes, I agree with you that complaining without action is not productive. So maybe I misunderstood. I don’t mean to endorse complaining, when it lacks purpose.

    Maybe complain is not the key word I was thinking of. Maybe it’s more about addressing the issue we face.
    I am viewing “complaints” here as productive criticism. Criticism that offers a chance to address problems at hand, so that we can work to find a solution. I think it’s better than keeping our mouths shut and bearing the problem with no reason to hope for any improvements.

  5. To clarify my comment on your #3, what I mean is that I think it’s good to vocalize one’s concerns (if one calls that complaining) but there are exceptional cases where ‘hope is lost’, so sometimes you just have to ‘suck it up’ and ‘take it on’. Some things are just not worth it. Right? It’s a discretion call. Hopefully one has an exit strategy, like planning to quit soon or acquire a change of environment. But one certainly doesn’t want to be the ‘whipping boy’ for unreasonableness.

    Clear as mud now right? 🙂

  6. Let me define the word here: I used the word complain as “describing an event or person negatively without indicating next steps to fix the problem”. I took this from this web-site when I was looking up “The 21-day No-complaint experiment” You can read it about it here

    I didn’t mean to say “suck it up”, you should raise your concerns and stand up for what you believe in, but I wouldn’t complain just for the sake of it, because it’ll become your story you tell yourself over and over about why you can’t have what you want, how other people or situations are in your way, etc. It’ll become negative self talk for you, and you feel like you are a victim – that’s below the line.

    “Clear as mud”?

  7. Yes, as clear as Lake Huron. lol.

    To ‘suck it up’ was a solution I was recommending to #3, and I believe is an ‘above the line’ behavior. It also kind of implies to ‘swallow one’s ego’ or be modest or humble, or to exercise reservation and not agitate a situation.

    Excellent definition of ‘complain’. We should never complain, only offer support and seek understanding. We should not criticize, only critique.

  8. You said “I would skip #3”. Then you said “’suck it up’ was a solution I was recommending to #3”.

    Not complain = suck it up = above the line = your recommendation?

  9. Yes, so I’m recommending ‘sucking it up’ as a last resort option when all other positive-based strategies have been attempted or ruled out. It’s the last of the ‘above the line’ options.

    And if that doesn’t work then you can go ahead and spaz out. (below the line) lol (j/k)