Foundations in Building Strong Cultures

Diagnosing an Intervention – The Waterline Model

When problems arise – in an organization, family system, or community – people tend to look at an individual as the source of the challenge. They confront, question, or judge a person for their behavior, when there is usually more to the story than the person and their actions.

In 1970 edition of the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Roger Harrison wrote about the Waterline Model. Harrison designed the model to assist people diagnosing where to intervene within an organizational system. Yet any, even the family system, can benefit from its structure.

In some way, every system is working to complete a task. In a family system, maybe it’s feed the kids or get them off to college. In corporate system, the task tend to be financial or product driven. In a community, the task could be the elevate the communication capabilities of all members.

Along the path, all systems run into challenges. Challenges are great way to build capacity individually and as a system, if we diagnose the right problem.

When we begin to look around for disruption to our task, we have been culturally trained to look for the individual who is causing trouble. Whether we learned this in our family system, “Who spilled the milk?” “It was Jamie.” Or in school, “Who threw that paper airplane?” “It was Chris.”

Though these people did spill the milk or throw the airplane, and we believe they are to blame, before we yell, criticize, or punish, Harrison suggests we snorkel before we deep dive.

waterline model new 2018

Balance

In any system, a certain amount of maintenance or attention to relationship is needed to balance the task. Our emotions, though greatly stifled in our current cultural paradigm, are an important part of how we feel satisfaction in the world. Emotions are often the first experience brushed aside in service of accomplishing something. “I feel confused, but we have to finish this task. I don’t want to ask again for clarity as I am afraid they will think I am dense (disruptive, annoying, and so on).”

This has mixed results. We might accomplish an outcome which is often rewarded. Yet, focusing only on task – which is tangible, logical, and gets noticed – creates a lot of water under the bridge.

In the above example, the spilled milk or the airplane, Jamie or Chris can get a consistent message that they are the problem. But who put the milk on table? Could it have been in a smaller container? And why was there time to create an airplane? The lesson might not be as engaging as we hoped. These observable behaviors give us clues that something more is at play.

Relationship mishaps, that in the moment could easily be resolved with a little interpersonal communication, intra-personal skill, and some courage to break patterns, often get pushed aside for when we have time. We miss out on relationship in service of getting things done. It is like saying, “I will sit by the fire and put my feet up when I have done _______ or have ______ number of dollars in the bank.”

Tending to purpose, relationship, and dynamics takes time, desire, and some skill. This is time that can be spent doing something we have been trained to do: accomplish a task.

Yet, when people spend time maintaining the relationship, along with accomplishing the task, the doing happens faster (after initial effort), is more satisfying (after safe and bold conversations), and produces results that leave a lasting impact on the bottom line. People are more connected and more satisfied. This weaves a web that builds strong cultures.

Dropping Below the Waterline

When things are going smoothly, we rarely recalibrate to purpose, clarify roles, or dissect group dynamics. When things go wrong, we look for the person responsible. Deep diving to the intra-personal – within one person – and scapegoating that person as the anchor of the problem. Think Jamie or Chris.

Though one person can be the problem, it is wise to check your line by returning the surface before you stay in the depths too long.

Purpose – Vision and Mission

Clarifying purpose is the place to start. If the vision and mission are clear, people all over the organization will be able to draw a line to how their work is contributing to that end. If people do not know the vision and mission, you may have people in your organization all operating under their own vision and mission and losing site of being a team and working toward a common purpose.

If there is no rememberable or recitable vision or mission, or if it is flat – has lost its motivating factor – it may be time to revitalize or renew the vision and mission. Even if the vision and mission still seems compelling, clarifying if all are on the same page is always a good place to start. It reminds us why we began this adventure and gives us firm connection from which we can swim into deeper water.

Roles and Goals

The next place to look is at roles and goals. Though this model begins at the top and moves down, it is not hierarchical. It does not have to begin with the boss. We believe leadership must happen in every role. Using the waterline model can help not only the leader of a system, but the members, diagnose where to intervene.

Roles and goals are guidelines for how this person/these people will meet the vision and mission. Occasionally, our individual vision of our role or goals differ from the organizations. At other times, people have piled tasks onto a role that make the water cloudy and prevent a person from doing what they are hired to do.

When there is a disruption in the task, and subsequently we feel confused or overworked, we revisit the division of roles in the system and how those roles help us achieve the vision and mission. We can then shift our expectations, the role and goals, or recommit.

Confusion about roles and goals is common. Things move fast these days and people need to be nimble. Confusion tells us there is a break down in communication. When we intervene at this level of the waterline, we help alleviate individual power plays and hurt feelings, get people in the role that best serves them and the organization, and efficiently tick away at the task.

Group Dynamics

If roles and goals are clear, we move onto group dynamics. These are the norms of a group. Norms of behavior are consistently practiced – implicitly or explicitly – modes of interaction between people and within an organization. They define HOW interaction happens. They are comprised of how we include others, influence, make decisions, rely on each other – or not, how we give and receive feedback, and manage conflict.

Very few systems are explicit about their group dynamics. Most organizations do not make the connection between their implicit group dynamics and individual and organizational challenges. This is where we get into murky water. Implicit norms exist in every system. Healthy norms weave a strong culture. Unhealthy norms harm culture.

Group dynamics can be hard to diagnose. They require observation and curiosity. Then the application of explicit and healthy ways of managing the common mishaps of relationships.

To create healthy norms, teaching skills and practicing them is essential. Helping people learn how to listen effectively, give and receive feedback, and manage a difficult conversation are the foundations of healthy group dynamics.

When people have the same method for moving through an anxiety producing situation, they can feel safe and settle. They know the structure, and how they are supposed to be and what to do in the situation. They know the other person has the same structure. This makes a normally unpredictable situation, more predictable. People can relax and focus on the other person. They can let go of needing to protect and defend themselves.

To establish these practice takes time and consistent effort. It is much easier and quicker to blame a person and have them be the scapegoat. When they leave the organization we find relief, but then later recognize the problems still exist. We then deep dive again, trying to find another person to blame.

Sorting out messy, implicit group dynamics and making them clear and explicit takes longer than blaming one person. Yet, it sets the foundation for a level of interaction that far outperforms other systems, making it a place people want to work as it impacts their whole life in a positive way, not only their job.

Interpersonal and Intra-personal

Sometimes an organization has done their work. They understand the balance between task and maintenance, and have explicitly or implicitly created a system that feels safe and clear. This may be because the leader is clear or there are people who have been in the organization a long time, they know the ropes and things run smoothly.

But let’s say the organization is growing or people are leaving and there is an influx of new staff. These changes may cause churn even if the water is clear above. We might have become so practiced in our actions and norms that we don’t remember to teach them to new people. We may have had staff that just “got it” and the new people are from a different generation or culture.

We must then educate and mentor all people in the ways of the organization. Once people are explicitly engaged in reciprocal learning to blend their skills, views, and culture with the organizations, tasks will likely run smoothly.

Disruptions at this level occur between two people – interpersonal – or within one person – intra-personal. Interpersonally, two people can have different skillsets. They may come from different backgrounds and we must do some translating to help them talk with each other. They could also be two people with very different personal styles like introvert/extrovert in communication or compete/avoid in conflict. These styles can be worked through with active listening, focused time together, and with the help of a third party to paraphrase when the situation gets hot.

On the intra-personal level – where we normally deep dive to, maybe our individual vision has outgrown the organizations vision. We want the system to take certain steps that it is not ready to take. We may need to revisit our employment or create something new. Or we may be having disruptions in our family life or health that is impacting our ability to participate in the way we have learned. We could lack the technical skills. Or be unaware of the impact we are having on others.

In each of these situation, we need to inquire with individuals directly using our active listening skills to understand what they might be facing. Then, we can show compassion and focus our supportive attention on helping these individuals integrate (or not) into the organization.

Conclusion

The Waterline model helps take something confusing – diagnosing a complex system – and gives us a guide to help that system become healthy and efficiently productive. Using the waterline gives us a leg up professionally. It allows us to name patterns within organizations we may feel but not know how to speak about. It helps us get out of the cycle of blame and get into a productive and long lasting cycle of connection. It provides a time-tested structure to identify challenges and take good care of people in the process.

If you need more information, guidance, or support, invite perspective. We love to get into the water, murky or not, to help you achieve your vision.