Deficit Thinking: The Problem With Analysing Too Much

'We live in a fractured world. I've always seen it as my role as an artist to attempt to make wholeness.' ~ Anish KapoorClick To Tweet

In our daily lives as managers, and even generally as people, we tend to think in an analytical way:

  • Is that good, or bad?
  • Should I do this, or that?
  • Do I like that, or would I prefer something else?

We spend a lot of our daily ‘thinking’ power on evaluating. Particularly evaluating options. The problem with this is that it tends to lead to ‘deficit thinking’. A term that is increasingly used within the education profession, but which I believe warrants some exploration within the frame of leadership as well.

Deficit Thinking


Because we don’t only apply this evaluative logic to what we should have for lunch, or the five options presented in that memo. We also fall into the trap of applying it to our colleagues and team members. We start noticing the skills they don’t have, the experience they haven’t had, and the interpersonal intelligence they fail to demonstrate.

Sure these things can be frustrating. And when you’re busy, you’re in a reactive frame of mind… you haven’t got time to stop and acknowledge the skills they do have! For goodness sakes, she’s a grown up! She knows her own skills!

But here’s the thing. This kind of thinking tends to compound. We see one little thing here, one little thing there, a couple of things over there, and before we know it, everyone is sub-par and we’re the only person who’s any good at anything!

And you know what? Your mind finds what it is looking for. If you expect Jack to let you down, you’ll find ample opportunity to conclude that he has. If you expect Vicky to bungle the sensitive client relationship with a major customer, you’ll find evidence that she did. This is the effect of deficit thinking.

Last week I shared with you a new appreciation I had gained for actually listening to somebody else. And today, I want to talk about some further insights I gained on a coaching course I completed recently. The power of seeing other people as ‘already whole’. As possessing their own answers and holding within them the capacity to do the things they need to do.

Wholeness Thinking Vs Deficit Thinking

'There is one unity, unified wholeness, total natural law, in the transcendental unified consciousness.' ~ Maharishi Mahesh YogiClick To Tweet

It’s really easy to run round thinking everyone else is incapable. It gets you off the hook, and makes you feel a bit superior – at least in some ways. And whether this compensates for a sense of ‘imposter syndrome‘ or stems from a genuine belief that you’re pretty awesome, it’s lazy thinking.

Deficit Thinking

Try thinking about it this way: what is better for your company? One awesome you? Or many awesome everybodies?

Or better yet: what is better for you?

  • You are the only one who can achieve anything, you feel overworked, that you’re responsible for everything, and that you can’t rely on anyone…


  • You work with a team of awesome ‘whole’ individuals who are all working as hard as they can, doing the best that they can, and with your encouragement, they can uncover the latent capabilities they already have within them…

How to Minimise Deficit Thinking

Practice mindfulness

I don’t think I’ve ever met a problem that meditation can’t fix! Or at least help with!

The trouble with your own thinking is that you don’t notice you’re doing it, unless you’re in the moment. You don’t notice the decisions you take, the assumptions you make, or the shortcuts you create.

And you also won’t notice you’ve dismissed someone as incapable until you realise that you’d rather they left because they’re taking up valuable oxygen on the team… by which time it’s almost too late.

So get cracking with that meditation practice. It will help you in many ways, including becoming more aware of what you are thinking about your team. You can’t change what you aren’t aware of.

Don’t focus on what’s missing

Well that’s all very well and good, I hear you thinking, but what should I focus on instead? I have to focus on something!

Michael Hyatt, in his book Your Best Year Ever talks about how most of us focus on the gap between where we are right now, and where we want to be. This gap makes us hyper-aware of how far away we are from our goals and ‘ideal’ scenarios. I’d suggest the same is true at work. We focus on how we wish our ideal team members would behave. We focus on the complementary skill sets we wish the team had. We focus on the interpersonal competencies we wish our colleagues demonstrated.

By focusing on this gap, we become highly attuned to it – we see it impacting everything, everyday, and over time, it becomes all-consuming.

So what should we do instead?

Focus on how far the team has already come and the skills and capabilities they already have. By focusing on what you have achieved together (in spite of the gaps) you’ll start to see more evidence of what is working. You’ll celebrate a bit more together, and you’ll begin to notice that your team members have other skills that are just as (if not more) effective than the ones you wish they had!

Focus on asking great questions

Nick Petrie, at the Center for Creative Leadership, has written a great series of articles about vertical leadership development.

In the first one, he talks about how when we realise a leader is missing some key competency or skill, we send them on a course. Then we wonder why nothing changes. Using the metaphor that the mind of a leader is like a glass, we are pouring more knowledge into the glass, without realising that the glass is already full. The new knowledge either displaces existing knowledge, or more likely, simply spills out and flows away. This is horizontal learning.

Instead, Petrie argues, we need to focus on increasing the size of the glass. This is vertical learning, and involves learning new ways of thinking – not new knowledge and skills.

'Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.' ~ Tony RobbinsClick To Tweet

This tends to come from asking great questions that create fundamental shifts in a person’s own understanding of how things work. You cannot provide the knowledge or understanding, the other person needs to come to it on their own.

Successful Leaders habits

When you ask someone a powerful question (usually these start with ‘what’) their brain strains to answer it. We are pre-programmed to answer questions. One of the hardest things new managers need to learn is not to answer questions from their team!

Some examples of great ‘what’ questions include:

  • What is it about x and y that you feel is incompatible? (e.g. supporting your team members with non-work matters and retaining professional distance)
  • What is it that makes x important to you? (e.g. achievement, reliability, recognition, teamwork)
  • What does x mean to you? (e.g. fairness, opportunity, success, work/life balance)

I think you get the idea. These are technically ‘why’ questions, but you word them as a ‘what’, otherwise the brain gets overloaded and/or defensive.

Of course once you’ve asked the question, you need to allow space for the other person to answer! Don’t worry if it takes a few minutes… these are deep questions, and evidence that they have to think about the answer is a good thing!

Support people to uncover their own ‘wholeness’

I have consistently maintained that optimism is a vital trait for a leader. And I can think of no more worthy domain to apply that optimism to than the belief that your team members are already whole.

Deficit thinking leads you to see your team as broken… incomplete… lacking.

Wholeness thinking allows you to see your team as a work in progress… developing… learning… growing.

And that is exactly the work that you are there to do…


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