Reducing the Deficit: Leadership and the challenge of deficit thinking in management

One thing I have been noticed is how managers and leaders approach problems.  In a previous job, I had a couple of projects that were technically challenging and had to get sign off from a number of managers before being presented to the organisation.


In one case, a presentation had to be developed for an internal audience and an external partner.  The presentation was developed and circulated to the relevant managers. What was interesting, in hindsight, was how some managers used deficit thinking.  They looked at what was wrong, what was missing, and why it would not work (the deficit) and not what was working, why and how to make it work even better (the positives).  I found that the CX was focused on the opportunities in the presentation.  The leader was looking at ways to leverage the project into something more and not looking at what was missing.

This could be the classic story of seeing a glass as half-empty vs. half-full, but there is a deeper message. Leadership within the situation frames an issue. In one sense, the managers and leader were framing the problem differently and thereby getting a different approach and, ultimately, a different outcome.


The question that challenges me is how to stop people from deficit managing?  Is there a role for it in the right context? Is the question for leaders how they get their managers to look for the opportunity focus on what is the potential rather than focusing on what can go wrong?  Moreover, is it that certain cultures reflectively or reflexively revert to blame avoidance, which in turn creates a desire to point out the flaws, should anything go wrong with a decision.


At the same time, though, there can be good reasons why a leader and managers need to work with a deficit management approach.  For example, the leader may needs to know what is not working so he or she can fix it. In those situations, they are seeking out what is wrong, while the junior officers may be trying to appear that, everything is ok while passing upwards the “good news” and avoiding “critical” or negative information.


The problem for the leader is that they have to fire fight. They cannot leverage the opportunities his junior officers are bringing him.  In a dysfunctional situation, the leader may be struggling to find out what is wrong let alone what an opportunity that the organisation can exploit is.  The leader then has to find out what is wrong, ix it or redirect to others.  Problems dominate the agenda and not opportunities.   One can often see this at the board level, when the board has massively long agendas with dozens of projects or issues.  They are still focusing on operational issues, really topics for divisional managers, and not looking at the organisation’s strategic objectives.


In that regard, an organisation’s internal culture intersects with the management team’s view.  The board frames the issue as deficit management. The habit then is set for middle managers to view it the same way.  When the management team is constantly working to resolve operational issues they are signalling the organisation to send them the problems. The organisation then believes that operational matters are the board’s domain. In doing so, it will encourage middle managers to frame the issue with a deficit management approach.  The middle managers will use deficit thinking (and by extension managing) instead of seeking the opportunities that can be leveraged into success.

One way to counter this is to frame the issue differently. The management team can tell the organisation to bring it opportunities. In turn, the senior managers need to work with middle managers to find and develop opportunities.  By discussing the strategic goals and opportunities, they middle managers behave differently.  They begin to see how the organisation can respond to those opportunities.  Two key ingredients are needed.  First, there has to be a level of trust within the organisation. The senior managers have to trust the middle managers with these opportunities as well as these discussions. At the same time, a robust internal communication network has to exist.  The staff, managers and senior managers need to know and interact with the Board’s strategic opportunities.  If the internal communication network is more about intelligence gathering and not communicating, the process will not work.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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2 Responses to Reducing the Deficit: Leadership and the challenge of deficit thinking in management

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