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Displacing deficit language in organizational change

Guest Column | Originally Published on July 13, 2022 | Published with permission

Deficit thinking is pervasive in many organizational change efforts. What can be done to counter this tendency and generate better and more meaningful descriptions of both problems and opportunities?

As I read through the outcomes of a recent workshop, my heart sank.

The problem statements were: lack of awareness, lack of motivation, lack of leadership, lack of accountability, lack of knowledge, lack of capacity, lack of ownership, poor culture, insufficient this, inadequate that. Seemingly hanging over each statement was an assumed yet absent ideal from which people and organisation had deviated.

Representing people and organisations in terms of lack, inadequacies and failures (also known as deficit discourse) is problematic for several reasons.

First, it situates responsibility for performance problems squarely with the affected people. In other words, people experience wanting organizational performance presumably because: they don’t care, they are not accountable, they don’t take ownership, etc.

Second, in describing problems at a level of deficits, we overlook the greater forces and systems in which performance is embedded and configured. Entrenched goal conflicts, resources scarcity, inequities, structural incentives, historical trajectories, local communities, geographies, the stories and collaborative sense-making tools people rely on, and many other aspects that may contribute to both good and bad performance, are this way marginalized and made irrelevant or less important to explore and understand.

Third, it empowers those who get to describe or create the deficit – and disempowers those who are being talked about. It configures those who get to say what goes as the morally superior producers of good, and the recipients of the intended solutions as the more or less passive and unwilling consumers. In the world of health and safety, it empowers those who set standards, those in a position to enforce rules and regulations, and those who are closer to the blunt end world of policies, guidance, and strategy. And it disempowers those at the sharp end who need to make ends meet for a range of other important aspects as well as what is being asked of them from those at the blunt end. This way, it widens the gap between people and creates greater fragmentation and tension.

Last, but not least, deficit language does not have the potency to generate novelty (Gergen, 1978). It does not have the potential to challenge dominant ideas regarding problems, nor to offer other or better alternatives. If anything, this language serves to further entangle people in a current situation, cements thinking, practices, and relations, and holds us back from exploring new opportunities. If we want to enrich, grow or leapfrog developments to a new place from where we can take action, deficit language will not be what takes us there.

So, how can we displace deficit language as a way of thinking about and describing the world? I can’t claim to have a comprehensive answer, but perhaps the below list can be a start:

Challenge. Recognize and call out deficit descriptions. Deficit language is rich in descriptions involving words such as absence, inadequate, limited, insufficient, lack, failure, defective, poor, problematic, should, ought, deviate, dysfunctional, not enough, and inconsistent. Deficit statements can be probed and exposed for its one-sided point of view, and biased understanding of performance. Deficit statements are surprisingly hollow, made up from assumptions, and begin to collapse under scrutiny. Why is there a lack? What do we know about what has generate this absence? What else is important that we’re not capturing here? By calling out and probing these categories their explanatory power is deflated. Which is likely to produce some levels of social anxiety, but also to create necessary room for something new to emerge.

Change the perspective. Take a human-centred approach. Comparing wanting performance/behaviour to a standard or line in the sand is great for signalling importance of the line, and to create a moral high-ground from which we can point out deficits. This high-ground can be displaced by taking a human-centred perspective and instead locate the point of view and point of inquiry with the practitioners of a field. One of the first thing to be realised when doing so is that we need better understanding of what is going on from an operational perspective. This way we can build empathy with the lived experience, thoughts, feelings, passions and unmet needs of those doing the work. This way we can discover what is strong, what is right, what is difficult, and discover a new set of action opportunities, without forgetting about the ambition of where we want to be.

I feel the need to point out that this is not about denying problems, or forgetting about the gap between where we are and where we want to be. I am however suggesting that we need to better understand this gap, and need a richer language and point of view that is able to map this space.

There’s an empathy test to do around deficit statements. Does statement x hold true also for us (who generated the statement)? Are we lacking motivation? Are we not accountable? If the statements only apply to other people, chances are that they are written from a deficits point of view. This can help to highlight the bias and assumptions of the participants, and subversively suggest that a more human-centred framing is needed.

Flip the framing. As Peter Gallison (2000) pointed out: There is a fundamental instability in causal statements. A failure to notice (by operators) can also be described as a failure to make noticeable (by designers). Or, ‘lack of ownership’ can also be described as ‘people have been excluded in designing the system’. Every description will locate responsibility, and solutions in different nodes of the system. There are no from-above-given objective or unambiguous descriptions to use. There are better or worse descriptions to be had, and some descriptions convey meaning in richer or poorer ways .

Embrace diversity. In generating problem statements, or future statement, it’s helpful to first embrace diversity in points of view, and especially seek out framings of those groups who are traditionally excluded. Producing multiple, parallel and even competing formulations, or have representatives that formulates problems and futures from their point of view, is helpful to move beyond the one-sidedness of deficit discourse.

Play. There’s a freedom of choice, there’s room for creativity, and for those who dare, there’s an opportunity to be playful with describing the world as it is. The job is not to accurate diagnose or analyse the system at hand, but to assign meaning (Bushe, 2015). Embracing newness, or coining new terms and words can allow us to get to better and richer meanings of what is happening in our systems. Being playful is not about being irresponsible, but rather creating space for allowing the new.

In summary, the way we think of and speak about the world, configures and shapes our realities. Relying on deficit discourse around organisational performance produces rigid, conventional, sterile and unimaginative descriptions that further cements our minds, relations and power distributions. If we want to create systems that are prosperous, growing, thriving, or otherwise liberated to be something else that what they are, we're better off using language in ways that build a deeper understanding of both problems and opportunities.


Bushe. G. (2015). “Generative images”. In “Dialogic Organization Development: The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change”edited by G.R.Bushe & R.J. Marshak. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2015

Galison, Peter (2000). “Accident of History.” In Atmospheric Flight in the Twentieth Century: Archimedes New Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, edited by Peter Galison and Alex Roland, 3-43. Dordrecht/Boston: Kluwer Academic, 2000.

Gergen, K. (1978). Toward generative theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 1344‐1360.

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