Skip to main content

When things don’t go according to plan, we humans are wired to look for what’s wrong, and it’s not a good feeling. Something has happened – and straight away, without thought, is the immediate reaction – something’s wrong, or its twin ‘who’s to blame?’

This unconsciousness permeates our relationships, our work, and even how we relate to the world. And it kind of seems obvious, doesn’t it – when you look around you there are lots of things that are wrong!

Have you noticed though, that when you go hunting for the answer to ‘what’s wrong?’, there’s rarely any power there for you? There can be blame, feelings of hostility, resentment, annoyance, shame, guilt and anger – but rarely a way forward.

Asking a different question can be transformative. Instead of asking ‘what’s wrong?’, ask instead ‘what’s missing?’ ‘What’s missing?’ suggests something is available to you that can help you in your current situation. ‘What’s wrong?’ just gives you a litany of complaints.

I learned this through The Hunger Project, a global organisation committed to ending world hunger. When THP started in 1977, hunger was killing 21,000 children every day – more than 7 million annually. These kids were dying of starvation, malnutrition, diarrhoea, and even the common cold – their bodies so weakened their immune systems were under siege. At the time this was considered terrible, but inevitable. Hunger was humankind’s oldest scourge, and would ever remain so.

In looking out in the world at that time, THP could have focused on what was wrong, and come up with a long list of answers. Corruption! Greed! Colonialism! Apathy! There was a lot wrong.

Instead it asked a different question, which was this: ‘what’s missing, that if it were provided, would make the difference in ending hunger?’

Not what’s wrong in the world regarding hunger, but what’s missing?

Inquiring deeply into the question opened up a new world of opportunity. In asking what was missing, answers like ‘hungry people being empowered’; ‘girls going to school’, or ‘creating a global commitment’ were revealed. From this, next actions became apparent.

For example, to provide the missing global commitment, The Hunger Project mobilised more than 6 million people to take a stand to end hunger. This culminated in the 1990 UN World Summit for Children, where governments committed to improve the well being of children worldwide.

Now it’s your turn. Have a think about what’s not working for you. It might be a personal feeling of unfulfilment. Or a work situation where you’re feeling the pace of change is too much. Perhaps in your relationship you’re not feeling appreciated. Or maybe it’s a something like climate change that’s leaving you frustrated. With any of these examples we unconsciously look for the answer to ‘what’s wrong?’ (My boss! My partner! The government!) And there’s no joy or power there.

Instead pick up your problem, and ask yourself ‘what’s missing?’. Be like a scientist. Be curious. What do you see?

With the personal example, what’s missing might be working with a mentor. At work, what’s missing might be organising a leadership session to help the team shift their mindset and deal with things in a less stressful way. In the relationship example, what’s missing might be a conversation with your partner. With the broader issues what’s missing might be calling parliamentarians, or educating yourself on the best actions to take.

There’s no right answer to ‘what’s missing’, but when you ask it, it can open up an empowering way forward.

I’m fascinated about this whole concept of what’s missing vs what’s wrong, and this little grid might help unlock the differences between the two:

In the leadership programs I run, this distinction can provide real breakthroughs. I remember one executive telling me he wouldn’t have left his first marriage had he understood his automaticity to look for what’s wrong, and who to blame. It just made him obnoxious, overbearing and super judgemental. (His words!) Realising the power and expansiveness in asking what’s missing reframed how he related with his team and his family.

Where do you get stuck with looking for what’s wrong? Let me know if this new way of considering what’s missing is helpful.