The 5 Disciplines For A Learning Organization

A majority of the working class get stumped when asked, ‘When was the last time you felt passionate about work?’ 

It’s sad to see that most trudge through work daily, to simply get through the day, the week, the month, the year. Without realizing it, many wait for retirement to finally pursue passions and interests. However, is this approach to one’s work-life really helping?

The Fifth Discipline (1990) by Peter Senge shows the world that one can create an organization where creativity thrives, curiosity is encouraged, and where leaders and colleagues are supportive and motivating. It shows that companies that offer employees lifelong opportunities for learning are the ones that transform workplaces into successful organizations.

The book is a guide to creating organizations by applying five key disciplines that shift from being controlling to being learning organizations. It introduces the systems thinking method, a proactive method that helps identify underlying patterns that need change and helps generate innovative solutions to bring about that change.

Why The Workplace Quashes One’s Drive To Learn

If we observe a toddler, we can see learning at its efficient best. The toddler learns and gathers knowledge by observing; smelling, licking, touching, everything around it. It constantly tries to learn new skills – walking, babbling new words, or even learning to identify alphabets, numbers, etc.

This curious toddler lives inside every person. However, modern corporations with their rules surrounding hierarchy, incompetent managers, and limiting job descriptions quash the toddler out!

This begins with narrow job descriptions. Setting limitations to job descriptions greatly hampers learning and kill one’s sense of engagement. The result? Employees end up simply punching the clock, sticking to their specific tasks, never looking at broader perspectives to solve different problems.

They have a myopic view of their roles in the organization, often limited to their department. It is a lack of sense of ownership, the complacency that disallows them to be involved in the organization as a whole, that eventually leads them to apportion blame for things that go wrong to others, rather than to analyze how their actions could have contributed to the problem.

Companies are partially to blame for this. Employees often have no time to analyze their mistakes because they are too busy putting fires out. Such a reactive atmosphere too can kill learning opportunities.

The parable of the ‘boiled frog’ – where the frog complacently sits a pot of cold water on the stove, unable to realize that it will die as the water gradually heats, applies to what is happening to people stuck passionless in their jobs.

Incompetent managers, and often hierarchy too, stamp-out learning and creativity. Managers have no idea how to support subordinates with creative ideas, often because they have stopped developing.

Thankfully, all these issues can be tackled. There are five key disciplines that organizations can follow to develop a passionate, learning organization.

The Five Disciplines

In order to promote learning within organizations, the whole organization needs to change habits. While it is easier said than done, the five key disciplines, if applied diligently, across the organization, can greatly help. They are – 

  1. Promotion Of Personal Mastery

The author defines ‘promotion of personal mastery’ as being completely committed to growth and learning. It means to always do one’s best. Working like this, often gives one a deep sense of fulfilment, keeping one excited and motivated.

  1. Mental Models Of The Organization

Every person views the world through filters. These filters, the mental models of perception comprise of life experiences, assumptions and judgments. Finding and understanding the mental models of the people in the organization will help understand the mood of the people, be more open-minded and question thought processes to find better solutions.

  1. Team Learning

Team learning is the third discipline, that takes place once people become aware of their mental models. It happens when, as a team, employees begin to enter into dialogue with each other, questioning, critiquing, probing with questions, and most importantly, by examining their own assumptions and biases. It lays the foundation for the fourth discipline.

  1. Shared Vision

Shared vision doesn’t necessarily mean following a charismatic leader, it involves all the employees of the organization having a sense of ownership towards the organization, towards the work they do, and what they contribute to the company.

  1. Systems Thinking

The fifth, and most important discipline is systems thinking. Such thinking includes examining problems as a whole or taking into account all options and how one aspect affects the other while practising it. It integrates all the disciplines.

Let us discuss these in detail.

Work Motivates

On average, a person works for eight hours a day. However, when asked, ‘what was the last exciting that you did?’ most don’t even think of those eight hours. They think of those eight hours as part of the day they just have to survive and get through.

The Fifth Discipline (1990) by Peter Senge
The Fifth Discipline (1990) by Peter Senge

A person feels excited when they can to develop personal mastery, a feeling of personal fulfilment. When one’s work gives the person an internal, deep purpose in life, one can work towards that vision and devote themselves to it. However, one also has to understand that reality does not measure up to that vision or purpose.

While the thought can be discouraging, one has to view it in the right way and make it motivating by understanding that there is a gap between where one stands, and where one wants to be that needs to be filled. When a person understands that, the creative tension created by the gap will propel and motivate one into action.

Earlier, many employers would consider the promotion of personal mastery among employees irrelevant, threatening, and a difficult task to do. However, the proof that promoting personal mastery works well for business is slowly but surely changing perceptions towards it.

For instance, Kyocera, the Japanese ceramics, electronics, and technology giant was actually a start-up that grew into achieving sales of $9 billion. They managed it by simply putting their employees first. Hanover, a property firm in the US also saw similar growth when the CEO announced to prioritize the well-being of the staff.

Promotion of personal mastery best takes place when the leaders themselves model their growth to the approach. The leaders should be the ones to demonstrate to employees that they too have a hunger for growth and learning while being honest about their limitations. The rest of the employees will follow their lead!

Blinded By Limiting Beliefs

If the story of the ‘Emperors New Clothes’ teaches us anything, it is the fact that people are blinded by their mental models. While the Emperor was blinded by his need to not appear stupid in front of his ministers and subjects, his subjects were blinded by their fear of the Emperor.

Similarly, organizations cling to their own mental models that eventually become stumbling blocks.

The American automobile industry in Detroit stuck to its models and refused to adapt to the changing reality around them. The success of the Japanese auto industry, coupled with the inability of the American industry to adapt to the change led to its downfall.

On the other hand, mental models can lead to innovation too. Consider the example of the oil company Shell. In 1970, a few strategists and senior planners at Shell predicted disruptions in the oil industry and warned managers of the problems to come. The managers, however, were unable to comprehend the forecasted upheaval due to their unprecedentedness.

The planners then offered those managers training, that enabled them to examine their own beliefs and in turn prepare for the changes that could have had a major impact on business for Shell, thus giving them tools to take apart their mental models themselves.

Organizations can offer their employees a ‘learning infrastructure’, a system that makes a conscious assessment of the presiding mental models an important part of the organization’s daily life. Additionally, managers need to create an environment that promotes critical thinking, and openness, where employees are not afraid to change their minds and challenge old methods.

Shared Visions Fuel Learning

The importance of shared vision can be seen in the historical event when America put a man on the moon.

John F. Kennedy, in 1961 promised America that they would send a manned spacecraft to the moon. While it sounded ludicrous then, in 1969 Neil Armstrong created history. Kennedy’s promise worked only because the teams of scientists in the US space program shared that vision.

shared vision energizes a learning organization, and gives employees the push they need when their tireless experimenting and working takes them through disappointments and failures. A shared vision can also be seen in successful companies such as Ford and Apple. For Apple, the vision of creating computers that bought joy to the users, and Ford’s vision of making affordable cars was shared by all the employees. These visions were so powerful that they took the companies to success. The belief, in not only making business profits and money or beating the competition but in working towards changing people’s lives was vital to their success.

While almost every company today has a vision statement, a genuine shared vision cannot be achieved if the vision is preached from the top of the ladder. The employees have to truly believe in it themselves. It cannot be forced upon.

Thus, to help every employee believe in the vision and to achieve a shared vision state, the vision itself has to be relevant to every employee. Organizations have to think and discuss with the employees how the vision fits in their lives, what personal value does it bring, and how it fits with each employee’s values. This dialogue has to begin at the top. Leaders have to be honest and open with employees about how the vision fits in their personal lives, and then give employees the freedom to develop their own inspiration from that vision.

Working Together

An orchestra is a great example of teamwork. While all musicians are engrossed in their own instruments, they are still aligned with and attuned to each other. Finding such alignment at the workplace is rare. One, more often, finds teams of talented individuals trying hard, but ending up nowhere.

the trick lies in practising new ways of communication. People are prone to maintaining and employing fixed behaviours in order to avoid threats. These, according to Harvard researcher Chris Argyris are called ‘defensive routines’. Trying to placate a colleague that challenges one’s thoughts, in order to avoid conflict is an example. On the other hand, one could end up launching a counter-attack to prove a point. Both these mechanisms, however, are against the principle of team learning, mainly because neither promotes genuine communication.

In order to deal with such defensive tactics, one needs to engage in creative dialogue –  a type of communication where one works outside assumptions. When one challenges the mental model, one is training to engage in creative dialogue.

Another important necessity is deep listening skills, or simply actively taking the time to hear what team members have to say. This, however, needs a lot of practice. Conducting exercises in dialogue sessions (with clear ground rules) is a great way to implement it at the organizational level. Finally, organizations need to have an appetite for healthy reflection.

Thinking Systematically

The fifth discipline, systems thinking, is the most important discipline of all. Just like rivers have undercurrents, organizations too, have underlying processes that are at play. These processes, if ignored can wreak havoc in the organization, without people even knowing what is happening, or how to break free.

Systems thinking trains the employees of an organization to look at and analyse problems holistically.

Consider an organization with three departments – research, marketing, and manufacturing. The heads of each of the departments are exceptional at their work. They know their department like the back of their hands. However, each of them is not clearly aware of how the work in their department influences or affects the other departments.

In this situation, the organization as a whole will never be able to solve the underlying issues that it faces.

Systems thinking, additionally, focuses on learning and understanding cause and effect. Contrary to what most people believe, they tend to have a linear approach to thinking such as A causes B causes C. however systems thinking shows that cause and effect work, and affect each other in circular, or cyclical ‘feedback loops’.

When one master’s systems thinking, one starts to observe events over time and look for patterns. Such observations lead to understanding the fact that the immediate effects of actions today can be drastically different from what happens over longer periods of time. Additionally, systems thinking also takes into consideration geographical differences, where actions can have different effects over a local area and completely different effects globally.

Systems thinking is vital for learning organizations. It helps in understanding what drives peoples behaviours, gives managers tools that they can apply the five disciplines in a holistic manner, and promotes sophisticated analyses within the organization and across broader industries.

Redefining The Role OF The Leader

Traditionally, leadership is envisioned in a very hierarchical manner, where those holding senior ranks are considered the top management. Such a view however is limiting in nature for learning organizations.

It limits how people perceive the ability of any employee to bring about change. For instance, ‘only leader can make decisions, whereas the lower rungs can only follow their lead and implement those decisions. Such perceptions have done more harm than help.

Today, many organizations call themselves ‘non-hierarchical’. However, it doesn’t imply that there is no management, or that one isn’t needed. Instead, it implies that they have been able to reimagine leadership in a more positive sense.

For instance, perceiving leaders as designers would mean that these leaders are there to create a learning infrastructure, which could include innovative conference formats, virtual meeting spaces, open feedback sessions, etc.

Another way to reimagine leadership roles would be to perceive them as teachers who inspire learning; teachers who want to change lives by simply sharing their love for knowledge. Leaders can also show passion for personal mastery, be curious about what is around them and how they influence others, be courageous to experiment and be humble enough to accept mistakes.

Stewards perhaps, have one of the most powerful leadership roles in learning organizations. They preserve and protect things that are important. They check that the growth of the company is never more important than either the well-being of employees or the larger ideals of the company. They make change less scary by supporting innovation.

Thus, according to Senge, leaders should merge the skills of all three – stewards, teachers, and designers, to empower and support learning.


In order to create learning organizations, where creativity thrives, leaders are supportive and where employees are passionate about their work, organizations have to apply the five key disciplines of promotion of personal mastery, changing mental models of the organization, team learning, shared vision, and systems thinking.

In addition to these, organizations have to redefine the role of leadership where leader empower their employees to be passionate and support a learning environment, by leading by example.