Harish Midha(1)

Department of Adult Education

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

at the University of Toronto

Paper to be presented at the 18th annual conference of the

Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education, Sherbrooke, June 10-12, 1999


The focus of this paper is on exploring spiritual dimensions of Senge's model of a learning organization and finding intersections between some age-old traditions and the emergent notions of a "spiritual" workplace in contemporary management theory and practice.


Cet article porte surtout sur les dimensions spirituelles du modèle de Senge, "l'organisation qui est toujours en train de changer", et cherche aussi des similitudes entre les anciennes traditions et les idee's qui naissent, d'un milieu de travail "spirituel", dans la théorie et pratique de la gestion contemporaine.


Man is a transitional being; he is not final...

There is Power within that knows beyond our knowings;

We are greater than our thoughts.

(Sri Aurobindo)

Described as "last of the great Rishis" by noble-laureate Romain Rolland, Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) was a great spiritual visionary. Interpreting the philosophy and wisdom enshrined in the ancient traditions of the East, he saw gradual divination of life as the very purpose of evolution - "The animal is laboratory in which Nature has worked out man; man may very well be a laboratory in which she wills to disclose the soul as a divine being, to evolve a divine nature" (McDermott, 1973, 45). Defined by their faculty of "thinking" in the evolutionary scale, humans and their organisations could thus be seen as trying to reach out to dimensions higher than what "thinking" alone would dictate.

Spirituality in the workplace is an evolving theme in contemporary management theory and practice. Since the early days of Taylorism at the beginning of the century, management practitioners have grappled with the challenge of how to engage the "whole person". The fragmented views of the "organizational man", responsible for much of the workplace alienation during the industrial age, are being replaced by a more holistic view. Under this new paradigm, the "Work itself is ... being rediscovered as a source of spiritual growth and connection to others" (Mirvis, 1997, 199).

Many interesting corporate models have emerged lately for defining "organization of the future", an organization that would be more congruent with human needs and aspirations of the next millennium. The one that has found wide-scale acceptance in the management arena is the idea of a "learning organization' (Senge, 1990). The purpose of this paper is to explore the gradual evolution of the management paradigm from pure objectivism to spiritual dimensions of Senge's model of a learning organization and find intersections between some age-old traditions and the

emergent notions of a "spiritual" workplace.

Management Paradigm ­ An Evolutionary Process

The workplace view of human beings seems to have shifted gradually over the last hundred years from seeing them as a "pair of hands" to a more holistic paradigm where they are viewed more as "spiritual" beings actuated by a variety of needs. The important stages of the evolution of the management paradigm in this respect could broadly be identified as follows:

Taylor - Scientific Management (1900-1920s): The workers were seen essentially as "objects to be optimized". Industrial engineers were out with their stopwatches to do time-and-motion studies. Dramatic increases in worker-productivity were accompanied by an unfortunate "dehumanization" of the workplace.

Human Relations Movement (1930-40s): The Hawthorne studies were a landmark of this era. Human feelings were finally recognized as an important factor in the productivity equation.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs & McGregor's Theory Y (1950-60s): Maslow and McGregor added a new dimension to the management theory and practice by focusing on the human psyche. The workplace was now supposed to provide an environ, where workers could find "self-actualization and self-fulfillment".

Chris Argyris & Donald Schon (1970-80s): They focused on the inner-self, to promote professional learning and learning in organizations. "Action Learning" and "Reflection in Action" became popular themes in the management arena during this period. These themes carry on to the 1990s and find additional dimensions in the work of Senge and Covey.

Covey & Senge (1990s): Stephen Covey and Peter Senge talk at length of achieving Personal Mastery through spiritual practices like meditation and contemplation in their seminal works addressed to business professionals at the beginning of this decade (Covey, 1990 and Senge, 1990).

Covey and Senge were apparently responding to a groundswell of change that was taking place in the workplace, as part of a general societal movement, towards a new-age spirituality. A recent issue of Time (October 13, 1997) recognises this shift profusely in its lead story under the title "America's Fascination with Buddhism". Neal recognises it as "leaderless spiritual emergence" in the workplace (Neal, 1997, 15).

Human Spirituality in the Workplace

In his "Reflections On Human Spirituality For The Worksite", Brian Seaward defines human spirituality as a:

maturation process of higher consciousness with respect to an insightful and nurturing relationship with oneself and others, the development of a strong value system and the cultivation of a meaningful purpose in life (Seaward, 1995, 6).

The human spirituality thus expresses itself through an enhanced self-awareness and seeing one's connectedness with others at the workplace and beyond.

Spirituality transcends religion and is seen as a fundamental human trait. Maslow recognised it as "Self-transcendence", placing it above "Self-actualisation" in the hierarchy of human needs (Miller, 1996, 49-50). It is at this level, that a person can experience a kind of "spiritual insight", something beyond mere intuition. Representing the highest level of human dimension, it also has the greatest potential for self-expression through the body-mind connection (Miller, 1994)..

The growing workplace spirituality represents only a groundswell of the "evolving" needs and aspirations of working people. The human actor in Senge's model is perceived as a spiritual being seeking self-fulfilment and finding connectedness and meaning in the workplace, a far cry from just a "pair of hands" under Taylorism.

Ego, Self and the Polarities

A fundamental precept of human spirituality is the realisation that "we are greater than our thoughts". Quoting the Mundaka Upanishad, Deepak Chopra explains:

Like two golden birds perched on the selfsame tree, intimate friends, the ego and the Self dwell in the same body. The former eats the sweet and sour fruits of the tree of life, while the latter looks on in detachment (Chopra, 1996, 83).

In the ancient Vedantic tradition of India, life is seen as interplay of ego and the Self. Ego is like a social mask we wear, whereas Self represents the "witness" within. However, in the pursuit of our material goals the Self gets totally deluded by the ego. Senge reminds us of the Bhagwad Gita's chastisement in this regard (ch. 3 v. 27): "All actions are wrought by the qualities of nature only. The self, deluded by egoism, thinketh: I am the doer" (Senge, 1990, 78). The learning organization model proposes to dispel some of these delusions through the practice of its five disciplines by invoking the spiritual dimensions of various organizational issues which have been neglected for too long.

A recent paradigm in terms of polarities (Johnson, 1992) offers an interesting perspective to explore the complexity of issues faced in implementing the disciplines of a learning organization. Simply put, polarities can be defined as sets of opposites which can't function well independently. "Because the two sides of a polarity are interdependent, you cannot choose one as a solution and neglect the other" (Johnson, 1992, p. xii). In most areas of human endeavour, the problems do not offer simple "either / or" solutions. They very often present themselves as ongoing situations with a set of interdependent opposites to balance. Seen in this light, ego and the Self too are polarities that require an ongoing balance. No wonder, Buddha too recommended the "middle path" for the laity thus balancing the polarities of attachment and detachment.

Senge's Five Disciplines: Spiritual Dimensions

Senge's model of a learning organization is based on the practice of five disciplines, i.e., Systems Thinking, Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vision and Team Learning. A major polarity can be identified under each of these five disciplines. One side of these polarities is typically rooted in the "ego" character, while the other represents the "spiritual" side. Most organisations have leaned too heavily so far on the "ego" side of this balance. In arguing the case for creating a learning organization, Peter Senge points out that "the human species is profoundly out of balance. If our work has an impact, it will bring us back into the natural order of things" (Senge, 1994, 13). Major polarities are explored below under each of the five disciplines of a learning organization:

Systems Thinking - Uniqueness and Connectedness

"The whole is greater than the sum of its parts" (Anonymous). In a typical organization, individuality is overemphasised ignoring very often the "connectedness and the whole". So here is an interdependent pair of opposites to balance. Johnson identifies them as polarities of "uniqueness and connectedness" under the continuum of "individual and community" (Johnson, 1992, p. 266). The idea of uniqueness should not be limiting, as "the most unique (can) become the most universal" (Moustakas, 1974, 91). The unique has to blend with the connectedness to get the best of both sides. As for systems thinking, Senge calls it the fifth discipline; "System thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things ...." (Senge, 1990, p. 68). Seeing connectedness with the community of workplace and the world at large is the very essence of human spirituality.

Personal Mastery - Action and Reflection

"He who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction, is wise among men; he is a Yogi ... " (Bhagwad Gita, Ch. 4, v. 18). The Sanskrit word Yoga means "union" representing integration of body and mind - action and reflection. The term Yogi is used in the vediic tradition for one who has achieved complete mastery over "sense objects". Bhagwad Gita (see References), focused on the Science of Self, is an excellent guide to achieving personal mastery. Miller expands the idea of reflection into contemplation, which is "characterised by a merging of the subject and the object .... (where) duality disappears" (Miller, 1994, vii).

Most organisations are obsessed with action, without much reflection or contemplation to go with it. However, truly learning organisations encourage the contemplative side as well. Kazuo Inamori of Kyocera (a world leader in advanced ceramics) teaches "Kyocera employees to look inward as they continually strive for perfection guided by the corporate motto, Respect Heaven and Love People" (Senge, 1990, 140). Senge further extends the spiritual underpinnings of personal mastery by citing Einstein's experience of "increasing connectedness (being) one of the subtlest aspects of personal mastery" (Senge, 1990, 170).

Mental Models - Advocacy and Inquiry

"Mental models are the images, assumptions, and stories which we carry in our minds of ourselves, other people, institutions and every aspect of the world" (Senge et al, 1994, 235). The competitive environment in most organizations encourages advocacy of our own views without paying adequate attention to what others have to say. The advocacy has to be blended with the inquiry of a true spiritual that respects and feels connected with his/her fellow beings. The mental models act as important filters through which we view the world around us. They can impede the learning process, unless we are prepared to confront our feelings and surface the mental models through a spirit of inquiry.

The polarity of advocacy and enquiry has to be properly balanced in a learning organization. In pure advocacy, the goal is to win the argument. "When inquiry and advocacy are combined, the goal is no longer 'to win the argument' but to find the best argument" (Senge, 1990, 199).

Shared Vision - Doing and Being

The discipline of building a shared vision is an important component of a learning organization. It is essentially a statement of "what we want to be". However, a vision has a meaning and substance only if it can be actionable. Only a shared vision can produce true commitment to action. "A shared vision, especially one that is intrinsic, uplifts people's aspirations (being). Work becomes part of pursuing a larger purpose ... (doing)" (Senge, 1990, 207). This brings out not only the best of being and doing, rooted in spirit and the ego, but also a causal relationship between the two poles.

The work assumes a sacred dimension under a truly shared vision, raising it to the level of Karma-Yoga in the Bhagwad Gita. Senge gives an interesting example of a Japanese company Matsushita where the employees sing the company song about "sending our goods to the people of the world, endlessly and continuously, like water gushing from a fountain" (Senge, 1990, 224). The company calls its core values of "fairness, harmony, co-operation, courtesy and humility ..." that accompany the above vision, as its spiritual values.

Team Learning - Discussion and Dialogue

Team learning is an important discipline in the building of a learning organization. The individuals learn all the time, and yet it may not lead to organizational learning. Balancing the polarity of Dialogue and Discussion is an important ingredient of team- learning. A discussion is focused on analysis, whereas a dialogue is directed to evolving a synthesis - a kind of integration flowing from spirituality and holism. In a dialogue we achieve a "stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us" (Bohm, 1989, 1-2). Most organizations, dominated by a culture of discussions and analysis, suffer from fragmentation.

The major polarity management in team learning revolves around the skilful balancing of dialogue and discussion. "In team learning, discussion is the necessary counterpart of dialogue. ..... A learning team masters movement back and forth between dialogue and discussion." (Senge, 1990, p. 247).


Peter Senge calls Systems Thinking as the fifth discipline of a learning organization and places it at the centre of the other four disciplines. It provides the hub of "interconnectedness" around which the disciplines of Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vision and Team Learning seem to revolve. If Systems Thinking is the centre of Senge's model, then spiritually could be viewed as pervading it all like the ubiquitous "sixth discipline" (Mirvis, 1997, 203).


Bhagwad Gita: In view of the availability of a large number of versions/translations of this ancient Indian text, the quotations are referenced by chapter and verse rather than by page number.

Bohm, David (1989), On Dialogue, Transcriptions of a meeting on November 6, 1989 in Ojai, California, USA.

Chopra, Deepak (1996). The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. New Delhi: Excel Books.

Covey, S. R. (1990). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Johnson, Barry (1992). Polarity Management. Amherst,Ma: HRD Press Inc.

McDermott, Robert A. (Ed.). (1973). The Essential Aurobindo. New York: Schocken Books.

Miller, John P. (1994), The Contemplative Practitioner: Meditation in Education and the Professions. Toronto: OISE Press Inc.

Miller, John P. (1996), The Holistic Curriculum. Toronto: OISE Press Inc.

Mirvis, P. H. (1997). CROSSROADS - "Soul Work" in Organizations. Organization Science, 8 (2), 192-206.

Moustakas, C. E. (1974), Finding yourself, finding others. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall Inc.

Neal, J. (1997, April). Leaderless Spiritual Emergence, Spirit At Work , 4(2).

Seaward, Brian L. (1995). Reflections on Human Spirituality for the Worksite, Spirit At Work , 2 (1).

Senge, Peter M. (1990), The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, New York: Doubleday Currency.

Senge, Peter M., Roberts, Charlotte, Ross, Richard B., Smith, Bryan J. & Kleiner, Art (1994), The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing Limited.

Senge, Peter (1994). Helping Organizations How to Learn to Get Back in Balance, Spirit At Work , 1 (1).

1 email address: hmidha@oise.utoronto.ca

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