In The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook by Peter Senge et. al. (1994), there is an emphasis on organizations that learn.  The authors said, “The organizations that will truly excel in the future will be the organizations that discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization.”  Interestingly, the  book starts at the level of the individual with a description of how members of the Natal tribe in South Africa greet each other.  The expression “Sawa bona” is described as a greeting not unlike “hello” in the US, but with a deeper meaning that means “I see you.”  The authors also explained an expression from Zulu that means, “A person is a person because of other people.”  The importance of these perspectives, embedded in some cultures more than others, does not escape me when I think about how successful organizations function and how curiosity is needed to discover deeper meanings about how we think and work together.

Organizations that value curiosity and learning, even at the level of relationships within groups, have a wiser approach to internal and external challenges and opportunities because the they are seen through the lens of curiosity.  It takes curiosity, rather than quick judgment, to explore and deepen understanding about how someone sees challenges and opportunities differently than you.  We know different perspectives in a group make the group stronger if an egoic “fight to be right” does not ensue.  Curiosity and respect are the keys to deeper discovery when perspectives differ.

Organizations that learn appreciate interactional patterns and understand the importance of the driving forces behind patterns that are positive and negative.  Senge et. al., stated,

In the realm of management and leadership, many people are conditioned to see our ‘organizations’ as things rather than as patterns of interactions.  We look for solutions that will ‘fix problems,’ as if they are external and can be fixed without ‘fixing’ that which is within us that lead to their creation.  Consequently, we are inevitably drawn into an endless spiral of superficial quick fixes, worsening difficulties in the long run, and an ever-deepening sense of powerlessness.  In organizations, articulating the primacy of the whole as a guiding idea may be the first step in helping people break this vicious cycle (p. 25).

The authors further stated, “When we do not take other people as objects for our use, but see them as fellow human beings with whom we can learn and change, we open new possibilities for being ourselves more fully” (p. 26).   Again, relating back to the saying that a person is a person because of other people.

Higher education is a complex organization and the individuals within it make up part of the complexity.  It is important to consider individuals within the organization where initiatives may be stuck or relationships may be difficult in order to gain a better view of the whole.  While leaders can never completely understand the complexity and interrelatedness of all organizational pieces, there are approaches and concepts that help people work together better and help the organization be more successful.  Primacy of the whole is critical.  This is why Margaret Wheatley, in her writings about leadership, emphasized that everyone should “be at the table” when decisions are made that affect them.  When individuals are brought together, however, the loudest and most persistent voices must not be allowed to override what may be the quietest and wisest.  An insightful mentor of mine once said, “All voices will be heard, but no single voice will carry the day.”

All voices, whether loud, quiet, persistent, or reserved can be rooted in belief systems and cognitive maps that do not represent the territory; thus, adding further to complexity.  Senge et. al., said, “We develop a level of certainty that robs us of the capacity for wonder that stifles our ability to see new interpretations and new possibilities for action.  Such are the roots of belief systems that become rigid, entrenched, and ultimately self-protective” (p. 27).  The authors presented a powerful concept in their book entitled “The Ladder of Inference” that explains how some of the complex and often non-productive behaviors in organizations and groups develop.



We must be extremely careful not to get caught in the reflexive loop on the ladder of inference because it results in beliefs and actions that are damaging to healthy group and organizational functioning.  Biased views are developed in the reflexive loop, limiting full view or understanding of external data and occurrences.  Each trip around the reflexive loop, without getting to the data, leads to increased misperception and the creation of untrue, biased stories.  I often say, “If you think you know, you don’t grow.”  Is your curiosity deep enough to get to a deeper truth?  Once the ladder of inference is understood, it is easier to remind ourselves to engage more deeply or reengage our curiosity to examine data and explore clearer perceptions.  Belief systems that are driven by curiosity and learning, and are based on accurate information, lead to unlimited potential within a community to create a powerful present and a promising future.

Bonus: If you are working with your students to improve collaboration skills, consider teaching them about the ladder of inference and the importance of curiosity.

EHHS Shared Values emphasized in this blog:

Respect and Empathy

Life Long Learning/Growth

Broad Minded



Senge, P. M., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C. Ross, R.B., & Smith, B.J. (1994). The Fifth discipline fieldbook: Strategies and tools for building a learning organization. New York: Currency, Doubleday.

Wheatley, M.J. (2005). Finding our way: Leadership for and uncertain time. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Magnifying Glass Image (2011). Retrieved March 22, 2015 from:

Ladder Image (2011). Retrieved March 21, 2015 from: