Friday, June 5, 2009

Are you unconsciously incompetent?

What a thing to say to someone first thing in the morning! If you are unconsciously incompetent you don't know what you don't know. You might think you know everything - but you don't.



Gordon's Ladder of Learning and John Maxwell's Law of Process says that we go through a predictable set of stages as we learn to be effective - it's impossible for us to become good leaders in a day. And Bruce Tuckman has said that we go through predictable emotional states as change happens. Here's a mash-up of their ideas as I've seen them exhibited in groups and individuals:


  • Stage One - unconscious incompetence - We don't know what we don't know. This could be blissful ignorance, where we're happily skipping along our way. Perhaps our company leadership has just announced a change, but we're excited about the prospects, for a variety of reasons. Then all of a sudden we cross the Bridge of Discovery, and...wham! We're now in

  • Stage Two - conscious incompetence - We now know what we don't know. And for many of us the feelings associated with stage two are not comfortable. In groups this stage is often characterized by storming - where participants can be likely to resist, to look for external targets for blame, engage in self-justifying behavior, etc. If, however, despite our feelings of resistance we respond to our new awareness by choosing to learn what we need to know we can cross the Bridge of Training and move into

  • Stage Three - conscious competence - We can be effective if we're staying in the moment and intentionally applying what we've learned. Conscious competence is the stage in which groups are norming - individuals have determined that they need to change, so they are integrating new skills into their daily behavior. Once we have successfully integrated the new information, we cross the Bridge of Development into

  • Stage Four - unconscious competence - This is the stage within which we are behaving effectively at such a conditioned level that we don't even notice our competence. This is similar to when I used to ask my grandmother how she made such good pie crust, and she would say "Add water until it feels right." What constitutes "right"? She knew, but had a hard time explaining it to others because the details were so ingrained that she wasn't aware of them. In a group setting this can be called performing - the habitual application of acquired skills and knowledge.

This process doesn't have a prescribed time frame attached to it. Individuals and groups can be fast or slow at moving through the stages, and the intensity of their emotional states at each stage can be widely variable. But they will go through them. So if you're a leader making changes you need to anticipate each stage, and consider providing a structured development process to help your staff through the stages and come out successfully on the other side.


The challenge in being unconsciously competent is in the word unconsciously. Whenever we're unconscious, operating from conditioning and habit, we're at risk of crossing the Bridge of Complacency back into unconscious incompetence. These stages are cyclical, and we can go through them over and over during our lifetime. Methods change, situational applications change - and if we don't stay aware of the impact of our behavior on results we run the risk of finding ourselves back where we started.

2 comments:

Chip Scholz said...

i had always attributed this to Kirkpatrick as an adaptation of the "ladder of learning", but stand corrected.

I have a question, though. the bridge connecting the top two boxes, complacency, seems to indicate that what is not used is lost forever. In other words, we slide from Unconscious Competent to Unconscious Incompetent. In your experience, does that happen?

Julie Poland, certified business coach said...

Chip -

I don't think our skills necessarily erode, sliding us from unconscious competence to unconscious incompetence.

What I have seen happen, though, is that sometimes people get so attached to their skill set that they don't recognize that situations, technology, culture, etc. have changed, making their old approach ineffective or obsolete. It's like the buggy-whip manufacturer, who is an incredible craftsperson but finds his product put out to pasture with the advent of the automobile.

In management settings specifically, I've seen the kick-butt-and-take-names leaders of yesterday become labeled as dinosaurs in their companies because command and control skills are not in as high demand in their companies as they once were.

Sharpen the saw and stay current on what's happening both with us and around us - that's how we prevent ourselves from crossing that bridge back into UI.