Are you Consciously Competent or Unconsciously Incompetent?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015 - 16:51

By Kate Neser - Centre for Public Management (CPM)

Ever noticed a pattern that emerges when you take on a new job, or a new role?  Everything seems to start off rosy, but then it seems to get worse before it gets better.  And a while after it gets better, finally, you get to the stage where you feel like you can do the job with your eyes shut. 

This process has been articulated in the theory of conscious competence, variously attributed to Abraham Maslow or to Gordon Training International, with the true origins difficult to pinpoint.  It can be useful to understand these stages as you enter into a new job.

Stage 1:  “Unconscious Incompetence”. 

There seems to be a period – often referred to as the ‘honeymoon period’ where it is all new, exciting, you are keen to do a good job in your new role, and you are busy meeting all the new people, getting your email setup, and finding out where the fridge is. 

You take on a few new tasks without always knowing what needs to be done or how to go about it, and you give it your best shot.  But right now, the workload is slow to ramp up, so you often have time to mess things up a little before getting it right. 

There’s a whole lot you don’t know, but right now, you don’t know that you don’t know it.  I like to refer to this stage as ‘blissful ignorance’!

Stage 2:  “Conscious incompetence”

Then, after a while, you notice that you feel a bit overwhelmed.  You have lots more tasks on, still don’t really know what needs to be done or how to go about it.  You are really conscious of just how much you don’t know about the new work.  You look at the colleagues sitting around you, and they all seem to be incredibly knowledgeable and experienced.

Suddenly, you are feeling out of your depth.  You feel like you will never learn everything there is to know to be fully competent in the new job.  You wonder whether this was a bad move – maybe you should have stayed where you were in your old job, not ventured out of your comfort zone. 

It is critical at this stage, not to give up.  Be careful not to regress into your comfort zone.  If you can keep these stages in mind, you will remember that this is the hardest stage.  You have moved into the stage where you are entirely aware of your level of incompetence – chances are that you are being much harsher on yourself than is justified.  Just remember that things are going to get better!

Stage 3:  “Conscious competence”

Once you’ve settled into the job, you start to notice that you don’t feel quite so overwhelmed.  A new task will hit your desk, and now you know what to do with it, what’s required, who to talk to, what format is needed, what the expected timeframe is.  You set to work, and go through the steps that you have learned to successfully complete the job.

You’ve actually now reached the point where you have at least some level of competence, and you are aware, or conscious, of how to do the job.

Stage 4:  “Unconscious competence”

Then, finally, if you stay in the role a bit longer, you will reach the stage where you are unconsciously competent.  This doesn’t mean that you sleep at your desk.  But it does mean that you know how to do the job, without really paying that much attention.  A new task will hit your desk, and you won’t even need to think about what needs to be done, or who you need to talk to.  You hit the ground running and don’t think twice.  At this stage, it is important to not get careless, to keep up the quality of your output and to make sure that you continue to look for ways to improve.

At the advanced point of this stage, it can even be difficult to teach someone else to do the job, as it all seems blindingly obvious to you, and breaking it back down into each discrete step that you need to take can take quite an effort.

Which brings me to…

Stage 5:  “Conscious, unconscious competence”

This is the stage at which you start to become competent at teaching someone else the job.  The best analogy here is teaching someone else to drive a car.  It takes real effort to remember each step along the way, and you have to be a real master to teach someone else the skills by breaking it down in easily digestible, understandable steps.  This stage forces you to consciously articulate processes in which you have become unconsciously competent.

So the trick to remember isthis process is entirely normal, and most people go through some version of each of these stages.  If you are struggling in your job, and think you might be suffering from conscious incompetence, give yourself a break and wait for the conscious competence stage to arrive!

AND… if you are feeling unchallenged in your job, you may have entered into stage 4, and not getting out of your comfort zone enough.  The answer here may be to deliberately push yourself back into stage 2 – take on a new task, volunteer for a different role, get out of your comfort zone.  This can be a useful opportunity for you to develop new skills and capabilities so that you don’t get bored or complacent in the world of ‘unconsciously competent’.

Kate Neser is the Principal Executive Coach with the Centre for Public Management – the Public Sector Division of AIM.  Kate coaches people to find the pathway to fulfil on their full potential in any area of work, whether it be developing their leadership potential, managing people or seeking the elusive work-life balance.  Kate is an Associate Certified Coach with the International Coach Federation (ICF), and Director of Professional Development on the Australasia Board of the ICF.