Conscious competence and all that stuff - Learning over time.

This model has been around the adult training pedagogies for many years. This is the idea that a person moves from:

Unconscious Incompetence - to -

Don't know what I don't know

Conscious Incompetence - to -

Know what I don't know

Conscious Competence - to -

Know how to do it consciously

Unconscious Competence.

Don't know what I do know - I just do it

First up, we don’t know what we don’t know. In training or learning in an area that is new this is especially so. However, our cultural training in life usually means it is risky to say to others or even admit to ourselves that we don’t know. The implications of not knowing are things like being foolish, being dumb, being stupid, and being slow with attendant feelings such as shame, embarrassment, humiliation, or rejection.  Avoidance of the feelings that go with these ideas is often a hindrance to learning. However, when we are bold enough to allow ourselves to not know then we can move into Conscious Incompetence.

Knowing that we don’t know something can be very freeing unless our jobs depend on it. Once we know we don’t know then we can actively plan a process to learn and develop. This process itself can also muck up how we normally do things. For instance, when we try and improve the way we do something that is very regular in our lives - for instance play a sport, drive a car, use a computer, or cook a meal then our usual style can be compromised, and we actually do worse than we might have done before. The sports grip doesn’t feel right. The way we type doesn’t work anymore. The way we corner in the car doesn’t ‘feel natural’.

As we develop our competency we move through from tentative competency through adequacy. Usually, this stage of learning requires remaining thoughtful and conscious as we are utilising our newish skill.

Eventually this skill or learning becomes natural to us and in this model, we become Unconsciously Competent.


The Lifelong Learner isn’t afraid to use these three magic words: ‘I don’t know’.  To people who want to learn, these words are empowering.  If they don’t know the answer, they can ask questions and seek out the answer.  Too often, people are reluctant to use the magic words, fearing that they will be perceived as inadequate or incompetent.

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetent

As you learn, you pass through stages of competence, as, perhaps, identified by William Howell in his book Empathic Communications.  The first stage is unconscious incompetent.  At this stage you don’t know what you don’t know, as in the expression, “what you don’t know can’t hurt you”.  In some respects, this is a naïve and blissful state, because there is no discomfort about not knowing something.  For example, consider the manager who has just taken a job in a new unit.  She knows from the interview that the unit is immersed in implementing a quality program, but she’s never been exposed to what this means in day-to-day work.  She’s always tried to do quality work and can’t imagine that this will be much different.  This manager is an unconscious incompetent, knowing nothing of what will be required of her in her new job.


Unconscious competent

Conscious competent

Conscious incompetent

Unconscious incompetent


Stage 2: Conscious Incompetent

It doesn’t take long for the new manager to move to the second stage: conscious incompetent.  At this point, she knows she doesn’t know.  This is the time characterised by stress, sometimes disillusionment, and a significant opportunity to use the three magic words: I don’t know.  She’s moved from the blissfully ignorant state to a state of discomfort (at times extreme discomfort!)  Now the manager is on the so-called learning curve.  When she attends meetings, people talk about opportunity analysis, cause and effect matrix, and PERT charts.  She is acutely aware that she doesn’t know what these words mean, or how to use these quality tools.  Her early attempts to apply the tools result in confusion and frustration.

Stage 3: Conscious Competent

As the weeks pass, the manager asks questions, practises using the quality tools and gradually achieves the stage of conscious competent.  She begins to understand which tools to use in which situation.  She knows how to use each of the tools effectively.  She stops worrying that she’ll embarrass herself in a meeting because she doesn’t know the difference between a PERT chart and a Gantt Chart.  At this stage, using the tools still demands concentration.  But there is less stress, more fun, and a growing sense of pride in her knowledge and skills.  Discomfort begins its transformation into comfort.

Stage 4: Unconscious Competent

Continued practice gets the learner to the fourth stage: unconscious competent.  At this point the manager no longer needs to check a reference manual for how to use specific quality tool.  She doesn’t need to analyse which tool to use in a given situation.  Using the tools has become enjoyable.  What a wonderful place to reach!  The skill has not only become familiar; it has become a reflex action.

But there are risks to this stage of unconscious competence.

Learning Arrogance

When you’ve worked diligently to learn a new skill and practised long and hard to become effective at it, you are more likely to resist new ways of accomplishing that task.  For instance, our manager is visited by vendor one day, who suggests that there is a special computer and software package that will enable a team to make faster, wiser decisions.  The vendor is convinced that the new technology is an advance over the quality tools the manager currently uses.  But the manager is comfortable with her quality tools.  Whether objections to innovation are verbalised or not, the message conveyed is, “My way is best.”  When the unconscious competent is experiencing success with one way, she may not be open to another way.  Have you ever seen this happen?


When you can do the job without thinking about it, where is the challenge?  Where is the excitement?  Ironically, a person at this advanced stage of learning can become a liability for an organisation because she loses some motivation, has time to complain, and may resist new ways of doing things.

What’s the solution to the pitfalls of unconscious competence?  One answer is to begin a learning cycle again in a new area, or with a new skill.  This is one of the benefits of job rotation and cross training.  Learners re-enter the unconscious incompetent stage, which invites ongoing learning.  Another solution is proposed by Bob Pike in his book, Creative Training Techniques Handbook.  He suggests there is a fifth stage, conscious unconscious competent – which involves teaching others how to do what you do.

This, of course, is one of the reasons learning organisations begin using internal trainers instead of relying only on the training department or outside experts.  Teaching is one of the quickest ways to learn.  Everyone can become a mentor in some area, which strengthens teamwork and cooperation.


Stage 5: Mastery

There is yet another stage of learning: mastery.  George Leonard, author of Mastery, says that as a person learns, there are spurts of growth followed by a plateau.  Early in the learning process, the spurts of growth are closer together and there’s a sense of accomplishment.  However, the time spent on the plateau grows longer as the climb becomes steeper and the refinements more subtle.  Leonard uses aikido, a Japanese martial art based on the joint locks and throws, as his analogy.  Many people begin a martial art and enjoy the first year or so of classes when learning is most rapid.  But then they stop coming to classes.  They never even earn their black belt.  That’s because most people, particularly in Western cultures, enjoy the feeling that is associated with the growth spurt.  They start new projects and experience that initial thrill of learning and accomplishment.  But as soon as the learning slows down and becomes more subtle, they tire of the project and turn their attention to something new.  People don’t often stay with one thing long enough to truly master it.


Think of each the learning stages as a plateau.  Some people won’t stick with learning something for long enough to master it, to reach that sixth stage.

Mastery is the process and not the endpoint to be reached.  The challenge is to learn to love the plateau since that is where you spend the bulk of your life.

The growth spurts are peaks, moments that are not sustained.  They motivate you to continue practising on the plateau, knowing that eventually you’ll move from this plateau to another.

The process of mastering something requires both time and commitment.  A meditation teacher once said, “If you insist on evaluating your practice, do it only at 10-year intervals.”  Yet we want our companies to show profits and growth on a quarterly basis!  That short-term mind-set is in direct contradiction to the process of learning.  Mastery as an approach to learning and running our organisation represents transformation – another paradigm shift.

Examining Your Own Learned Skills

Take a few minutes now to apply these concepts to your work life.  Think of something that you’ve learned and have taken from the stage of unconscious incompetence toward mastery.