Stages of Competence

You Know Too Much!

After years of hard work and acquiring knowledge, you are now the one in charge.

The Manager, the Leader, the Boss?

Great, right?

Of course, but as they say, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’. (I think that was Spiderman, wasn’t it!).

What I mean is that you now must be that person who cannot just do it yourself, but you can step back and help others to do it instead of you. You have to teach!

To show others the way and pass on that (hopefully) great depth of knowledge that got you in this position in the first place!

This might seem straightforward but, as I have mentioned before, experts can’t always translate their genius into effective leadership.

This is because You know too much!

And if you get it wrong, you will likely demotivate, undermine, de-skill and terrify your people into not performing, rather than unleashing their brilliance.

So, you need to understand what helps people to learn and what stops them, then you need to know how to make sure we do it properly.

And there is an easy way…

That is to understand and utilise the competency model.

Simply put, there are four stages of competence, starting with…

Unconscious Incompetence – or blissful ignorance

This basically means you don’t know what you don’t know.

I always like to use the example of learning to drive.

You’ve just turned 17 and you want to get behind that wheel as soon as possible.

You’ve seen so many people do it, so how hard can it be?

This is Unconscious Incompetence.

You think there is nothing to it and it is going to be a doddle. So, you feel confident, perhaps underestimate the trickiness of it all and think it will take a couple of days to learn.

You might be missing a skill, but you don’t even know what that skill is.

And if you have an employee in this phase, you may be given a false sense of security that all will be well….

But, once they are enlightened to the joys of a clutch and a handbrake by a driving instructor or parent or whoever, we suddenly, and maybe devastatingly (if we are not careful), move onto the next step that is…

Conscious Incompetence – you now know you haven’t a clue!

So, you get in the car, and you don’t know your brakes from your full beams.

Now you can see all the wheels, knobs, and handles, and you begin to recognize that there is more to it than you thought.

You have an awareness of what it is you don’t know and what skills you need to develop. And you are now “terrified” that you won’t be able to do it.

You know that you need to use the clutch and gear stick in some capacity but aren’t too sure how.

And this is where the learning comes in and your driving lessons really start.

But as a leader, if you are not careful, you can break your team member, right here.

Because they are at their lowest here.

They thought they were great and now their head is telling them that they will “never learn this” or “I must be stupid” and this is where they can procrastinate and faff, because they don’t know how but they maybe don’t trust you well enough to tell.

So, you need to make sure you help them in this stage, to be safe and certain in their learning that it is OK, not to know.

If you don’t, they will never take the risk, but if you do, they will start to get the hang of it and move onto the next stage…

And this is where the driving instructor really comes into play here, actively teaching you how to drive, what foot goes where when and all the technical stuff! Making it OK to learn.

Conscious Competence – or should I say clunky!

At this point you begin to progress slowly. Driving starts to make sense but is not yet natural or entirely comfortable.

This is when your Mum will still grab dramatically for the handle anytime you approach a roundabout or your Dad has his foot on those imaginary brakes!

At this point, you need to be determined to prove them wrong and stick at it. You’re learning, and the more you do this, the more likely it is that driving will become second nature and soon enough you’re taking your test.

And if you are the “driving instructor” in this story you need to let your team member get used to driving.

That may be frustrating for you. It may mean it is slower than you want it to be, takes longer, is laborious and you could have done it quicker yourself.

Well, of course you could. But that is not the point. Because eventually you want to move on through this to get out the other side.

But if you keep poking your nose in and micro-managing, they will never be confident and never get the real hang of it. They won’t make good decisions and they will just defer to you.

So, hang on in there! Be patient and show you people you believe in them, and their learning and you trust them to try, to learn and to make (hopefully not too many) mistakes.

Because if you persevere your team member will start to build confidence and move on to…

Unconscious Competence

You pass that test and master the skill!

Of course, your driving will develop more as you are let loose on the roads, but at this point you are no longer practicing.

You are developing on the foundations that were set in your driving lessons. You are confident to get in that car and know that when you do, there will be no more dramatic grabbing of handles!

A year later, you are driving to work, listening to the radio, going through the motion as if you had been doing it your whole life.

And as the boss of the new driver, you are now able to trust them to do the right thing, not crash the car or do something silly.

You are still there on the end of a phone or for some advice (on parallel parking perhaps), but you don’t need to be there, watching their every move.

It starts to feel like you can let go and reap the rewards of that patience you showed.

They are confident, capable and they know you are a great boss because you trust them, and you made them feel it is ok to learn.

So, what does this mean for you as a leader?

Well, once you understand the process of someone who is learning something for the first time, whether it is driving, or creating widgets in your business, you will be able to see how to best break down the information you’re giving them to make the whole thing easier for everyone.

They won’t really know anything about how you operate or your expectations of them. So, first, that’s what you need to tell them!

Once this is clear they will move into the second stage. Here you can get more specific in outlining tasks and roles. Whilst they still won’t be comfortable, this enables you to move into stage three and get them learning some tools and techniques.

Here you can offer training and give out jobs without blowing their minds! And in doing so, you are building up teams that will not only be capable, but way more confident too.

It’s like swimming.

Throwing a kid in at the deep end is not developing a good swimmer, in fact it likely to scar them and make them scared of the water.

You must start off in the kiddy pool with the armbands if you want the next Michael Phelps on your hands (or in your team!) until they trust you and get them in the position to learn.

And following these steps, breaking down your knowledge into manageable pieces, not only will you build proficient teams, but you will also be forming ready made managers and leaders for your business in the future!

To me that sounds great, don’t you think?

And if you feel like you’re in a little bit of a ‘Conscious Incompetence’ stage with growing your teams yourself, why not get in touch by emailing me at and see if we can begin your journey to Unconscious Competence in Team Performance!

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