Organizations with highly competent employees are better equipped to succeed. Given the tremendous competition and pressure to deliver in today’s global marketplace, it is essential to have highly competent employees. In order for companies to excel they must understand the competence levels of their workforce. Competence can be segmented into four distinct stages, these stages are known as The Four Stages of Competence. The Four Stages of Competence is the process of progressing from incompetent to competent in a skill.
Consciousness is the first step towards gaining knowledge. To learn new skills and to gain knowledge you need to be conscious of what you do and do not know. Next, competence is your ability to effectively complete tasks. You may be highly competent in one area, but have no skill in another. Your competence level will depend on the task or job at hand. The idea is that as you build expertise in a new area you become more competent with practice. When learning a new skill people always enter at the “unconscious incompetence“, move to the “conscious incompetence” and then to “conscious competence”, finally reaching “unconscious competence.” This is the path that everyone takes to go from a beginner to an expert.
In this stage generally you don’t know what you don’t know. At stage 1, you may not even be aware that an opportunity for learning and improving exists. If you are aware of the existence of some knowledge or a skill that you do not possess, you may be unaware of a particularly good reason for acquiring that knowledge or skill, or its relevance to you. Once you have recognized the existence of that knowledge or skill and of the benefits of acquiring it for yourself, you are empowered to move forward to the next stage.
At this level you are blissfully ignorant: You have a complete lack of knowledge and skills in the subject in question. On top of this, you are unaware of this lack of skill, and your confidence may therefore far exceed your abilities.
In this stage you do know what you don’t know. You have already recognized that there is a worthwhile learning opportunity available and therefore that there is an area of knowledge or skill in which you are deficient. You can now begin to think about how you are going to constructively address that deficiency and move toward competence.
At this level you find that there are skills you need to learn, and you may be shocked to discover that there are others who are much more competent than you. As you realize that your ability is limited, your confidence drops. You go through an uncomfortable period as you learn these new skills when others are much more competent and successful than you are.
In this stage you know what you know. In stage 3 the focus is on actually learning the knowledge or skills that you identified as being of value in Stage 1. To learn effectively you have to actively concentrate and consciously think about exactly what you are doing at every stage as you store the learnings that will enable you to make use of our new knowledge reliably, at will and without assistance in the future. In the later parts of Stage 3 you should be able to demonstrate the skill or knowledge to other people, but you may not be able to teach it well to others yet. Repeated practice is the single most effective way to move from Stage 3 to Stage 4.
At this level you acquire the new skills and knowledge. You put your learning into practice and you gain confidence in carrying out the tasks or jobs involved. You are aware of your new skills and work on refining them. You are still concentrating on the performance of these activities, but as you get more practice and experience, these become increasingly automatic.
Stage 4 is known as Unconscious Competence which is where you don’t know what you know (that is to say you become less consciously aware of what you know) and through continued practice the use of what you know becomes second nature and moves from being a conscious to an unconscious functioning. People who have been driving for a number of years usually demonstrate unconscious competence. All of the skills required to perform a task become so entrenched in their unconscious that they may be able to do other things at the same time. People often describe operating at this level of competence as operating intuitively. Most subject matter experts reside in this stage.
At this level of competence you may find that you can effectively teach what you have learned to others. After an extended period you may also find that as you do what you do in an unconsciously competent way it has become so instinctual that you actually find difficulty in explaining it to others. This is why you must avoid complacency and periodically check our unconscious competence against new standards.
At this level your new skills become habits, and you perform the task without conscious effort and with automatic ease.
This is the peak of your confidence and ability.
Typically employers believe their employees are at least at the 2nd stage and focus efforts on the 3rd stage. This is because employers assume employees are aware of the skill existence, nature, relevance, deficiency, and benefit. Ironically most employees also believe they are beyond the 1st stage. Often most employees actually fall into the unconscious incompetence stage. The reason why employees and employers believe the workforce collectively is beyond the 1st stage is simple. Both the employees and employers assume that the courses take in undergraduate or graduate school has provided the necessary information to succeed. This assumption is misleading for four reasons 1) students do not have the context to filter key job information from text books while in school 2) if the information is not applied individuals at best will retain 20% of what they learned, this decreases over time 3) the employer is assuming the content taught in school will seamlessly apply to their firm’s specific need and 4) the student has take the optimal combination of courses to succeed at work.
Generally, individuals in the 1st stage will not have the proper information in place, and will not be able to achieve conscious competence until they’ve become consciously and fully aware of their own incompetence. This is a fundamental reason for the failure of many employees. It’s essential to establish awareness of a weakness or training need (conscious incompetence) prior to attempting to impart or arrange training or skills necessary to move employees from stage 2 to 3. Some individuals resist progression even to stage 2, because they refuse to acknowledge or accept the relevance and benefit of a particular skill or ability or the idea that they are incompetent.
When we find that we don’t know something important, we are either motivated to learn more or deny the deficiency. However if we’re blissfully unaware of our ignorance, there’s little we can do about it. One of the first steps on the journey to acquiring new skills is therefore to be aware of what you don’t know. This discovery can be uncomfortable, as can be the experience of not being very good at what you’re trying to do. Individuals develop competence only after they recognize the relevance of their own incompetence in the skill at hand.