The Four Levels of Competence

It wasn’t until I started to teach my son how to drive that I began to realise the huge amount of skill and knowledge that a new driver had to pick up, that we everyday drivers took for granted.


Unconscious Incompetence

When he first got behind the wheel, my son thought this was going to be so easy. After all, he’d seen me driving all his life and there seemed nothing difficult about it. He knew about the steering wheel, he just needed to know which pedals to press, a little bit of practice, and he’ll be away.

That poor kid didn’t know what he didn’t know, and that is called “Unconscious Incompetence”.

Conscious Incompetence

Half an hour later and he’s frustrated as can be, yelling at his Dad, trying everything but just doesn’t get it. A simple matter of turning into a side road takes so much concentration and a dozen different things to do at the same time. He’s got to be aware of cars coming towards him as well as cars coming up behind, plus there’s the cars coming out of the road he’s trying to turn in to. He’s also got to be aware of pressing the brake at just the right pressure, at the same time as pressing the clutch and changing gear. Then there’s the indicator. There’s also what he thought was simple for a start – turning the wheel, taking the car into the turn-right lane, and on top of all that was his Dad in the seat beside him telling him about the pedestrian trying to cross the road in front of him.

He’s starting to realise just how much he needs to learn. He has entered into the “Conscious Incompetence” stage where he now realises that he is not yet skilled at what he is trying to do. But he knows that he’s learning.

Conscious Competence

It takes him a few weekends, but now he’s driving. His Dad has stopped incessantly pointing out things to him about what he’s not doing (thank goodness), and he’s starting to enjoy driving. He is still aware of everything he’s doing; his Dad has taken him through lessons on the centrifugal force and the effects of accelerating around corners; something he didn’t understand until he was able to take it around a good safe corner properly and, although really difficult to do he finally forced himself to do the opposite of what he thought he should do and accelerated instead of braking – and the car sat nicely down on the road pulling him around that corner with ease.

My son had entered the stage of “Conscious Competence” where, with some level of concentration, he could perform each task knowing what to do, how, and when.

Unconscious Competence

A few years later and he’s driving on down the road, through traffic lights, past kids on bikes, dogs on the side of the road, trucks, and other cars changing lanes and faster cars wanting to pass. At the same time he has the stereo blasting away on some awful beat while chatting away to his girlfriend about the party they are going to that evening.

Without realising it, he has entered the final stage of Unconscious Competence. He no longer has to think about what he’s doing at each point, he doesn’t have to ask anyone, he no longer needs his Dad sitting beside him, he doesn’t even consciously think about what he’s doing – he just does it. He knows when to concentrate and what to do instinctively.

Progression and Regression

But the learning progression is not a single direction, it can slip backwards into previous stages. You see it in sports people often. I remember listening to an interview with a very well-known cricketer in England. He was telling the sports interviewer that for the last few years of his career, there was not a match where he didn’t “know” that he could make at least 200 runs when he entered the pitch. Then something happened to change his world. He was bowled out with less than a dozen runs. Time and time again, match after match, he was bowled out. He couldn’t understand it (Unconscious Incompetence). Then, after a number of very embarrassing matches where his future was called into doubt, he decided he needed to step back to basics. Every ball was preceded with his mental checklist of looking around the field for openings; his stance for the ball; the way he held the bat; the practice swing; mental calculations; everything he did unconsciously he now did in deliberate steps (Conscious Competence). Once he regained that confidence that he could again face an attacking bowler without the fear of embarrassing defeat, he could then move slowly but surely back into unconscious competence.

The thing is, this happens in our jobs too. Sometimes we don’t even realise how much we do know, and sometimes we need to step back to basics and enter Conscious Competence again. As Leaders, sometimes we have to coach a team member back through the competency levels and understand what is happening.