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The Four Stages of Competence

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

One of the frustrations encountered by any leader is that the newbie, who was full of promise during the interview, has not contributed anything to the team.

In learning any skill, a person goes through four stages of competence: unconscious incompetent, conscious incompetent, conscious competent and unconscious competent.

The adjective incompetent, is used to refer to a person’s lack of skill in a task and not intended to be derogatory.

In the unconscious incompetent stage, the person is not aware, or is vaguely aware, of his lack of skill in the task. He optimistically comes into the role, makes mistakes and may either lose interest or become determined to learn.  The former results to quitting while the latter leads to the next stage.

In the conscious incompetent stage, the person is aware of his lack of skill in the activity. He into the learning mode and attempts to get as much information and training as he can. At this stage he decides whether the end goal is worth all the effort. If not, he quits. If so, he moves into the next stage.

In the conscious competent stage, the person is has slowly acquired the skills but is clumsy in executing the task. At this stage, he may still rely on manuals, checklists or close supervision/coaching. He remains in this stage until he is confident enough to let go of his ‘safety nets’.

In the unconscious competent stage, the person is has acquired the skills and is able to do the task without any help. In the early part, he may revert to the previous stage but will quickly come back to this stage.

Let us take driving a car as an example:

Unconscious incompetent stage - A person gets in his dad’s car and thinks to himself, ‘This won’t be that difficult. I’ve seen others do it on TV’. He starts the car, steps on the gas, and nothing happens. The car stays in place. He shifts the stick, and the car jolts forward and the engine dies. ‘Uh-oh. This is not as easy as I thought it would be.’  He is determined to learn and …

Conscious incompetent stage – He enrolls himself in a driving school. The driving instructor goes through the details with him, ‘This is the ignition switch, this is the accelerator, this is the brake, this is the clutch…’ Finally they begin to do the actual driving practice. ‘Confirm that the shift stick is on neutral, turn the ignition on, step on the clutch, put the stick shift on first gear, slowly release the clutch while stepping on the gas and …’ The car moves, and the guy is all smiles. After a few hours of lessons, he has gained confidence to try it on his own.

Conscious competent stage – He is all alone in his dad’s car, thinks to himself, ‘I can do this… shift stick on neutral,  ignition on, clutch, first gear, release clutch while stepping on the gas and … Yahoo!’ He is able to make it alone, very happy at 4 miles per hour.  ‘clutch, second gear, release clutch and … Yahoo!’  After hours of driving around the block, the above sequences become second nature and …

Unconscious competent stage – He is gaining more skill in driving, eventually being able to go into third gear and drive even faster than before. He no longer says to himself, ‘clutch, gear, release clutch’. All is well in his world.

The four stages of competence not only apply to driving but in everything else.

For any leader, it is important to determine on which stage the newbie is in and apply appropriate coaching. The rule of thumb is, the earlier the stage, the greater the level of supervision.


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