Conscious Incompetence

My flight home from my recent immersion in the coaching program at Hudson Institute has been introspective. There are so many things flying into, through and out of my mind, just like birds.

Birds were a big theme this week. Each of the four small learning groups was required to name themselves using a bird as their theme, and then present why the choice was appropriate in the form of a skit. We had Eagles (complete with a rendition of Take It Easy), Big Bird from Sesame Street (accented with yellow and orange feather boas),

the Hudson Kea’s (who knew there were birds that smart?), and then our group which was named Falcon Great Coaches (insightful reading from the Audubon Society followed by some things your kids shouldn’t read lest they miss the subtleties, then some inventive lyrics to the tune of “Hey, Hey, We’re The Monkees”).

Ahhh! the joys of higher learning! I remember what I’ve been missing all these years! The opportunity to act like a kid to cover up the fact that the biggest thing I was learning was just how much I don’t know (or to be more fair just how much I still need to learn)! Or perhaps acting like kids again because we have the opportunity to celebrate learning, friendships, new networks, and personal growth.

I had a couple of big learnings this weekend. The first was that I shouldn’t worry so much about “doing it right” or following a methodology prescriptively. Instead I should lead with my heart and allow my trusted inner self to guide me while my learned brain follows along in helpful subservience. It works! The methodology is still there when I need it!

Unconscious Competence #1
Unconscious Competence #1

But I think my biggest active learning was to understand Noel Birch’s “Four Stages For Learning” model at a very personal level. For those of you not familiar with that work you may have heard people talk about things like Unconscious Incompetence (the first stage) and Unconscious Competence (the highest level). Right between those two things are two highly developmental levels named Conscious Incompetence and Conscious Competencee.

As a person early in the program there is no sense of kidding myself. I’m in, I’m learning and I am largely incompetent. Here’s a definition I found for Conscious Incompetence:

Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

Here’s what I’ve learned. The “recognizing of the deficit” is a humbling process. It isn’t something we face every day in our productive lives. In fact we avoid it like the plague! We don’t like to be incompetent. We love the easiness of doing our jobs largely flawlessly when we don’t even have to think about it (Unconscious Competence). There’s a catch however … In this ultimate state of learning we have ceased to grow, and thus we start to become stale and we long for new excitement.

Unconscious Competence #2
Unconscious Competence #2

If we want to grow we have to go back around the cycle. We have to choose to be Consciously Incompetent. And so here I am. The interesting parallel here was in my post two weeks back called Self As Coach. As long as we are good at supporting ourselves and telling ourselves clearly that this is a natural cycle and that our incompetence is not a reflection of our abilities we can work our way through. Once I began to feel that I noticed something else. In the midst of all the incompetence I started to notice flashes of Unconscious Competence, the ability to perform at a very high level. They were narrow and focused, not joined into a flow. But they were there nonetheless.

And in that recognition there was an amazing degree of hope! This learning will happen. This experience has given me some new energy on how to use this as a leader. I’m not unique to these dynamics … we all experience them.

Ummmm ... not sure about this ...
Ummmm … not sure about this …

Which means every team member I view as completely and fluidly competent (great at their job) may be at some risk of feeling stale and bored in their role. If I am not aware of our human need for growth I may lose their emotional commitment (I’m pretty sure I’ve allowed this to happen lately). Similarly, when someone has taken on new responsibilities and is in the middle of a growth curve which may have them in a state of Conscious Incompetence, it is important that I recognize and support that. Check in frequently. Provide mentoring time. Acknowledge that mistakes are integral to the learning process. Provide a safe place to become Unconsciously Competent again.

Any experiences to share with respect to these stages? How do we feel when we are in any one of these stages?

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Ian Munro @

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

10 thoughts on “Conscious Incompetence

  1. I love that you all played like kids. The best learning comes from playing, I think. The levels of competence and incompetence is a new way to look at or measure where I’m at or someone else is at. I like how you pull it together in the end as a way to look at your team and how you ‘supervise’ them depending on where they’re at.

    1. Thanks Diana. I love your thoughts on learning. Hudson Institute uses a very interesting approach that might best be described as layered. Each “layer” starts with some teaching including student interaction, followed by a demonstration of the competency, followed by practice. This experiential element is so important for locking down the competency!

  2. Fabulous post Ian. My father used to quote and old proverb — and I’ve remembered it all these years:

    “He who knows not and knows not he knows not: he is a fool – shun him. He who knows not and knows he knows not: he is simple – teach him. He who knows and knows not he knows: he is asleep – wake him. He who knows and knows he knows: he is wise – follow him.”

    I think this could be applied to the 4 levels of learning — except there is no sense in shunning someone — there is a lot of sense in creating space for awakening in all levels to happen.

    We must do coffee soon! I want to hear more.

  3. Just think of all the tasks one has to perform in a day. One can transfer from a state of competence to incompetence in a flash as the problem to be solved changes, One naturally tends to respect someone because of their knowledge or skills. What would happen if you first met that individual when they attempted home repairs and that unfortunately was not their skill set. How would this distort you opinion of that person.

  4. On another note one of my heroes Richard Feynman (an eccentric physicist who wrote two classic books, my favorite of which is “What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character”). Feynman was an academic but a very practical one. In one story (from an early book) he talks about getting a job offer from Princeton in the Institute for Advanced Study. His teaching duties would be waved. He would be paid more and he could think lofty thoughts. He did not take the job because he realized that his connection with people would be reduced, and the necessary stimulus for generating ideas would be gone. The real world with all its hectic pace and our feelings of inadequacy is the source of all our potential for growth.

  5. My bird theme would be an owl.

    I like this aspect of conscious / unconscious states and I think I am in your state of conscious incompetence, hence the owl theme.

    Or maybe in some areas I am in unconscious competence and – by Louise’s proverb – asleep and of a need to be woken. So that would make me in metamorphosis and soon to be a butterfly.

    Thanks for the post. It really made me think.

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