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Unconscious Competence or Catatonic Complacency?


If you’ve attended more than a workshop or two in your career, you’ve likely been introduced to the four stages of competence or the four stages of learning any new skill.  Developed in the 1970’s by Noel Burch, this model describes the process by which new skills are acquired:

  • Unconscious incompetence: You’re blissfully ignorant of what you don’t yet know.
  • Conscious incompetence: You recognize the need for a particular skill and may even be aware of some of the steps to get there, but cannot yet perform it.
  • Conscious competence: You know how to perform the skill and can be successful doing so with deliberate attention and concentration.
  • Unconscious competence: You’re on auto-pilot. The skill is second nature to you. You’ve developed the mental or muscle memory that allows you to perform it with ease.

When I first learned about this model, unconscious competence was positioned as the ‘nirvana’ of learning… the place to strive for and settle comfortably into. And perhaps that was appropriate at the time.

But today’s business environment no longer lends itself to the comforts of ‘settling into’ anything. The ever-increasing rapid pace of change in business requires everyone to be nimble, flexible, and able to turn on a dime. There’s no room for unconsciousness… even around what we know and do well.  In today’s workplace, unconscious competence looks an awful lot like catatonic complacency.

So, what can everyone do to honor their competence but continue to challenge their ability to stretch, grow, and improve?  There are two high-value strategies that meld nicely with today’s business challenges.

Move your groove. When we become comfortable and get into a groove, we stop stretching. We lose sight of the edge. We don’t push the boundaries… because we aren’t even thinking about them.

Yet, it’s precisely when confidence and competence are highest, that we need to get out of our grooves. We need to create some discomfort by mixing it up, trying something new, going beyond what’s known and easy. We need to exit the safety zone and enter boldly into new and untested territory and methods.

You may be thinking: But doesn’t that increase the likelihood of mistakes and failure?  YES!  And that’s exactly the opportunity for those who are highly skilled to take their capacity to the next level. Failure is rarely fatal… but it’s always instructive for those who are willing to learn and grow. Testing the boundaries will generally expand them. Pushing the limits – even if they push back – builds greater confidence and awareness of what’s working… and what’s not.

Teach to reach.  Providing instruction to someone else is the most powerful way to enhance performance… for the student and the teacher. Slowing down enough to figure out what one is actually doing returns a level of consciousness to the act or skill itself. It’s an opportunity to examine key steps and rationale… and it’s an opportunity to recognize ways to improve.

So, as we develop over the course of our careers, it’s important to remember that our best can always get better… especially if we bring greater conscious to our unconscious capacities.


  1. That was an wonderful post.. everything elaborated very clearly.. Those 3 points explains everything.. (1)Conscious incompetence, (2)Conscious competence, (3)Unconscious competence. every individual ability and effort.. how they manage to apply their talents on required areas.. some people are very talented with high skills. but they fail to teach others. because of some reasons.. ex: selfishness & carelessness. i will try my best to share this post to as many as i can. so that some may learn the things what to do with their juniors/students/peers..

    Thank you so much for your care and concern for today’s generation personal/professional growth.

    All The Best.
    Looking forward for more posts like this.

    Praveen Kumar

    • Thanks so much, Praveen. I always appreciate your insights and perspectives. I suspect that the primary reason people fail to teach each other is nothing more than carelessness, as you mentioned. If leaders just put coaching and developing others on their radar screens, they will find opportunities to help others grow all day, everyday. I applaud your commitment to continue developing yourself and those around you. Keep up the good work!


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