Which Stage of Competence Are You?

August 26, 2013

Everybody wants competence. We want it for ourselves. We expect it from others in our organizations. We demand it from the people and organizations we purchase from. But how do we figure out if we’ve got it? How well do we develop it in others? Where do we even start?

Contemplative GorillaBack in the 1970s, Gordon Training International developed a learning model called “The Four Stages of Competence,” which has also been linked to Abraham Maslow’s work. There’s something helpful about breaking an idea or a challenge down into smaller parts, and competence is no different. If we can understand which stage both we and our followers are in, we’ll be much more useful. Here are the Four Stages of Competence:

Unconscious Incompetence

In this stage, an individual simply doesn’t know what they don’t know. Picture a new college graduate, an entry-level employee, a newly promoted supervisor (sometimes) or a clueless new business owner. In these situations, individuals can often be high on drive but low on actual ability. In other cases, individuals may be unmotivated as well as clueless as to their level of competence.

The bottom line is that people in this stage cannot progress to the next without an awareness of their own deficit. Whether they experience a reality check on the job, receive input from a supervisor or come to a realization on their own (or any number of interventions), the recognition itself is the key to future growth.

Conscious Incompetence

In this stage, an individual recognizes that a gap in their level of competence exists. They realize they lack the skills, knowledge or ability they need to be successful. For many people, engagement and motivation can drop significantly when this happens. Think about it: how would you respond if you thought you were good at something only to find you weren’t? To bridge the gap, they can benefit immensely from resources, coaching and the elbow room to learn from their mistakes. The time it takes to develop to competence depends on many of these factors.

Conscious Competence

In this stage, an individual is aware that they have acquired knowledge, skills or ability. However, they must still concentrate focused effort to be successful. Tasks may need to be broken down into steps in order to attain mastery, which generally requires practice. Still, this is one of the most rewarding stages since it represents significant growth.

Unconscious Competence

In this stage, an individual has demonstrated a skill to the extent that it has become “second nature.” It takes far less effort and focus than it once did. They can multitask and not see a drop in performance. Provided the individual learned correctly, they can teach others to acquire the same skill. Although unconscious competence is the goal, one of the dangers is that people in this group can be tempted to forget the fundamentals.

We invariably occupy each of these stages across all the skills we possess (or need to possess). The trick is to discover which we belong to. As a leader, it’s even more important to be able to assess the competence of those who follow us so that we can know how to best develop them.

Can you think of a time you crossed all four stages?

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his new ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website  or follow him on Twitter.
  • Good post, Nathan! How have you been?

    • Glad you liked it Drew and thank for sharing it. I like ideas like these that help me think on a deeper level. Doing well and I hope you are too.