Are you unconsciously competent?

Posted by in Productivity

Are you unconsciously competent?
Have you ever heard of the four stages of competence? Fret not; unless you’re a psychology major, you’re in good company. You’re also about to learn something that will earn you valuable insight into yourself and others and serve you well throughout your professional career.


First posited by all-round psychology superstar Abram Maslow (a gentleman perhaps better known for his hierarchy of needs), the four stages of competence is, simply put, a way of grouping people according to their own level of awareness concerning their competence. Although useful across a broad register of professions, it’s frequently applied in sales to explain the reverse bell curve often witnessed in the results of a sales agent during his or her life span, as it charts the progress of an individual from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence.


The model, as mentioned, consists of four stages:


1. Unconscious Incompetence


In where the individual has absolutely no clue as to how he or she is supposed to execute the task at hand, and appears to be more or less unaware of the fact. This often results in hilarious cock-ups, and particularly so if colleagues are kind enough to carefully encourage such behaviour. We know them as beginners.


2. Conscious Incompetence


A person at this stage has yet to figure out how to do something, but . Embarassment is a frequent emotion here, and introversion can quickly kick in as a means of coping with the situation. Those who go on to make a difference, however, recognize this stage as an opportunity to put a stake in the ground and declare their ambitions. The latter are often recognized as up-and-coming.


3. Conscious Competence


Having survived the two first phases, an individual at this stage is proficient and aware of the fact – which is a good thing, unless they fall prey to the the curse of knowledge. Said curse entails falling in love with ones own competence, hindering many from progressing further. You’ll run into more than a few of these in your lifetime, and often come to know them as besserwissers or know-it-alls, perhaps with a bitter twist if they’ve seen themselves surpassed by someone achieving the fourth stage.


4. Unconscious Competence


At this stage, the person has typically moved from proficient to highly skilled, and treats the subject or act as if it were second nature. Depending on the complexity of said subject, an untold number of hours may have been applied towards reaching this state, with which comes not only a certain amount of personal satisfaction, but typically also the respect and admiration of others.


By now, you’re likely thinking that the matter is concluded, and that it’s time to proceed to putting your newfound knowledge to use. You’d be right, except that there’s one more thing which, albeit not a part of the official model, is closely connected with it. To explain, we’ll draw upon the words of a gentleman whom predates Maslow by some years:

“Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach.” -Aristotle

There’s a difference between knowing and understanding, as much as there is a difference between mediocrity and greatness. You see, even despite the undeniable appeal of achieving the fourth stage, it will eventually become… boring. Mundane, even.


As humans, we thrive in a state of constant progress – and the most rewarding option for maintaining progress after achieving a state of unconscious competence is to teach others. You’d be very much surprised how often someone comes up with a new way of doing something, or even something entirely new to do.


If you are a leader, the four stages of competence is an excellent way to determine how you should work with people to visualize the progress they have made, what remains to be done, and how you should work with them to enable to further their progress. Furthermore, making a habit of applying the model to areas of importance to you, whether done by yourself or a superior, can serve you exceptionally well in achieving progress more rapidly.


All you need then is a plan to extricate yourself from your current level and on to the next in the best possible fashion.