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The Unconscious Incompetent

by Jerry Bader

Years ago, I had training in our company on the "four stages of competence." I searched on line for a refresher and apparently it's unclear who developed the four stages, but here they are:

  1. Unconscious incompetence
    The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage.The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.
  2. 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.
  3. Conscious competence
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
  4. Unconscious competence
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned. 
    I've been amazed in my life how many "Unconscious incompetents" I recognized after learning this concept. Apparently
     we're graduating them in batches from colleges these days.  80% of college grads think they're ready for the real world; only 54% of employers concur. I suppose it's been true for generations that young people don't know what they don't know. But that usually meant they didn't realize the value of life experience, not that they lacked core proficiency. Now they appear to lack both.