Trying anything new can be an intimidating experience. But, human nature is what it is; we like being good at things. It is uncomfortable when we do not know what we are doing, yet it is a universal part of the human experience. Everyone experiences this repeatedly in their earlier years, and some people — the fortunate ones — keep trying their hand at new things as long as they live.
Trying things has specific relevance in starting a new job. The ‘jitters’ that accompany taking on a new role arise mainly from the discomfort of doing something new. If we take on new and different responsibilities, we may question our ability to perform those responsibilities well enough. Even if the job is not changing much, moving to another company means learning different processes, working with others, and getting accustomed to new cultural norms.
Becoming competent at a new job can be somewhat less intimidating when you understand the four stages of learning. Knowing that there is a process and where you are in that process can ease some of the angst about learning to do something new. The four stages lead from being incompetent at something to becoming competent at that thing. Significantly, however, we also go through a path that leads from unconscious to conscious and back again.
Below, we will look at how this applies to the workplace, but here is how the four stages of learning work using a simple example: learning to drive.
Stage 1: Unconsciously Incompetent
A child passenger in an adult’s car probably does not think much about driving. They know they are in a car, going from one place to another, but even if they connect the actions of the person in the driver’s seat (turning the steering wheel) with outcomes (the car turning), a child has no idea how much skill would be needed to drive the vehicle.
When it comes to driving, children are unconsciously incompetent. Of course, they are incompetent — they certainly would not be able to drive, even if they were behind the wheel. But they are also not conscious of their incompetence. They do not know anything about driving and are not even aware that they do not know what they do not know.
Stage 2: Consciously Incompetent
As a child grows — particularly as they reach the age at which they can legally pilot a vehicle — things change. As they watch others drive and make their first tentative efforts at driving themselves, they begin to understand just how much goes into driving well. There are all the things a driver needs to do with their limbs to operate the vehicle, of course. There are traffic signs and signals and the rules of the road.
At this stage, the driver is still incompetent. Nothing personal; it is just that they’re still practicing the skills they will need to be a good driver, and they still make mistakes. At this stage, though, they are well aware of their incompetence. They know what they do not know. Hence, they are consciously incompetent.
Stage 3: Consciously Competent
After the new driver has been on the road for a while, they become better at driving. Under most circumstances, they are unlikely at this point to make a mistake. Most people would feel safe and comfortable with this person behind the wheel. However, this somewhat-new driver has not finished learning.
While driving, they are still actively thinking about everything they do. One might think ahead, planning to turn through oncoming traffic, for example, with some uncertainty about whether there is space to do so. Another possibility is to remind themselves to switch on the turn signal or to check areas typically known as their blind spot as essential steps in changing lanes. Yes, the driver is now competent- they know what they are doing- but they must keep their focus on driving to do it well. They are consciously competent.
Stage 4: Unconsciously Competent
People often reach the end stage of learning without realizing it. In this final stage, we are no longer aware of the thoughts and actions that lead to doing something well. For example, think about the last time you drove to the store. Do you remember how fast you were going, how close you were to the car in front or behind, or the act of turning into the parking lot? Likely not because — assuming you have been driving for several years — these things happened in a state of ‘autopilot.’ You have done these things so often that you no longer have to think about them consciously. Your brain is still watching out for you; it is just that you are performing at a level of competence similar to how you walk or speak. It just happens.
At this stage of learning, we are competent: and highly unlikely to make a mistake, except in the most unexpected or unusual circumstances. And we no longer have to think about it or how competent we have become. We are unconsciously competent.
What Does This Have to Do With the Workplace?
As an employee, you will have any number of instances throughout your career when you are trying something for the first time, including in your first jobs. Then, naturally, where everything is new, anytime, you take on more responsibility in the context of your current job or when you take a new job with the same company in a promotion or a transfer. And, of course, when you move from one company to another. In all of these cases, the driving analogy can help you in a few ways.
First and foremost, it can remind you to cut yourself some slack. Nobody can be expected to be competent in a new job or undertaking new responsibilities without some time and experience under their belt. That uncomfortable feeling- not knowing what to do or not knowing how to do it well is perfectly normal as you learn new things. So when you are feeling frustrated with yourself, take a step back and figure out where you are in those four stages, and give yourself time and permission to move through them in sequence.
The four stages can also have an efficient application: they can help you pinpoint what you need at any given time to improve. For example, when undertaking something brand new, be aware that you are unconsciously incompetent (at least in certain aspects). In other words, there are probably ‘blind spots, things you do not know that you do not know. This phenomenon can help remind you to keep your eyes and ears open for clues about where those blind spots are and what is in them.
Later in the learning curve, knowing that you are consciously incompetent can help you go easy on yourself — understanding that you know what you need to know and you need time and practice to improve your skills. Being aware of the four stages can also help you determine whether it is, in fact, just time and training that you need or whether you are missing a specific piece of information or tool that can help you do the job better.
A Word to the Leaders
The four stages of learning are also crucial for leaders — supervisors and managers in the workplace — to bear in mind when hiring, training, and developing employees. It is imperative when you are managing and training employees in a function in which you have reached the level of unconscious competence. At this point, you have blind spots, too. It takes work to remind yourself that there are aspects of the job you no longer have to think about consciously- probably many- about which the new employee has no idea. It takes intention to structure a training plan that considers the unconscious competencies you have developed.
As employees progress from being brand new to operating at total capacity, it is helpful for their leaders to be aware of the stages of learning, as well. Knowing at what stage those employees are can help managers provide the proper support at the right time.
Unconscious incompetent? Your employee needs the most basic information and to be shown their blind spots. Think job shadowing and other kinds of observational learning with precise instruction. A conscious incompetent employee needs experiential learning; repetition will help them get used to doing the work. They also probably need a generous dose of encouragement and praise for what they are doing well at this stage. You can become more specific concerning performance gaps with your conscious competent employee. At this stage, the employee knows what to do and how to do it. If improvement is needed, this is the time to raise their level of performance.
Anytime you try something you have never done, you will move through the four stages of learning. You may move through them so quickly that it feels like you have missed a step or so slowly that you will never reach unconscious competence. However, the four stages of learning are a universal human experience. Knowing and working with them, you can become a better learner and leader.
Before helming Perpetual Talent Solutions as President, Jim Hickey held several senior leadership roles in both sales and operations for two of the world’s largest Commercial Staffing organizations. Jim is a dedicated professional who has been formally recognized as a Staffing Industry Subject Matter Expert.