Have you ever observed someone as they are about to do something that could cause them a lot of pain or even endanger their life? If you have, you’ll be familiar with the skin-crawling and cringing feeling that accompanies these moments. As a climber, I often observed people doing things at a cliff face, that means they are dancing with death. Usually, this is an indication of their “unconscious incompetence”; in other words, they have no idea of the potential harm they are placing themselves in. A good leader appreciates that when working with people, often “conscious competence” is more desirable than “unconscious competence”.
Unconscious Competence versus Conscious Competence
By its very definition “unconscious competence” means that a person is operating at a level that they are so well drilled in the task they are performing that they don’t think. This may be a good thing completing a task but when it comes to leadership, it can be just as much a hindrance as a benefit.
The term “unconscious competence” is used in the “Four stages of competence” learning model. Summarised briefly a person moves from a state of no idea they are incompetent, to becoming aware of their incompetence. They then develop their competence at a level where they have to think about a task to be competent at it and finally they reach “unconscious competence” which means that the skill becomes second nature. Think of the stages you went through learning to ride a bike or tie a knot in a rope.
Applied in Leadership
So how do these stages apply to practical leadership? How effective are leaders that are operating in an “unconscious competence” manner? In my own experience, it has meant the difference between growing and achieving better results versus getting stuck in a rut and failing myself and those I was leading. Below is an essential element to this theory that is often forgotten and 3 tips on how to develop this quickly.