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Conscious Competence in Leadership

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 mean they are dancing with death.  Often 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 operates 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 leaning 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.

Dealing with people compared to completing a task is a vastly different skill.  You can deal with a task without having to think but the best leaders I have observed, studied and worked with were constantly “thinking” or to put it another way, operating in their “conscious competence”.  Why?  Quite simply because no two people are the same.  A good leader understands that they are responsible for choosing their words, actions and reactions with the person or people in mind.  Or better still, THEY KNOW THEIR TEAM.

Here are three things you can start doing right now that will help you understand those you are responsible for.

1. Connect Individually

Hugh Mackay in his book “What Makes Us Tick” offers the opinion that the greatest desire of humans is “to be taken seriously”.  He suggests that it is our way of saying “Please recognise and acknowledge me as an individual”.

One of the first things I did when I took over a team from another very competent leader was spend time with each person individually, sometimes sitting in the car park of their work place eating vegemite sandwiches.  But through these efforts I started to understand their motivations for being involved.  Everyone is different so it stands to reason that what will energise a person and make their efforts worthwhile will be different also.

Action Point:

Take time to write down what you have identified as your individual team members drivers.  If you cannot list at least a few points I’d recommend you spend some time getting to know them before trying to lead them.

2. Seek first to understand

One of my favourite sayings is “no one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”.  Stop and ponder this for a minute.  No one comes to work to deliberately do a bad job.  People try their best, always.  You will never convince me otherwise.  When you observe behaviour that isn’t the best, first seek to understand where this stems from.  Bad behaviour, poor motivation, lack of commitment are all indicators that trust has been broken or a person feels under valued.  As a leader it is 100% your responsibility to “seek to understand”.

Action Point:

Ask your team member what isn’t working for them.  What don’t they understand or agree with?  What aspects of the process are frustrating to them?  If this is the first time you’ve done this, be prepared for a bit of a “dump” or maybe some scepticism.  Don’t give up, over time you’ll notice a difference.

3. Be consistent

My greatest failures as a leader have been when I’ve allowed outside pressures to influence my behaviour.  How did this effect those I was leading, they were on egg shells at times.  Conscious self awareness means consistency, which breeds trust, freedom (due to known boundaries) and an atmosphere of being able to get on with a task and not worry about not having all the answers.

In short, people know who they are dealing with, what they are getting and what the expectations and likely responses are going to be.  They are then free to get on with their role.

Action Point:

Before you act ask yourself, “am I under pressure here?”  “Am I about to break a promise I’ve previously made?”  If the answer is yes then perhaps ask that you defer your decision and then take some time to consider your decision.

I encourage you, seek to become conscious of your words, actions and reactions when leading others.  Take the time to be consciously competent because then you know what you have to do to keep getting the best out of others.

For more information here are some links;

The 4 stages of learning definition

Hugh Mackay – Author