Conscious Unconscious Incompetence

Paul Oldfield |


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Have you any idea about how much you don’t know?

The four stages of learning any skill, according to Noel Burch (and occasionally attributed to Abraham Maslow) start with Unconscious Incompetence, where the individual does not understand or know how to do something and frequently does not recognise the deficit. From there the learning process moves through Conscious Incompetence, via Conscious Competence, to Unconscious Competence, whereupon the skill becomes second nature.

The problem with Unconscious Incompetence is, of course, that people don’t know they’ve got it. I meet people on the forums who think that because they’ve read a book on the topic they know more than other people. I’ve read more than 80 books on the topic, written enough to fill 5 books, have worked in the area for over 25 years, and still recognise that most people know something useful that I don’t know.

The other problem with Unconscious Incompetence is that we all have it. In some cases we don’t even know that a topic exists, never mind that there is a lot to know about that topic. But we all think we’re better than we are. I don’t know whether it’s ever been measured but it’s a perfectly credible statistic; that 80% of people think they are in the top 20%. They compare themselves to other people in terms of what they know, but are incapable of comparing in terms of what they don’t know.

What might this mean for HR? Well, one obvious take away is that the person who thinks he doesn’t know it all may be further along the learning curve than the one who does. Another is that you cannot really evaluate people who are better than your best; what sounds like madness to you might in fact be genius… but how are you to tell? And following on from that you should respect everybody; they all know something important that you don’t know. Treat them with respect and they may share it with you, when it becomes important that you know.

But surely the most important thing to take away is that we ALL suffer from Unconscious Incompetence; there is a lot more that we don’t know than any of us realise. There is a lot of truth in the saying that the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know. This is an important step in self-awareness; you now consciously have “Unconscious Incompetence”, and that is the first step toward competence in any skill, should you want to make that journey!

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