4 Ways to End Unconscious Incompetence and Manage Effectively

Are you and your staff suffering from 'Unconscious Incompetence?' IT management coach Bob Kantor outlines what this is, what causes it and offers four simple ways to put an end to it.

Have you ever given a team member an assignment and told hir or her to come see you if they needed any help with it... then been surprised a few days or weeks later, when they were in trouble but hadn't come to you for that help?

If so—which happens far too often to many of us—you and your staff may be suffering from a condition known as 'Unconscious Incompetence'—theirs and yours.

Whether it's managing a small project, designing a UI or creating use cases, all too often we send team members off to do a job and then don't find out they need help until it's too late to avoid delays.

There is a simple explanation for this frequently occurring situation. Once we understand it, it's pretty simple to avoid the situation and its painful and costly consequences. So here is a look at what causes this problem and four simple ways to put an end to it.

In the 1970s, a psychologist named Noel Burch, working at Gordon Training International, defined a behavioral model of learning that identified four stages that we go through when learning a new skill.

The names of the four stages create a bit of a tongue twister, but they form a pretty simple model that is not hard to understand. The good news is that there are simple differences in how managers and leaders can effectively support their team members, based upon which of the four learning stages they are in for any skill set.

Once you get comfortable with identifying in which of these four stages your employee is operating, you can be very effective in delegating and following up on work.

The Skills Development Model

The four stages of learning for skills development in this model are the following:

Stage 1: Unconsciously Incompetent

This is where we don't know what we don't know. People in this stage are pretty bad at what they are trying to do. But they are completely unaware of how bad they are. This is why asking a strong senior developer to manage a project and come back if they need help often creates a problem. People in this stage of learning can't recognize problems as they occur, and so don't know to ask for that help.

Stage 2: Consciously Incompetent

This is where we begin to realize there is much more to what we are trying to do than we first understood, and we begin to grasp the scope of what we don't know, but need to learn. In addition to creating an opening for learning, this stage sometimes leads to feeling overwhelmed by what seems like too much information to grasp and master. It's an important progression in the learning process, but still not a place from which we can perform independently.

Stage 3: Consciously Competent

Here is where we have learned and practiced enough to successfully perform a task with an acceptable degree of quality and independence. However, the focus and attention it requires has the price of performing somewhat slower than a more skilled person. That extra attention also creates added performance risk from distractions and deadline pressure. For example, if staff in this stage lose their focus, their performance will generally suffer.

Stage 4: Unconsciously Competent

In this final stage, we have now internalized all the necessary knowledge and perfected our practical skills. Here we can use our understanding and experience without active thought or concentration. This is where we are experts, and complete tasks with ease and speed. We can also reliably mentor team members who are in the earlier stages of the learning model. (There are some new performance risks that come with reaching this learning stage, but we'll save those for a future article.)

How to Use the Model to Maximize Staff Learning and Performance

While these four learning stages were scientifically arrived at by a practicing clinical psychologist, they are not difficult to apply for IT professionals. We usually know enough about our team members, in terms of their experience and performance, to easily and quickly assess where they are in this learning model. This need not be a formal process, and quick ballpark assessments work quite well.

To keep this process simple, we can define the best approach for tailoring our level of engagement with each team member by looking at how we discuss what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, and the frequency of our checkpoints. This is summarized in the chart below:

manager's engagement chart, incompetence, competence

For a staff member who is Unconsciously Incompetent, we would tell him or her what to do with a high level of detail, tell them how to do it with a high level of detail, and check in on their progress frequently.

For a staff member who is Consciously Incompetent, we would him or her that employee what to do with a high level of detail, tell them how to do it with a medium level of detail, and check in on their progress frequently.

For a staff member who is Consciously Competent, we would tell him or her what to do with a medium level of detail, tell them how to do it with a low level of detail, if at all, and check in on their progress at scheduled milestones.

For a staff member who is Unconsciously Competent, we would tell him or her what to do with a low level of detail, not tell them how to do it at all, and check in on their progress only if and when they requested us to do so.

Problem Solved

When you apply this simple model for assessing which of the four stages of skill learning a team member is operating in, you can choose the most effective level of engagement to optimize their learning and performance. This helps them maximize their professional development and enables you to be a more effective leader.

Bob Kantor is an IT management coach and consultant, specializing in improving IT leadership effectiveness. Get your free download of the first two chapters of his newest book, "Shatter Your Leadership Limits" here.

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