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.

By Bob Kantor
Fri, July 27, 2012

CIO — 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.

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