Have you ever heard someone called “unconsciously competent”? Would you know what that means or where it sits within the stages of decision-making ability? In fact, you may not have formed a judgement as to whether being “unconsciously competent” is even a good or bad thing.

In this blog we look at the four stages of competence. It all started as a theory of teaching in 1968; by Martin M Broadwell. The theory was developed later in the 1970s by Noel Burch to become the “Four Stages Of Learning Any New Skill”.

Simply put, it’s how we can judge how competent and confident we are in the skills we have.

The best way of thinking about this is a pyramid or hierarchy of ability, with Stage 1 at the base and Stage 4 at the pinnacle. Importantly, it’s a pyramid that we can climb as we develop new business and decision-making skills. It’s important to note too that we are at the bottom of the pyramid for some skills, yet at the top for others; as we all have different skills and abilities which change over time. For new skills, we tend to start at the bottom and work up.

Here are the four levels:

  1. We start at the base of the pyramid with “unconscious incompetence”. An unconsciously incompetent person doesn’t know how to do something, and also has no idea that they don’t know the skill is useful. Before moving to the next stage this person has to recognise why they need such a skill and why it’s useful in getting a job done.

A good example is tying a knot. A knot is a knot, right? Well, it is indeed – until you try to untie a knot that’s become too tight, at which point we realise that knots differ wildly. Then it’s good to know how to tie a knot. As unconscious incompetents, most of us don’t know this. Sailors, on the other hand, do.

  1. The next stage is “conscious incompetence”. Many of us have experienced this: we are only too aware that we don’t know how to do something. We also appreciate the reasons for doing it, and value the skills shown by professional practitioners.

Back to the knot tying, this person knows what they are doing wrong. Too many times they have had to cut a rope because they can’t untie the knot. Now they want to know how to tie a Bowline.

  1. We now reach the competent types: we want as many of these people as possible in our businesses. “Conscious competents” know how to do something and can do it with some thought.

They might need a diagram to tie the bowline, but they know that it’s the right knot for the job and are aware that while it might not be something they can do in their sleep, they can tie it. They show some confidence in what they do and the outcome is nearly always serviceable – a knot that can be undone.

  1. Finally we get to the “unconsciously competent” person. This person that can tie a bowline while giving instructions for another task to be completed. We’ve seen their easy skill watching fishing boats come alongside a harbour wall. Their skills are second nature to them, they know how, what and why they do things. They often make great instructors.

Now, of course we instinctively want unconsciously competent people on our team. But the value in this model lies in applying it to the exact situation in a business. For example:

• Over time, people revert back to incompetence – often unconsciously. The surgeon who uses outdated methods, for example, is a liability!

• Equally, if everyone is unconsciously competent, you may build a business with “too many coaches and not enough players”, which can be uneconomical and cause succession issues.

• And conscious competents – usually the backbone of a business – can fall into a comfort zone where they focus more on process than questioning why they operate a particular way.

By knowing these stages, we are on our own journey to “conscious competence”. We now need to understand how we can discover which stage our current employees are at. Fortunately, there are established tools to place each employee into a decision-making category. Ask how effectively each employee makes decisions in each relevant business skills area.

The key to conducting these analyses is the creation of relevant business scenarios. Cognisco is able to create bespoke scenarios, along with multiple response questions for each scenario to test employees’ situational judgement. These are different from multiple choice questions: the employee is asked to select all the options that might apply, rather than just one option which they think is correct. “I don’t know” is also an option. By now you will have realised that an “I don’t know” answer points to someone being “consciously incompetent”.

But perhaps more importantly, the test asks how confident an employee is in their choice of answer. There is a clear difference between the person who gets all their responses wrong yet is certain that they were answering correctly, and the person who gets all their responses correct with complete confidence. Both show equal confidence, yet with dramatically different results. We’ve all seen both these types of employee in the workplace!

The Cognisco report uses the answers to these business-relevant scenarios to rank employees in a number of skills categories. At its bluntest, decision-makers can be placed on a multi-layered risk spectrum, from a safe pair of hands through to distinct liability.

• The risky decision makers get many answers wrong but are convinced that they got them right. They are high risk for the business and need learning and development to move them up the chain of ability. They may be hugely capable but outdated or undertrained.

• The competent decision makers answer correctly and also have confidence that they know why and what they are doing. They are already at Stage 3 or 4. The “unconsciously competent” will be the most valuable decision-makers in the business.

In this blog we have looked at learning stages and how this might be applied to decision-making in real-world business scenarios. Cognisco tools can identify employees whose decision making process presents a risk to the business, what learning stage they may demonstrate and how in outline we might move them up the learning pyramid.

In a business world where the penalties for getting things wrong become ever harsher, it’s good to know that it’s possible to shine a spotlight on our most valuable employees: the ones that consistently  make the right decisions for the right reasons.

Now, who knows how to tie a bowline?

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