Sunday, October 24, 2010

“Unconscious Incompetence”

Over the last year, I’ve noticed a trend in how certain drivers react to runners. The final half mile of my regular run takes me by the A&P grocery store. I’ve noticed there are basically four types of drivers coming into and out-off the driveways. There are those that are completely oblivious (these folks are very dangerous), those that purposefully cut you out, those that see you and slow down and those that approach cautiously as if they always drive with care. So you ask, what does this have to do with leadership?

Last week, a Human Resources professional shared the “Stages of Professional Development” provided to him by Tulin Diveriteam Associates. It also appeared in an old blog post by Benjamin Ellis on Redcatco. The model describes the continuum of professional develop in term of “consciousness” and “competence.” The order triggered with me because it completely matched the skill and/or attitude of the drivers I’ve been encountering (1. Unconscious Incompetence, 2. Conscious Incompetence, 3. Conscious Competence, and 4. Unconscious Competence). I like it when my observations are later explained based on a model. This model seems particularly helpful because it points out the importance of providing people feedback.

What are your thoughts of this continuum? Do you have situations where it applies?

David P. Tulin – President & Founder, ©2010 Tulin DiversiTeam Associates, 215-870-0349,,

Redcatco – Social Technology for Business - Benjamin Ellis – April 12, 2007 -


J Wong said...

This is interesting. I don’t have any experiences to speak of but you have sparked my interest in this subject. Thanks for sharing.

Cas Hill said...

I would categorize these four condistions as demonstrated "behaviors" rather than stages of "professional development". A case can be made that any organization's value structure can produce or instill one or more of the four behaviors described. Compare and contrast GE under the leadership and values of Welch vs Immelt.

Scott Wisler said...


I was once an executive working for the owners of a privately-held engineering services business. One of the owners was truly a captain of industry, having retired from a prominent OEM, and had had some 3,000 people working for him. They knew the business, the technology, and the customers inside and out. In this way they were experientially consciously competent. Brilliant, even. Yet the small business required a completely different set of leadership traits than they had cultivated at the OEM. In this respect they were unconsciously incompetent. The situation was that the owners/leaders were simultaneously unconsciously competent (in one significant area) and unconsciously incompetent (in another significant area).

From my experience in this role, the model seems valid as far as it goes, but misses the next step that follows experience-based unconscious competence. Once in this space, you’ve reached a (satisfying) plateau. However, when you move into the next challenging role, or into the next phase of life, you step into the next higher level of unconscious incompetence. This is affectionately known as the Peter Principle – rising to your level of personal incompetence. You may have risen and grown through the previous one, but in a life well-lived, you arrive in a new incompetence. Instead of ending in unconscious competence, the model needs to spiral back around and up to a new level of unconscious incompetence. There is another learning practice involved, with an arrow pointing to the left. This learning practice is quite distinct from the learning practice in the conscious realm. It involves techniques for deliberately making the unconscious conscious, so you can work with what is there. It is perhaps the most challenging because it requires stepping from a place of deep confidence to a place of deep humility. Few people seem capable of that as a deliberate practice.

In my case, everyone that worked in the office could see the owner’s unconscious incompetence. My staff complained and acted out, but they themselves could not see their own complicity in the relationship dynamics. The owners certainly had no intention of seeing their unconscious incompetence. My stated job was to run the division, with profit/loss and growth responsibilities. I could not focus directly on this, because I had a decade of calcified organizational culture based on unconscious distorted relationship dynamics permeating the entire business. I had to start there. In order to “move the dial” on profit and growth, I needed to deal with the culture I inherited, but I didn’t ever truly wield the license to fully change the culture. I was in a stage of conscious incompetence moving quickly into conscious competence around embodying an executive role and addressing culture issues. However because of where I was developmentally, combined with the unconscious incompetence of the owners, I never quite got the ship turned towards the potentiality I had envisioned. I chose to step back and go a different direction, and take this as a very valuable learning experience.

Brian Kelly said...

I've always thought the model had universal applications. The critical proviso, is that the accuracy as to where one resides (in which quadrant) typically disintegrates when we make the judgement of ourselves. It is best when others decide in which quadrant we are, through which quadrants we have already passed, and the trend and direction we are presently taking.

Richard said...

There's a similar continuum of people's perception of their own competence. At one end are the people who don't know (or can't do) and can't learn because they think they already know (or can.) Then come those who know they don't know, those who don't know they know, and those who know they know. It's sounds facile but I recall seeing it in an academic paper somewhere on the web a year or two ago.

John Webb said...

I really can appreciate your comments regarding driver awareness. Frankly I have always believed an individuals “Mindfulness” and the link to Physical Fitness. I know that in my case, physical fitness (exercise) has a direct flow on effect to my thinking capacity and mindfulness. Like you, I have often had several near misses while out running and cycling. Unfortunately many people do not have the mindfulness to experience their own lives or the mindfulness to manage companies and interact with others.

Alexander Pericic, MSEE said...

Just like riding a bike, a skill becomes mechanical, but there is another stage missing, which comes after Conscious Competence, to fully describe the learning model: 5. Conscious Competence "and Cockiness", which leads to inability to accept new ideas, methods and reduces attention to detail, because nobody does it better... Except someone does.

David McKee said...

What is interesting to me about this continuum is that it also points to our learning capabilities, and where we sometimes stop learning.

For example - I am and have been a professional software engineer for over 25 years now, but am now learning about running an online business. I just got done reading some material by Rich Schefren about how to set up Systems, Strategies, and Outsourcing. These are not core competencies of mine, as an engineer I tend to want to "do it all myself" - that is part of my "Unconscious Competence", except that in running a profitable business, it becomes an "Unconscious Incompetence" - unless I recognize it as such.

As Alexander pointed out, when we shut off the willingness to learn in any area we currently have competence in, we immediately start to become incompetent. When we force ourselves out of the little ruts we have created when we practice our skills, we come to a place where we can start to learn new skills, while being able to retain the ability to stay competent in our old ones.

Rosalind Bergemann said...

As a matter of interest, John, the model was actually developed by W C Howell in 1982. This does reflect that a good model will stand the test of time, and find application down the line!

Charlie Darling said...

Being "Asleep in your own life" goes back a LONG way in thye study of humanity - but you can see the theme emerge in the early 1920's w/Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky. Then it flowed through a lot of the "Human Potential" movements of the 60's-90's. But don't worry - the "great masses" seem pretty unconscious to being told they are - well, unconscious.
The four square logic table is a great way to clarify & illustrate it simply. Hats off to whoever introduced that into a difficult concept!
Nice choice for an excerpt.

Chris Vargas, P.E. said...

I found that this has applied in the developing of my writing and speaking abilities. The hardest part of development for me is the Conscious Incompetence, because this is where you recognize your weakness/shortfalls.

Ferenc Koncz said...

Well, Yes and No.

Yes, I believe the Development Stages you mentioned are to a certain extent true in areas where a person voluntarily (consciously) or involuntarily (factual life experiencies) develops knowledge and experience.

However I believe, we have very very many dimensions of Human Phisycal, Intellectual, Emotional and Spiritual development and each of us are at various Development Stages within each of those dimensions.

Even walking safely up and down the stairs is a competence...:))

A driver who has a deep understanding (competency) of Kinematics will drive a car in different way than someone who does not understand inertia and centrifugal forces.

A very competent manager who is oblivious of a certain culture's differences will become incompetent.

These development stages however are quite relative because they apply to a given "Reference Base" determined by knowledge base of a given environment (society at large, Humanity, group of friends, etc.), which usually expands, just like the Universe.

Contray to Chris, I feel that the most difficult stage is the "Inconcious Incompetence" (You do not even know that you have no clue about someting - What you don't know can kill you, we say in aviation). In such a mode you do not even see, hear or think about a certain dimension.
When you are in the "Conscious Incompetence" mode you tend to listen, ask around, learn, be more cautious, your learning channels are open.

One single Note: I feel that the terms "Inconscious" and "Incompetence" are condescending terms. Everyone is "competent" to someone. Also an "inconsciously incompetent" person cannot be blamed for such a weakness/diability.

kaney said...

The unconscious mind shows you what will happen in the future in order to prepare you to face what you don't expect to find. You won't be surprised by unexpected situations in your life, without knowing what to do. Many dream predictions will provide you with psychotherapy, so that you may transform your personality.

wobenzym reviews

Add to Technorati Favorites