Awareness and the Four Stages of Competence

Awareness and the Four Stages of Competence

There came a moment in my journey as an entrepreneur that I realized I was failing.

Not failing in something big, like taking my young company in a direction no sane leader would dare ever venture.

But failing in something small.

No big deal, you shrug.

Big deal, I reply.

Even though it was a seemingly inconsequential matter, it caused harm. It disrupted the smooth flow of business and prevented my company from gaining the kind of marketplace traction that it was capable of achieving.

I’ll tell you what I failed at in a second. First I want to focus on a much more broadly important (and scary) realization: I had—until the instant the scales fell from my eyes—zero awareness that I lacked a skill necessary to my performance as an entrepreneur.

I had what is referred to as “unconscious incompetence.”

It’s important you become familiar with the term—unconscious incompetence—because this state affects you as much as it affected and continues to affect me.

The Four Levels of Competence

Unconscious incompetence is the first of four states psychologists have identified to describe a person’s level of competence at any given moment relative to a specific skill or skill set.

It doesn’t matter what the skill is. Could be anything. From pencil sharpening to sharpening an initial public offering; from product-idea formulating to formulating a global market expansion; from running a piece of equipment to running a company… This framework works for every skill you have, or don’t have, as the case may be.

For every skill that you need as an entrepreneur, you are at one of these four stages of competence.

Maslow’s Hierarchy

This four level idea was first propounded by one Abraham Maslow, who articulated it in a model that came to be known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

The International Journal of Education and Management Studies describes Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as an excellent model for understanding human motivation:

[It is relevant to] organizational culture, human resource management and employee’s performance and its application towards achieving results in the attainment of organizational goals and objectives.”

Maslow talked about individual human motivation, but the structure he hypothesized can be used to understand business organizations as well. In his hierarchy, humans must fulfill one level of needs before they can attain the next.

First, at the lowest levels, humans work to fulfill their physiological and then safety needs, like food, water, and shelter. This can be linked to organizations as well, as The International Journal of Education and Management Studies points out:

Every new organization passes through this lower order stage in which they struggle with their basic survival needs.

At the next level, people seek love and belonging. In an organization, this can be fulfilled by good human resource management and team bonding.

Once an individual feels like they belong, and your team has a sense of belonging to the organization at large, then individuals can truly seek self-esteem and then, finally, self-actualization. Self-esteem includes feeling good about one’s status and strengths and feeling free to make your own decisions.

Self-actualization is the pursuit of the best possible version of yourself. An organization where employees are meeting and exceeding objectives, fulfilling a joint mission, and improving themselves, is at the self-actualization stage.

Maslow’s hierarchy has inspired numerous theories and one of the highest-grossing PC games of all times, The Sims. One aspect of these several-tiered theory broke off into the theory we’re interested in today: the Four Stages of Competence.

But how did Maslow’s categorizations of needs turn into a way to measure learning?

The latest version of the hierarchy

Igor Kokcharov, Ph.D., PMP, turned Maslow’s theory into a Hierarchy of Skills. He used Maslow’s idea of one stage needing to be conquered before advancing to the next, and each stage providing more feelings of well-being and confidence than the last.

Kokcharov defines a skill as follows: “an ability, coming from one’s knowledge, practice, [and] aptitude to do something well.”

Kokcharov’s pyramid differs from Maslow’s in the actual content of each layer. At the bottom of the hierarchy is the student, who is acquiring basic knowledge.

One level up is the apprentice who is motivated to apply the acquired basic knowledge.

In the middle of the pyramid is the specialist. This individual makes purposeful use of the acquired knowledge.

Above this level is the expert, who can creatively use their knowledge to resolve problems. This is someone who does not have to follow a set of instructions or rigid guidelines. They know what they’re doing well enough to improvise.

At the pinnacle of this hierarchy is the craftsman, the person who creates new knowledge and provides leadership — basically, you. Or at least that’s where you want to be as an entrepreneur.

The Four Stages of Competence defined

Kokcharov’s notions were built on those presented by Noel Burch, who in his turn built on the ideas expressed by Maslow. Back in the 1970s Burch came up with a model to explain the process of acquiring knowledge of a skill.

You can call these four “levels” or “stages,” either way, they are four steps to reaching total mastery of a skill.

Here are all four levels as Burch laid them out:

  • Unconscious Incompetence: lacking a skill without knowing you lack it.
  • Conscious Incompetence: you still lack a skill, but you’re aware you lack it, and are taking steps to fill the gap.
  • Conscious Competence: you are on your way to mastering the skill you previously lacked.
  • Unconscious Competence: you’ve become so thoroughly practiced at this skill that now it’s second nature to you; you’re able to perform the skill without thinking about it.

Your goal is to break out of Level One—ignorance—as fast as possible in all of the skill areas necessary for entrepreneurial success and then quickly reach Level Four.

Once you reach Level Four, your goal is to remain there. It is possible to backslide all the way down to Level One because the elements that make a skille are not static. They change over time—they become obsolete, essentially—which obliges you to keep your mastery fresh by continually updating it.

We talk about skill obsolescence in another article , but the main message is this: just because you’ve mastered something today, doesn’t necessarily mean you will have mastery tomorrow.

It’s entirely possible that at some point down the road you will backslide to Level Three. That can happen if best-practices for the skill in question evolved in the time since you gained mastery and you’ve neglected to adapt to those changes.

If you stay mired in the past like that, the mastery you think you possess could be actually a form of incompetence.

My own failure due to unconscious incompetence

When I discovered that I suffered from an unconscious incompetence made a big difference, even though the incompetence involved a small thing.

Let me tell you about it.

Part of the job of an entrepreneur is, of course, to provide leadership. That’s why many of us like to periodically bring the team together for a meeting—either face-to-face or via teleconferencing.

I’m no different. I see meetings as integral to business success.

What I didn’t see was the harm in my style of conducting meetings.

I’m a busy person, and I figure the same is true of my people. So, when we gather around the table, I like to jump in, skip the pleasantries, jettison the small talk, and get right down to business.

I had no idea that this approach to meeting was off-putting to the attendees.

I was unconsciously incompetent as a meeting runner.

I did not become consciously incompetent concerning my shortcoming until it was pointed out to me that people found my cut-to-the-chase approach jarring and devaluing.

People, as I learned, want pleasantries before talking turkey. It makes them feel human. It makes them feel appreciated. It makes them feel like contributing more.

In other words, it makes the meeting go better. And because the meeting goes better, the organization gains.

With that, I had attained conscious incompetence. I knew I lacked a skill—that of making people feel valued in a meeting—and now was positioned to do something about it.

From there I proceeded to work on my small talk. It wasn’t easy, but I kept at it because I knew it was important. Eventually, I became so good at making chit-chat in the opening minutes of a meeting that the words flowed from my lips on autopilot.

The point of this story is that, when you begin a venture, you bring with you a “skills toolbox” containing much of what you need to succeed as an entrepreneur—but not everything.

Those missing skills must be acquired and maintained.

How to go from incompetence to competence

I wish it were possible to list all the skills you must possess as an entrepreneur. Fact is, there simply are too many.

But the question is: how do you discover the existence of an unconscious incompetency? After all, it’s an unknown unknown, to borrow the coinage of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Discovery can occur when a problem confronts you and demands a response, only for you to realize you’re unable to respond because you lack the requisite skill or skills.

Discovery of an unconscious incompetency can also happen by inference. For example, it dawns on you that something is not quite clicking in your organization. This prompts you to investigate. Eventually, you uncover the problem… and it’s you. The problem demands a response, but you’re out of your depth.

A third way you find out that you are bedeviled by an unconscious incompetency is by listening to feedback.

Getting good feedback

Feedback was how I learned that I was devaluing my people in meetings by not engaging in small talk. I’d still be in the dark about it, if not for the comments of someone in the know.

In this instance, the knowledgeable someone was a business coach I’d brought in for guidance in matters unrelated to the conduct of meetings. They happened to comment on my meeting style in passing, and thank goodness they did!

You don’t have to bring in a business coach to discover that you are burdened by unconscious incompetency, but at the very least don’t surround yourself with sycophants—suck-ups who will tell you what they think you want to hear. Their feedback is largely useless because they are not giving you an unbiased view of things.

Same is true of people who aren’t sycophants, but they’re fearful of losing their job by rocking the boat.

You should want to employ and encourage individuals who aren’t frightened of speaking their mind or of offering contrarian views (also known as thinking outside the box).

To get unabashed feedback and contrarian views, you need to establish a culture where everyone feels safe to express their opinions—but, of course, to do so in a way that is kind, non-offensive, and devoid of bullying.

A quick note about business coaches

Speaking of sycophants and business coaches, the latter can be the former. Brown-nosing and soothsaying are qualities by no means confined to in-house staff.

Always examine the motivations of the person you’re considering as your business coach. It’s my belief that a business coach with less than 10,000 hours of experience should be viewed with a cautious eye.

The reason is that those with fewer than 10,000 hours are still in the process of making a name for themselves. This isn’t to say that such coaches will only tell you want to hear, so you feel pleased and keep paying them for more “coaching.”

Rather, it’s to caution you that there is a greater temptation among relative newcomers to be sycophants and soothsayers than there is among veteran and long-established business coaches with their pick of clients.

Networking: Not just for job hunts

One other source of feedback that can help you go from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence is peer-to-peer networking. Participation in networking organizations provides many good opportunities to interact with other entrepreneurs.

Peers will often provide honest feedback, simply because you aren’t paying them, but they do care about you succeeding. It’s a great resource to ask for input and advice from networking groups on sites like LinkedIn (or LeaderMind, hint-hint).

However, exercise care when selecting a networking group. Look for one made up of people in situations like your own. That could mean they are entrepreneurs in the same business or product space as you. Or it could mean entrepreneurs with a background and work experience like yours.

You’ve discovered an incompetency: what next?

The good news about reaching Level Two—conscious incompetency—is that you’re unlikely to long remain there—unless you decide to sit on your hands and do nothing about overcoming your skill deficiency.

But you’re an entrepreneur, so it’s hard to imagine you ignoring the problem.

Instead, you know it works like most things in your business: put your shoulder to the grindstone and do the work of acquiring that missing skill.

You’ll make mistakes—some undoubtedly quite painful—but that’s necessary for learning. Take the lessons from the mistakes and continue on!

How to know you’ve reached Level Four

Interestingly, you might not realize that you’ve gone from Level Three’s state of conscious competence to the unconscious competence of Level Four. Often this awareness comes after pausing to reflect on your journey and recognizing that you’ve been exercising the targeted skill reflexively for a while.

For example, you’ll be able to take a quick glance at a balance sheet and instantly know whether the company is in good shape, or if you have too much inventory, or there are too many problems popping up in production, or what have you. You will be able to intuitively or instinctively deal with an issue, when before you needed to consult a mental checklist or a physical set of instructions.

However, there is one other way you can become cognizant of Level Four attainment. It’s our old friend: feedback. Your team, colleagues, peers, and coaches may at some point remark on how masterful you suddenly seem regarding the skill you once struggled to perform.

The Continuous Improvement Model

A question frequently asked by entrepreneurs after learning about the four levels of competence is: how long does it take to transition from the first to last levels?

That’s a great question. Unfortunately, it’s also an unanswerable one.

Here’s why…

The four levels of competence do not represent a unified continuum.

By that I mean you can reach Level Four and have skill mastery, but mastery is a constantly moving target.

The fact that you have mastery today doesn’t necessarily mean you will have mastery tomorrow. (Read more in our skill obsolescence article )

Because any skill is a moving target, the four levels of competence demand you use a continuous Improvement model.

In truth you’ll never reach the destination. The learning may never end.

Not only that, but the skills you must possess to be a successful entrepreneur cannot be mastered in bulk. At any given moment you’ll have some skills of which you’re a master, others you’ll be in the process of mastering, still others you’ll only recently become aware that you need to develop, and yet more that you remain clueless about.

My advice is to treat the levels of competence not as a package of one-off transaction along a continuum. Instead, view them through as a series of repeating cycles, where there’s always more to learn, improve, and advance.

The Benefit of Understanding the Four Levels of Competence

It takes an empirical mindset to think this way about the four levels of competence. Let me assure you that adopting such a mindset will put you—as an entrepreneur—in a much stronger position.

A successful entrepreneur can figure things out and then take appropriate action in response. A successful entrepreneur is not inclined to bumble and stumble toward success.

Awareness of the four levels of competence is empowering. It gives you a viable framework for improving every aspect of yourself.

Where to start

Sift your skills through the skein of the four levels of competence. Write down what competencies you have mastery of, and what you need to learn. Ask for feedback from your team and peers to explore what skills you’re lacking. It may even be that the skills you thought you had mastered… your trusted peers and employees think need work.

Once you’ve identified where your skills are, you can make a plan for improvement. See for yourself what a difference it makes. Do this on a continual basis. You’ll spot your weaknesses sooner and implement corrective actions more readily.

Bottom line: you’ll spend less time wandering in the wilderness on your journey to success. You’ll get to where you want to be faster. You’ll have greater control over your time and energy.

I genuinely wish I had known about the four levels of competence when I started my first entrepreneurial venture long ago. If I had been dialed into them up front, I would have been able to address skill deficits early on—and my companies would have advanced much faster and farther (to the delight of all my stakeholders).

At least now my meetings are a lot more effective… and fun!

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Harry Schechter


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