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 at which I was failing, I could see it was causing harm. It was disrupting the smooth flow of business and preventing my company from gaining the kind of marketplace traction that I believed it capable of achieving.

I’ll tell you momentarily what it was I was failing at. For right now, the specifics aren’t important.

The thing that is important is that you understand 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 of being affects you as much as it affected and continues to affect me.

The Four Levels of Competence

Unconscious incompetence is one 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.

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.

Point is, there are certain skills you must possess in order to be a successful entrepreneur and you will always be at one of the four levels of competence in relationship to each one of those skills.

This truth 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’s Hierarchy of Needs is a theory in psychology anticipated by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation. Maslow consequently extended the idea to include his observations on humans’ innate curiosity….Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory remains relevant in every sector of…business today. [Its] lower order needs (physiological and safety needs) may be linked to organizational culture. Every new organization passes through this lower order stage in which they struggle with their basic survival needs.

“At the third level of the Maslow’s hierarchy, social needs would correspond to the formation of organized roles within the organization into distinct units, depicting the human resource management function which resonates according to the tone set by organizational culture. The positive interaction of organizational culture and human resource management would result in self-esteem and self-actualization….It also implies that the organization through its employees has excelled and met their objectives, mission and vision statement, i.e. a stage that can be considered parallel to self-actualization.”

Igor Kokcharov, Ph.D, PMP, translated Maslow’s theory into a Hierarchy of Skills. Kokcharov asserts that skill “is an ability, coming from one’s knowledge, practice, [and] aptitude to do something well.”

At the bottom of Kokcharov’s pyramid-shaped hierarchy is the student, whose task it is to acquire basic knowledge. One level up is the apprentice who begins to apply the acquired basic knowledge and is motivated to do so.

In the middle of the pyramid is the specialist. This individual makes purposeful use of the acquired knowledge. Above this level is the expert, defined as one who creatively uses knowledge to resolve problems. 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 as an entrepreneur aim to be.

The Big Picture

Kokcharov’s notions reflect those espoused by psychologist Noel Burch, who built on the ideas expressed by Maslow. Back in the 1970s Burch came up with a model to explain not what we know of a skill but, rather, how we go about actually acquiring the knowledge at the root of any given skill.

I mentioned there are four levels of competence. Burch labeled them stages. Either way is fine, because you get the idea.

Here, then, are all four levels as Burch laid them out:

  • Unconscious incompetence. This means you lack a skill and don’t know you lack it.
  • Conscious incompetence. You still lack that skill, but at least you’re aware of the deficit and have decided to take steps to fill the gap.
  • Conscious competence. You are in the process of mastering the skill you 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 to then quickly reach Level Four.

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

Just as an aside, the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training offers this useful definition of skill obsolescence:

Skill obsolescence is the ‘degree to which professionals lack the up-to-date knowledge or skills necessary to maintain effective performance in their current or future work roles’ (Kaufman, 1974).

“There are two main types of skill obsolescence:

  • Physical skill obsolescence (physical or cognitive skills and abilities deteriorate due to atrophy or wear and tear);
  • Economic skill obsolescence: (skills previously utilised in a job are no longer required or have diminished in importance.

“Other types include organisational forgetting (loss of firm-specific skills due to worker turnover) and perspectivistic obsolescence (outdated views and beliefs on work and the work environment).”

My own failure due to unconscious incompetence

Discovering 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 inherent to 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 cognizance that this approach to helming a 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 seemingly 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.

Ways unconscious incompetence becomes the conscious type

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 this raises 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 muster one 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. As before, it demands a response but, again, you’re impotent in the face of it because 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.

Feedback was the mechanism by which I learned that I was devaluing my people in meetings by not engaging them in small talk. I’d still be in the dark but 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.

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 merely fearful of losing their job by rocking the boat.

You should want to employ 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.

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.

Therefore, 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 jaundiced 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 for certain tell you only what they think you want to hear in order to please you and keep you on the hook. 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.

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.

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 experiential palette resembling 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 sloughing it off.

Instead, you’re almost surely going to put your shoulder to the grindstone and do the work of acquiring that missing skill.

You’ll of course make mistakes—some undoubtedly quite painful—but that’s par for the course. Just make sure you learn from those mistakes and try your best to avoid repeating them.

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. But the idea is that you will be able to almost intuitively or instinctively be capable of dealing with an issue whereas before you need 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.

Final Thoughts About the Four Levels of Competence

A question frequently asked by entrepreneurs after becoming “red pilled” with knowledge of 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.

Here’s Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., from the Department of Psychology at Carleton University:

The length of time it takes to lose a skill is proportional to the time it took you to learn the skill….We don’t really lose these skills, [instead] they “rust” a little. [If] we’ve just developed a new skill, it’s quick to fade. The neural connections that encode this learning are neither extensive nor ‘deep.’ We see this all of the time in our colleges and universities as students ‘cram for the test’ and days later they are unable to remember the content or demonstrate the skill. It’s called surface learning for a reason, as it’s easily erased.

“How long does it take to lose a skill? [It] depends on the skill. [S]ome skills are so deep within us that even when brain disease processes rob us of our memories and even our ability to remember those around us, we can still demonstrate these skills.”

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 in actuality a form of incompetence.

What I’m suggesting here is that the four levels of competence demand you approach them using the framework of a continuous Improvement model.

Consequently, the closest you can get to an answer to the question above about how long it takes to reach the end of competence-acquisition process is in truth you’ll never reach the destination. The reason is 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 congruent, endlessly repeating cycles.

It takes an empirical mindset to be able 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 than you might currently occupy.

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

Trust me when I say that awareness of the four levels of competence is empowering. It gives you a viable framework for improving every aspect of yourself as it relates to creativity and practical ability.

Sift your skills through the skein of the four levels of competence and see for yourself what a difference it makes. It will help you 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 energies.

I genuinely wish I had known about the four levels of competence when I started my first entrepreneurial venture so long ago now. 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 more surefootedly (to the delight of all my stakeholders).

(Make it a point to read Harry Schechter’s blog and you’ll have a better chance of keeping track of the skills you need to improve or update or even acquire in your journey as an entrepreneur.)


Harry Schechter

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