The Five Stages of Competence


I’ve been doing a little training with our small group leaders recently. We’ve been talking about how to train and develop new leaders, and I’ve been using a well-known little matrix which related consciousness and competence. The grid identifies four stages of development as follows:

  1. Unconscious incompetence – there’s stuff out there that you don’t know how to do, and you don’t know that you don’t know how to do it. For most people who are part of teams or small groups this is where they sit. They know stuff happens but they don’t really know (or necessarily care) how it happens.
  2. Conscious incompetence – at some point you may be asked to contribute something to your small group or team. At this point you suddenly become painfully aware that you don’t know how to do what you’re being asked to do. Just the request brings on the sweats. You didn’t used to care; now you’re terrified of something that you used to take for granted when someone else did it.
  3. Conscious competence – eventually given enough support, opportunity, encouragement and practise you’ll achieve a level of competence in a task. You’ve worked out how to do something and how to make it work reasonably well. You still get nervous, but your confidence is growing.
  4. Unconscious competence – further down the track still and you’ve reached the point where performing a particular task feels straightforward and relatively simple to you. You won’t worry about doing it, and you may not have to think too hard – it’ll come almost as second nature.

Within this cycle there are a couple of danger points. The first comes between stages 2 and 3. First efforts at something are often not our best and the ‘pit of despair’ can swallow us up, never to emerge again. But there’s another danger point at stage 4. It seems to me that this shouldn’t really be the point we finish the process. If we get to the point where we are unconsciously competent, how do we train and develop others? How do we grow ourselves? If we stop at stage 4 we’ll think we’ve arrived and will stop growing. Worse, when others ask us for our help we won’t know what to say. Somebody will say to us, ‘how do you do that?’ Our answer will be, ‘mmm . . . not sure really – just sort of do.’

So I think we need a 5th stage which we might call ‘reflective competence.’ We need to be able to define why something works and where it can be improved so that we can keep developing and growing, and so that we’re able to train others. And it’s often only as we’re called to train and develop others that we really begin to learn ourselves.

competence 2

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