Is Conscious Competence the Key to Success?

2017-11-16 | BY Proven Recruiting's Editorial Team | IN Work Life

Is Conscious Competence the Key to Success?

Is your company talking about ‘Unconscious Incompetence’ yet? This learning-related phenomenon is a growing concern for employers, and it’s likely impacting the long-term success of your career.

The term refers to an invisible, creeping decline of skills and knowledge that occurs throughout every level of a company’s workforce. As technologies change, products and services evolve, and employees – particularly those who are 10+ years out of college – move further away from formal education, individuals’ relative competencies tend to decrease. A lack of awareness allows this decline to grow exponentially, and individuals, teams, and entire companies can become unconsciously incompetent as a result.

Simply put, Unconscious Incompetence stems from all of the things that you (and your coworkers) don’t know that you don’t know. And what you don’t know can harm you.

So how can you keep up with critical skills that you don’t know you lack?

Step 1: Embrace Self-Awareness as Your Secret Weapon

It’s a universal, self-perpetuating problem: for the majority of our workforce, institutional learning ends with high school, college, or graduate programs. Save for the occasional corporate training initiative, continuous learning and skills development programs are often treated as a precursor to a career.

Yet in a disruptive, constantly-evolving corporate environment, how much of the information learned 10+ years ago remains relevant?

Before you answer that, consider recent data from industries spanning health care, education, technology, business services and more that suggests the majority of people are actually ‘unconsciously incompetent’ in a typical 20% to 40% of areas critical to their performance. A pre-career approach to education isn’t the only cause – static training content, hand-me-down bad habits and the breakneck pace of technological change are all contributing factors.

Everyone is impacted, from CEOs to new hires, which makes this incompetence difficult to identify. And problems you can’t identify are hard to address. Which is why the first step in beating Unconscious Incompetence is recognizing that you have a problem and seeking to uncover what it is.

What don’t you know that you don’t know?

Step 2: Consciously Address Your Incompetence

This step requires a healthy dose of curiosity, humility and a willingness to fight your instincts. Studies show that the drive to feel “right” often causes people to ignore contradictory information, so this step may feel uncomfortable.

Keep at it – reliable and consistent may be fine for now, but innovative, knowledgeable, and adaptive is the way of the future. Advances in technology and AI means that most fixed mindset jobs will soon be automated. What humans have to contribute that robots can’t – or at least can’t yet – is the ability to naturally and quickly adapt. This exercise will ultimately help to position you as an expert and leader and can fast-track your career development.

“Hierarchy of Competence” by TyzaeL


Start by paying close attention to your workflow. Have you been using the same tools, reports or tactics in the same way for years? Are there areas in which you know you’re not great and have always wanted to improve, but haven’t? What are the latest technological trends that are impacting your profession right now? Are you harnessing them to do your job as effectively as possible?

Make a list of the 1-3 most relevant areas in which you see potential room for improvement. Surprise your manager by proactively identifying areas in which you’d like to develop your skills and by coming up with a plan of attack. Could any of your still-unconsciously incompetent team members benefit from this training plan as well? Asking these tough questions and taking action will instantly position you as a leader among your peers.

Step 3: Practice Makes Effortless   

Acquiring new skills is exciting. Applying them can be hard. This stage is called ‘Conscious Competence;’ it’s the period in which you’re practicing a new skill or subject and are able to perform it well when applying active effort.

It requires follow through and discipline not to default back to old ways of doing things, which is why setting clear goals and accountability mechanisms is highly recommended.

Say you’ve decided to sharpen up your Excel skills and want to rebuild your spreadsheets in order to apply what you’ve learned. Could your team members benefit from a Lunch and Learn, hosted by you, to share your new skills and demonstrate their impact? Scheduling this kind of event 1-3 months following your training is a highly effective way of holding yourself accountable and demonstrating your increased value as a result of your efforts.

In addition to making you more effective at your job, this stage enables you to become a true leader at your workplace by effecting positive change. Your superiors will notice and thank you for it.

Step 4: Foster a Continuous Growth Mindset

After a period of practice, you should become fully competent in your new skills without having to think about them. Once applied, all new learning eventually enters your natural lexicon of knowledge.

So what next? Go back to step 1. This ladder of learning doesn’t happen naturally – if left to our own devices, humans often settle, quite happily, at the lower rungs. The ultimate goal is to foster a growth vs. a fixed mindset that empowers you to continuously evolve as the needs of your job change. Adaptability and consistent learning are focal points of growth mindsets – and both are critical to a successful career.

Conclusion: The Future of Work is Lifelong Learning.

Gone are the days when a university degree could carry you through to retirement – and good riddance.

Specialized, job-oriented qualifications, earned throughout your life in incremental steps, will become the new standard. This approach to learning is more sustainable, competitive, and cost efficient, since you’ll never have to leave the labor force to earn a new degree.

Let’s put those articles detailing the number of jobs that will be lost to automation behind us, and look forward to the encouraging advancements that the human mind can offer in our evolving workforce.

Finding a workplace that will encourage, challenge, and support you on your path to lifelong learning can be difficult. Let us help connect you with the right opportunities.

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