The Conscious Competence Ladder

Making learning a happier experience. Also called the “Conscious Competence Matrix” and the “Learning Matrix”

When we find that we don’t know something important, we’re often motivated to learn more. However if we’re blissfully unaware of our ignorance, there’s little we can do about it.

One of the first steps on the journey to acquiring new skills is therefore to be aware of what you don’t know. This discovery can be uncomfortable, as can be the experience of not being very good at what you’re trying to do (as you won’t be, when you first start to learn.)

The Conscious Competence Ladder is a popular and intuitive approach (attributed to many different possible originators) that helps us manage our own emotions during a sometimes dispiriting learning process. More than this, it helps us to be more in touch with the emotions of the people we are teaching, so we can better coach them through the learning process.

Explaining the Model:

According to this approach, consciousness is the first step towards gaining knowledge. To learn new skills and to gain knowledge you need to be conscious of what you do and do not know.

Next, competence is your ability to do things. You may be highly competent in one area, but have no skill in another. Your competence level will depend on the task or job at hand.

The idea is that as you build expertise in a new area, you move from “unconscious incompetence” to “conscious incompetence” and then to “conscious competence”, finally reaching “unconscious competence.” These are explained below, and this “ladder” of learning is shown in figure 1.

Level 1 – Unconscious Incompetence
(You Don’t Know that You Don’t Know)

At this level you are blissfully ignorant: You have a complete lack of knowledge and skills in the subject in question. On top of this, you are unaware of this lack of skill, and your confidence may therefore far exceed your abilities.

Level 2 – Conscious Incompetence
(You Know that You Don’t Know)

At this level you find that there are skills you need to learn, and you may be shocked to discover that there are others who are much more competent than you. As you realize that your ability is limited, your confidence drops. You go through an uncomfortable period as you learn these new skills when others are much more competent and successful than you are.

Level 3 – Conscious Competence
(You Know that You Know)

At this level you acquire the new skills and knowledge. You put your learning into practice and you gain confidence in carrying out the tasks or jobs involved. You are aware of your new skills and work on refining them.

You are still concentrating on the performance of these activities, but as you get ever-more practice and experience, these become increasingly automatic.

Level 4 – Unconscious Competence
(You Don’t Know that You Know – It Just Seems Easy!)

At this level your new skills become habits, and you perform the task without conscious effort and with automatic ease. This is the peak of your confidence and ability.

Using the tool:

The Conscious Competence Ladder helps us in two ways: It gives us reassurance when we need it, and it helps us coach others through a sometimes difficult learning process.

During the Conscious Incompetence phase, we have the reassurance that while things are difficult and frustrating right now, things will get much better in the future. And when we’re at the stage of Unconscious Competence, the model reminds us to value the skills we have so painstakingly acquired.

As an approach to coaching others, it reminds us that people may be moving through these steps as they learn the new skills we’re trying to teach them:

  • Unconscious Incompetence: At the beginning of the process, they may be unaware of their own lack of competence, and may need to be made gently aware of how much they need to learn.

  • Conscious Incompetence: During this stage, you’ll need to provide plenty of encouragement, tolerate mistakes appropriately, and do what you can to help people improve.
  • Conscious Competence: At this stage you need to keep people focused on effective performance of the task, and give plenty of opportunities for them to get practice.
  • Unconscious Competence: Although this is the ideal state, you’ll need to make sure that people avoid complacency, and stay abreast of their fields. You may also need to remind people how difficult it was to reach this state, so that they are tolerant with people at the Conscious Incompetence stage!

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