The 4 Levels of Competence: Definition and Examples
Updated July 21, 2022
Becoming competent at a skill allows you to perform it with ease, boosting your productivity and increasing your performance in the workplace. Improving your levels of competency also gives you the ability to impart that knowledge to others, improving the competency of the workforce. Understanding the four stages of competency allows you to effectively employ strategies to move rapidly from one stage to the next. In this article, we explore the four stages of learning in-depth and give strategies you can use to improve your own competency or that of your team.
What is competence?
Competence refers to the skills and characteristics that enable you to perform a job. If someone can perform a required task at a targeted level of proficiency, they are competent. To be competent, you must be able to react to a situation and follow behaviors you have found to succeed in the past. To do this, you must have a repertoire of possible actions to take and training in them. Competency grows with experience and training.
Four stages of competence with examples
Here is an in-depth look at the four stages of competence and examples of what each might look like in the workplace.
1. Unconscious incompetence
This is the stage where you don’t yet know the degree of your incompetence. In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know. This stage is generally the most challenging, as you are unconscious of the fact that there are areas that need improvement or things you need to learn. People in this stage can’t recognize problems as they occur, so they generally don’t ask for help.
An example of this is if you ask a member of your team to create a series of articles for a client and optimize them to rank well in Google. The team member thinks that they’re performing the task correctly and doesn’t know to ask for guidance. It isn’t until you see the result that you realize they received improper training and that the articles will have to be rewritten.
2. Conscious incompetence
This is where you start to develop an awareness of what you don’t know. This stage can be uncomfortable because you must acknowledge your shortcomings. However, recognizing your shortcomings also motivates you to move forward and learn the skill so you can move beyond this stage as quickly as possible.
Continuing with the example from stage one, after reviewing the assignment with the member of your team and showing examples of what the article should have looked like, the team member moves into the consciously incompetent stage. They are aware that they haven’t learned the strategies to optimize an article for search engines, but because they are conscious of the mistakes, they now undertake measures to learn the skills.
3. Conscious competence
After dedicating yourself to the improvement of a skill through formal training, repeated practice and participation, competence grows and starts to show. At this stage, you have learned and practiced enough to perform a task with a degree of quality and independence. The task does take focus and attention that makes you slower than it would for someone more skilled. There is also a performance risk from distractions and possibly deadline pressure. In other words, if you lose your focus, your ability to perform the task may suffer.
In this stage, your team member has developed the skills to write the articles and optimize them for Google search results. However, they are still relying on a checklist to ensure they don’t miss anything, and they have to remain focused to be most successful at the task.
4. Unconscious competence
In this final stage, you have now internalized the knowledge you need to perform a task and perfected your practical skills. You also no longer require concentration or active thought. You can complete the required tasks with ease and speed. You are also capable of mentoring team members who are in an earlier stage of the learning model.
When your team member has reached this stage, they have mastered writing for search results and can do so with ease. They understand the advanced strategies to be successful at the task and are training other team members to help them.
How to move successfully through the four stages of competence
Here are some strategies you can use to move yourself and others through the competence cycle successfully.
Unconscious incompetence strategies
Conscious incompetence strategies
Conscious competence strategies
Unconscious competence strategies
1. Unconscious incompetence strategies
Because this can be the most challenging stage to get out of, it takes a conscious effort to get out of it. The best solution for advancing beyond this stage is to practice awareness. Constant awareness, over time, will help move you through the stages. When you are performing a new task, ask for feedback throughout the process. If it’s possible to see great examples of similar, completed work, ask to see them. The key is to move rapidly from unconscious to conscious incompetence because once you have reached conscious incompetence, you can obtain the training you need to learn the skill.
A personal SWOT analysis, evaluating your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats can help. It organizes them into a list and typically presents them in a simple two-by-two grid. A SWOT analysis helps you identify your strengths and weaknesses to understand which strengths you need to learn and improve upon.
Make sure that your skills align with your personal or work goals. If you’re a leader who’s coaching others, be sensitive at this early stage. Your team members may not understand how much they must learn or how unskilled they are. Give plenty of positive feedback to keep motivation high.
Related: SWOT Analysis Guide (With Examples)
2. Conscious incompetence strategies
In this stage, you become aware of what you don’t know, so the solution is to acquire knowledge to move as quickly as possible to the conscious competence stage. Meet with a coworker who can teach you the skill, take online or in-person training, read books, listen to podcasts or attend seminars. If you are in a leadership role and you need to improve high-level leadership skills, you may want to consider hiring a coach who can help you obtain those skills more rapidly.
If you are a leader who’s coaching a team member, provide lots of encouragement and support to combat negative thinking, improve confidence and refocus energy.
3. Conscious competence strategies
Because in this stage, you are competent in a task or ability, the key to moving beyond this stage is deliberate practice, ideally with someone who has mastered the skill and can provide guidance.
If you’re coaching others, help keep your team members focused on the skills they need to learn and give them opportunities to practice those skills.
4. Unconscious competence strategies
In this stage, you have mastered the skill and you have become unconscious in your technique. To remain at this stage, the destination, you should continue to deliberately practice the skill. The practice of learning will never end so it’s important to constantly refine your skill.
If you’re coaching others, help your team members to avoid complacency and stay up-to-date on their skills. Encourage them to use checklists and formal procedures so they think about what they’re doing as they perform important tasks. Encourage them to seek opportunities to further improve their skills.
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