I miss being competent

It’s worth taking some time to have a think about the role of on the job learning in the workplace and how we make this happen. A lot of what we actually learn at work is done through the day to day tasks we’re involved in. Going on training and gaining accreditations or qualifications are only a small step in the world of actually gaining realisation, or becoming proficient at a task. In L&D speak, we call this the ‘steps of competence’. It can sound slightly patronising, and once you use it, you understand that this is the way of learning in general.

We first are in state of unconscious incompetence. That is, we don’t know that we don’t know how to do something. For example, I started using Microsoft PowerPoint only when I started my first job at QVC. Those first few months were a steep learning curve in using this particular program. I didn’t know I didn’t know how to use it, because I’d never had need of it before.

We then enter into a state of conscious incompetence. That is, we become starkly aware our skills are lacking and we try and find ways to overcome these. Training, asking questions, using it, all form part of the fumbling we go through.

At some point, we gradually move into a state of conscious competence. That is, we start to use that skill quite easily and become less concerned with the mechanics of what we’re doing, and just start doing. We may still seek out information on it, but by and large we’re ok with what we’re doing.

Lastly we enter into a state of unconscious competence. That is, we start to use the skill so regularly that we forget we ever didn’t know how to use it. If others ask questions about it, we’re more than likely to know how to help, and arrive at solutions quite quickly.

Back at work, then, what often ends up happening is we simply become complacent in our learning. We seem to stop at the unconscious competence thinking we’re the kings of our respective castle and need to do no more. Which is an odd thing. How can we expect to progress, develop or fulfil our ambitions if we sit on our laurels? It’s not enough to go off an attend training, or a conference, or read a blog. You have to be actively doing something that makes you question your activity.

Complacency is evil. We’re all guilty of it, though. We find a comfortable place to operate from and decide that’s our lot. We don’t need to do any more because things are ok right now. And that’s not ok. We are so foolish, us human beings. We get to a particular point in our career and think ‘I don’t need to do anything else’. Lazy buggers (which, by the way, is a favourite saying of my eldest twin, A).

The important thing here is that we don’t dismiss the importance structuring our on the job learning. In any business there’s a lot happening and ample opportunity to keep yourself in the know. Beyond that, there’s a lot of people who can help. They’re probably sitting across the desk from you right now.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

6 thoughts on “I miss being competent”

  1. Sukh, this post really spoke to me. I think so many people go on courses, get the book and then put it on the shelf. There is a narrow view of what constitutes training and as a consequence we don’t tend to think of how much we could learn from colleagues and how we could share with them the learning from the course we’ve just been on. Whenever I used to ask for training budget allocation I would always offer to do informal teach ins on my return to work. Just amongst my colleagues so that they could get some quick tangible benefits.

    1. It’s something we insist on in the company, that when people attend external training in particular, they share their knowledge with the team so it’s not lost.

  2. Good post Sukh & has prompted a few thoughts…

    Beyond the avid learner we’re talking about passion, curiosity, questioning, self-awareness even. When was the last time you saw a manager talking to their staff about learning or even their role like this?

    The role of self is important here but maybe more so is the role of others especially management. Whether we look at this competence model, Johari or Kirkpatrick the key factor is others providing support & feedback.

    I love your phrase “You have to be actively doing something that makes you question your activity”. This resonates at every level.

    Lastly, what comes beyond unconscious competence? How do we achieve mastery? Not sure if you saw but a wrote a little on this in December here http://bit.ly/zYoybe . Would love to hear your thoughts on the 5th stage of competence!

  3. Sadly, I don’t think these conversations happen often enough. That may be in part to do with managing the expectations of the manager. Do they know they’re supposed to? How do you have that conversation? Why is it even important?

    Your post on mastery is an interesting one, and demands I write my own response to it!

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