Unconsciously Competent?

Are Your People 
Unconsciously Competent?

As long as I can remember, life has been about getting “good” at things. At a young age, that started with getting good at the basics, like walking, talking, riding a bike… By later in life, it was driving, dating, texting, and all the nuances of adolescent life. By the time we become adults, our minds are filled with questions about whether we’re “good” at managing our 401K, raising our children, maintaining friendships, succeeding in our job… or we’re thinking about our kitchen remodel with a full farmhouse sink and subway tile backsplash (thanks HGTV)!

As career-minded professionals, we use a fancier term for what our younger minds called getting “good”: competency. Often, we think of competency as something we want to gain, such as, “I want to be more competent at spacing subway tile.” While it can feel like gaining competency is the best solution for every problem, competency also has a cost associated with it. If you want to drive yourself or your organization to higher levels of performance, it’s important to be aware of the hidden side of competency—and what you can do about it.

The Hidden Cost of Competency

You see, when we’re becoming competent, we don’t simply go from incompetent to competent in one fell swoop. Competency is a journey, and each step along that journey requires a lot of learning, observation, and practice.

One simple way to think about competency is viewing it as four stages of competence, a theory developed by Noel Burch.
The four stages of competence

As we learn a new skill, behavior, or mindset, we move through four stages—from unconscious incompetence (where you’re unaware of how bad you are at installing subway tile) to unconscious competence (where you’re so good at installing subway tile, that you forget all the small steps that someone learning the skill will stumble over).

And there lies the trouble.

In many organizations, we have individuals on the lower side of competence who are trying to develop themselves and their career trajectory. At that phase, they either don’t know what they don’t know, or they’re so new to being competent that they don’t know what strategic steps to take to move themselves to the next stage.

On the other side of the coin, the leaders in an organization may be so competent that they are unaware of how much effort and ability goes into excelling at a skill. (Think of how easy HGTV will have you believe it is as they raise that sledgehammer to the old kitchen sink.) This can lead to unfair expectations, the wrong types of situational support, and mentoring or coaching that misses the mark.

An Invitation to Empathy

Over time, competency can begin to get in the way of developing people and growing your organization. At TiER1, it’s our mission to help people with expertise share it with others.

The leaders in an organization may be so competent that they are unaware of how much effort and ability goes into excelling at a skill.

As a leader, one way to accomplish this is to be empathetic with people at all stages of competency. For your employees at lower stages of competency, some skills can be so foreign that the idea of learning those skills is a daunting task. Your people want to improve, but they don’t know who to ask for help or what questions to ask. To overcome these barriers, you can target your support by providing best practices, tips from those with expertise, or even by breaking a skill down into digestible parts or phases.

You also can help your employees at higher stages of competency see that successfully performing their skills has become second nature for them. They may feel frustrated when asked to support a peer in a skill that is so simple in their mind. Help them see the complexity in what they do by recognizing the effort and ability they have developed, and remind them that the notes and references they use as support aren’t sufficient for someone learning for the first time. Share with them this idea of the four stages of competency so they can support others from a place of empathy, understanding, and intention.

The Fifth Stage of Competency

If you cultivate an attitude of empathy around competency, you can unlock a fifth stage of competency: empathetic competence. Empathetic competency means understanding that competency isn’t a checkbox or goal marker that we achieve and leave behind. It’s about assessing yourself and your abilities against your potential, rather than the abilities and potential of another person. Ultimately, it’s about being mindful of the skills and abilities of others, meeting them where they are, and supporting them along their journey to growth and success. (Embarking on this before the sledgehammer hits the kitchen sink can certainly save a lot of money and frustration in the long run.)

Are you looking to incorporate empathy into your talent development efforts? Then let’s chat.

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