What is an unconscious incompetence? (Plus how to avoid it)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 22 March 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Unconscious incompetence occurs when you're unaware a problem exists, nor are you aware that a solution can be found for it. It's the first of four stages of learning that anyone developing new skills goes through. Understanding unconscious incompetence is an essential element of learning new skills and expanding your knowledge. In this article, we answer, 'What is an unconscious incompetence?', list the four stages of learning and show you how to prevent unconscious incompetence in the workplace.

What is an unconscious incompetence?

Understanding unconscious incompetence can help you strengthen your communication skills and improve your approach to learning new skills. Unconscious incompetence is one of the four stages of competence, which relate to the psychological states people go through as they progress from incompetence to competence while learning something. Unconscious incompetence is the first stage, which happens before learning begins. It's when learners are unaware of what they know and they may not realise a particular skill or learning opportunity even exists.

What are the four stages of competence?

The four stages of competence also called the four stages of learning, explain the psychological stages through which people move as they gain knowledge or learn something new. Reviewing all four stages can help you better understand the importance of unconscious incompetence and the opportunities it brings. The four stages of learning are:

  1. Unconscious incompetence: This first stage of learning occurs when you don't even realise what knowledge you can gain in a certain field. For example, if you're working on your communication skills, unconscious incompetence is what you exhibit when you're unaware that you're communicating in an incompetent manner.

  2. Conscious incompetence: Conscious incompetence begins when you become aware of the knowledge gap or skills you can acquire. At this stage, active learning can begin.

  3. Conscious competence: The third stage, conscious competence, is when you know the theory and understand the tools necessary to perform a new task. Typically, performing that task well still requires practice.

  4. Unconscious competence: At this last stage of learning, you have enough knowledge and experience to perform a certain task unconsciously. This means that you do it naturally and may even have enough experience to teach others how to do it.

Related: Guide to four levels of competence (plus strategies)

How to avoid unconscious incompetence in the workplace

Preventing unconscious incompetence is essential to helping yourself or your team develop stronger skill sets and gain expert knowledge in your field. Identifying effective strategies to move away from this first stage of learning allows you to realise what you don't know and identify the actions you can undertake to learn those things. Here are a few ways in which you can avoid unconscious incompetence in the workplace:

1. Regularly assess your performance

Assessing your performance can be helpful when you want to make sure that you're continuously expanding your knowledge. Reviewing what you've learned can boost your confidence and make you more determined to engage further in learning activities, thanks to which you can avoid unconscious incompetence.

If you're managing or leading a team, you may also consider assessing the performance of your team members. While assessing the performance of others, make it clear that the reason you are doing so is to motivate them. It is critical to let them know it's not a formal assessment. You could even make the assessment voluntary. Consider designing the assessment to be helpful for both your colleagues and the organisation. For example, the results can help your colleagues identify their career advancement opportunities and show the organisation what their strengths are.

Related: How to Write a Self-Assessment

2. Request feedback

If you're unsure about your performance, consider asking a more experienced colleague or supervisor for feedback. This can help you become aware of additional skills you could learn to improve the way you work. It's especially important to listen to senior professionals when you're just starting out in your career. Typically, most people who join the workforce are unconsciously incompetent and require time to understand what to do to succeed. Ask for feedback as this can help accelerate your learning and development.

Related: Positive feedback: why it's important and how to give it

3. Engage in adaptive learning

Adaptive learning is a method that allows you to customise the learning materials you use in your individual style of learning. For example, if you're a visual learner, you may prefer gaining knowledge by watching tutorials and educational videos. Similarly, being a kinaesthetic learner means you're more likely to quickly learn something when you carry out the actual activities rather than attend lectures. Because adaptive learning makes you feel more comfortable around new topics, it also helps you to be open-minded to things you're yet to learn.

4. Understand the theory of learning

Understanding the processes that take place as you learn something new can help you determine what to do to move more quickly through the stages of competence. It's helpful to review the structures that make learning more likely to happen. For example, you may focus on observing the social factors of learning, such as the way others perceive you as you take on more complex activities and learn how to successfully complete them well.

Related: The psychology of learning and types of learning theories

5. Be curious

Being curious is essential to making the most of what the world, or your workplace, has to offer. When you're curious, you will want to take part in various activities that can lead to learning such as reading. You may also want to practise observation and active listening as this helps you to recognise inspiration in others.

Related: How to improve observation skills: a step-by-step guide

6. Accept your limitations

One of the important things to do to prevent unconscious incompetence from delaying your professional growth is to accept your individual limitations. This can help you come to terms with the fact that learning new things requires time. Usually, learning too many things at once is less effective than focusing on one skill at a time. Consider selecting one subject to focus on. If you come across something else you'd like to learn, you can simply include it in your long-term career plan or to-do list.

Related: How To Create a Personal SWOT Analysis in 5 Steps

7. Nurture a culture of learning

Avoiding unconscious incompetence can be easier when you encourage your colleagues to nurture a culture of learning with you. To accomplish this, you can try to explain to them that learning is one of the most effective ways to succeed. As a result, you could create group learning opportunities through which your entire team can expand their knowledge and eliminate knowledge gaps that exist within the company.

Related: What is workplace culture and what are its characteristics?

8. Consider performance metrics in your field

Occasionally, when you're feeling stuck at work, it may be because you're unconsciously incompetent in your profession. This is especially common when you're just starting your first job or a few weeks after changing careers. Looking at performance metrics in your field can be helpful to determine whether you're meeting industry expectations.

Related: How to write an effective performance improvement plan

Additional tips for maximising learning potential

Eliminating unconscious incompetence is critical when you want to develop new skills and advance your career, but it's not the only thing to do when you want to maximise your learning potential. If you have a mentor or someone you look up to, ask them for advice regarding their learning process. Here are some additional tips you can follow to accomplish this:

  • Use your senses: Using different senses when learning can encode things into your memory and help you retain information. For example, you can listen to relaxing music or use essential oils to enhance your sense of smell.

  • Take notes: Even if you're learning through physical actions, it's important to take notes and draw conclusions after each training session. Remember that note-taking can be done in various forms as well as writing. You may find it useful to record short video clips to summarise what you've learned.

  • Prioritise your sleep schedule: Dedicating enough time every day to relax and reset is essential for you to be able to start each day with a curious and healthy mindset. Getting enough sleep helps improve your focus and avoid distractions during learning.

  • Increase your brain's capacity to learn: To get the best possible results from learning, it's important to work on increasing your brain's capacity to learn. You may choose to work on improving your memory, attention span or analytical skills.

  • Stay organised: Organisational skills are essential when you want to achieve a certain goal or improve your learning abilities. To take advantage of your ability to organise learning, consider creating study plans that guide you through the process.

Explore more articles