Cognitive States and the Four Stages of Competence

The process of moving from incompetence to competence and the associated stages of self-awareness is fascinating. Reflecting on times past when I was ignorant of what I didn’t know, then became aware of something new to learn, then moved to competency, and eventually proficiency, I found the whole process exhilarating and motivating. That’s the best case scenario, though. I’m not always so willing to acquire a new skill. Nor are all our followers always so eager to learn and grow. It helps to think about cognitive states when guiding others from ignorance to proficiency. What’s going on in the mind at each stage of learning?

In the 1970s, Noel Burch, of Gordon Training International created what is today known as the Four Stages of Competence. You’ve probably seen this model before. It is an intuitive and helpful way to think about how we move from not knowing a skill to performing it automatically. Here is the model in brief:

Unconscious Incompetence
Simply put, this is not knowing and not knowing you don’t know. Using piano playing as an example, this is the equivalent of not knowing a piano exists and therefore not knowing I don’t know how to play a piano.

Conscious Incompetence
Once I know the piano exists, and that people sit down at the instrument and manipulate the keys to make music, I become aware, conscious, that I do not know how to do that. (Although, it’s fun to watch kids go to a piano for the first time, randomly pressing keys making “music.” I wonder if they think that is music the same way we think Brahms or Copeland is music.)

Conscious Competence
With training and practice, I become competent at playing the piano. I can select most any music score and understand what is required to play the piece. I know the steps and skills required to play many songs very well, with practice.

Unconscious Competence
This is the level of skill where performance is automatic. It is second nature. This is the pianist who plays with the London Symphony Orchestra or other world class symphony orchestras.
I play piano. I was once pretty good, but not great. I got to the stage of “conscious competence.” I know people who are “unconsciously competent” with keyboards. It’s a real treat to watch them play because my conscious competence allows me to understand the work and skill involved in playing piano when it is second nature.

As a leader, I find it helpful to understand the four stages of competence. When I think about the various skills that my team members need to be proficient in their work, it helps to consider the stage of competence they are at for each skill.

Even more helpful is to consider the cognitive state required for transitioning from one stage of competence to the next. This allows a leader to get a glimpse of whether that individual is ready to or about to move to the next stage. Similarly, there are times when someone does not move to the next level? Why? What is the cognitive state that blocks the move?

Let’s look at the cognitive states that facilitate and block movement from one stage of competence to the next.

Unconscious Incompetence
Transitional cognitive state: awakening.
To move to the next stage of competence, the individual must wake up to what was unknown and become aware.

Blocking cognitive state: apathy.
The individual doesn’t know and doesn’t care to know.

Conscious Incompetence
Transitional cognitive state: curiosity.
Awareness is the opening of a door. Curiosity is walking through the door to the next stage of competence for new experiences.

Blocking cognitive state: chosen ignorance.
This is a conscious choice to not know something. Be careful not to assume this is negative. We think of ignorance as a bad thing. Leaders are naturally curious people, but we decide for chosen ignorance on many things that are not strategic to become competent in.

Conscious Competence
Transitional cognitive state: emerging confidence.
As skills develop, the individual develops confidence in their ability to become more competent. This is “fuel” for increased competence and potential unconscious competence.

Blocking cognitive state: change of focus.
Becoming unconsciously competent in any discipline requires commitment and sacrifice (except for those who are naturally gifted in a skill). I chose not to become an unconsciously competent in piano because I instead chose to focus on other skills and interests.

Unconscious Competence
There isn’t a transitional cognitive state here because there isn’t a higher level to move to. However, it’s possible someone could revert to a lower level of competence. I surmise that the most likely cognitive state is also a change of focus.

Last week, in “Dark Matter,” I wrote about the importance of focusing on the invisible in leadership: emotions, relationships, attitudes, personal potential, and the like. This applies to helping your team members develop competence, too. Cognitive states are a critical element in personal and professional development. People are not machines into which we plug information and procedures and out pops a skill.

Carefully examine the skill levels of your followers: What stage of competence are they at? What is their cognitive state? They might be giving you signals they are ready to move to the next level but just need help and resources. Perhaps they are struggling to move to the next level. A conversation about blocking cognitive states might create a new direction.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Photo by Pedro Lastra. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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