My Greatest Fear? Unconscious Incompetence

"...when people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it." - D. Dunning and J. Kruger

Ignorance is Bliss

I first read about the Dunning-Kruger Effect in a January 2000 New York Times article titled, "Among the Inept, Researchers Discover, Ignorance Is Bliss." I have been carrying that article around with me since, using it as a daily reminder to never be complacent.

Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with incompetence. Like everyone else, I am incompetent at far more things than I will ever be competent at. My concern is that, among the few things I believe I have achieved some level of competence, I could be delusional. Before going deeper into my fears and delusions, let me tell you what is meant by unconscious incompetence.

First developed in the 1970s, the Four Stages of Learning says that individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence. Once they become conscious of their incompetence, they consciously acquire a skill. After much practice and continued use, the skill can be used without consciously thought (i.e. unconscious competence).

Consider an example: learning how to drive.

Sitting in the backseat as a kid, you don't realize all the skills required to safely drive a car. This especially true if your parents had a manual transmission. You could just sit in your booster seat, turning your toy steering wheel, thinking how easy it is to race through traffic. You don't know about the clutch, checking your mirrors, anticipating other drivers' moves, etc. You are obviously incompetent to drive, but you are also unconscious of that fact.

When you get your learner's permit and your parents take to a parking lot for your first driving experience, you quickly learn that you don’t know how to do it (conscious incompetence). That consciousness presents you with a decision: is this a skill worth learning or should I spend my time on something more valuable to me?

It is the rare 16 year old that decides anything is more important than driving, so you start to practice. As you practice you need to think your way through every movement of driving. This is the conscious competence stage. The fact that new drivers need to focus on every task is a major argument in support of laws against using cell phones while driving.

After hundreds of hours behind the wheel, driving becomes a habit. Eventually you can drive without thinking, shifting gears effortlessly while thinking about other things or conversing with your passengers. The point when a skill becomes second nature is called unconscious competence.

So what does this have to do with fear and delusion? The fact that I can write about this is evidence, to me, that I am self-aware and know my limitations. But what if self-awareness is my blind spot and I actually lack the skill to know my limits? It's a vicious cycle.


Inoculating yourself against this cycle begins with the understanding that you can never achieve unconscious competence in self-awareness. This is an area that requires focus and constant vigilance. You have to be brutally honest with yourself and ask yourself on a continuing basis, "Am I the best person available to complete this task? Do I have all the necessary skills and knowledge to do the work? If not, what am I missing?"

When you are not brutally honest with yourself,  you need to find someone who will be. We all have our blind spots. Who is that honest person in your business life who will speak the truth to you?

If you lack competence in some areas, consider whether you need to. Then take the steps to gain new competencies.  Education doesn't end when you leave school.  Whether formal or informal, there are an endless number of ways to learn what you need to know.  Reading can be a source of entertainment and education. Meeting regularly with a mentor is a great way to identify gaps as well as maintain important connections. Professional associations (like Scrum Alliance) have regular meetings, and professional development groups (like Toastmasters International) expose you to new skills you may not know about.

You can get 360 degree feedback from your colleagues. They are the people who see you in action every day and can provide the best feedback. You can also ask your direct supervisor for frequent feedback.

Finally, look at the key performance metrics related to your job.  If you are not meeting expectations or are lagging behind your peers, it could reflect a lack of competence.

Are you serving in a job that maximizes your competencies? Who do you have in your life that will help you evaluate your work performance? What areas of your performance do you really need to target for improvement?

Please subscribe and share this blog using the widgets below and Follow me @QuietAgilist or Connect with me on LinkedIn to get updated when I post a new entry. It's free with no obligation!