Conscious V’s Unconscious Competence

Written by: Alan Rodway

Competence is either conscious or unconscious. The difference matters and should to be understood to maximize performance.

There are some people who are conscious of what makes them competent in whatever area of expertise we are looking at, and there are others who are competent but unaware of what how they achieve it. Those who are consciously competent can outline, explain and demonstrate clearly to others how and why they are competent in the activity at hand. Those who are unconsciously competent find it difficult to do that. The unconsciously competent tend to say “I don’t really how I do it … I just do. I don’t think about it that much”. That’s not useful to someone else trying to improve or emulate their performance. This group of competents tend to be the ‘naturals’, the ones who are ‘gifted’, the ones who don’t seem to have to try to succeed. On the other hand, those who are consciously competent can more clearly outline, explain and demonstrate what it is about them and their behaviours that creates their success … they are able to articulate the training elements, methodologies, movements, disciplines, strategies, etc. This group is easier to learn from, about successful behaviours.

Have you ever looked forward to hearing from someone who is successful, only to be disappointed by what they said? If the person is an unconscious competent, it’s probably because they just aren’t aware of what’s created their own success and therefore struggle to relay it on.

We can all learn from high performing people but we will learn more from the conscious competents rather than just seeking to learn from high performers. Notice the high number of high-level sporting coaches around the world who have not been superstars. Sport engages them as coaches due to their ability to explain how to be competent, rather than just looking at their previous performances personally.

In business, the best managers are sometimes those who consciously competent, not those who have been the best performers in similar roles. A significant mistake of the past in business has been to appoint people to management roles because they were good in their field, only to find out they are unconsciously competent and unable to impart their skills on others.

The best leaders, however, though can come from either camp. Leaders can be effective

because of what they do or because of what they can teach. So, they can be either consciously or unconsciously competent.

How can we test which type an individual is? Observation is best. Do you witness an ability to explain what it takes to others, map out the steps required, clear evaluation of past performances, desire to review situations to learn from them? Or do you see a lot more of ‘just doing it’, not a lot of thought, lots of instinct? If you’re not confident your observations and perceptions have identified whether someone is consciously or unconsciously competent, then you might want to test it by asking them to articulate the necessary steps to be successful in the appropriate activities or fields.

It’s important to say that neither type is preferable .. success is success. The importance of the distinction is related to the appointment into training and managerial roles, as distinct from leadership roles.

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