top of page

Uncovering Unconscious Incompetence: Understanding the First Step of Mastery

Unconscious Incompetence leaves us wondering what went wrong.

Incompetence has historically been one of my biggest triggers. I am easily irked by store clerks who don’t know what they are doing, poor communicators and even well-intentioned family members, and my journey on this front continues. However, I have recently been able to verbalize and externalize the concept of competence. It has been providing clarity and perspective, which gives me greater sympathy and even empathy toward others, especially my dear family.

There are four stages of competence that provide a mastery framework, but we will focus on the first. It begins with unconscious incompetence, the stage in which individuals are unaware of their lack of knowledge or skill in a particular area. This lack of awareness often results in mistakes or errors due to a lack of understanding and highlights the need for self-awareness and continuous learning and development.

In the stage of unconscious incompetence (UI), individuals do not realize that they are exhibiting certain learned behavior. They could have spoken sharply, showed negative emotion, chosen words unwisely, created drama in the situation, or just acted like they always have without thinking of it as correct, competent behavior. This lack of awareness can hinder all kinds of growth and prevents individuals from more effective, more supported relationships at home and at work. Their output and effectiveness are unknowingly stunted from their potential. Projects may not achieve their intended goals at work. Employees may not want to put in their full 100% effort. Teamwork may not exist. At home, there could be tension between spouses or with children. There is less than optimum output and cohesion between people.

There are several factors that contribute to UI. Most significantly, during the early years up to 7 or 8 years of age, all parenting/training/schooling is absorbed by the brain, and without their pre-frontal cortex being fully developed, the brain assumes all input provided is true. This is a very dangerous and unalterable stage since even the kindest parental advice can be construed as being "I'm not safe unless I do what is being communicated to me." The formative brain is a sponge, and it interprets everything as directives to be safe or feel valued. There is no way to raise a child with zero fear-based programming.

Cultural influences also play a significant role in shaping our beliefs and attitudes, which in turn may affect our understanding and awareness of certain areas. And then throughout middle and high school, we become engineered to compare with others, thanks to the assault of advertised messaging of brand names, fashion trends, etc. The attainment of status becomes the indicator of our value. We are impacted from the day we are born until we become aware that all of this is happening subconsciously.

An Orange County CEO named Teri quickly became well-versed in her own UI. She was a product guru. She was not a finance guru, not a salesperson, not a customer support person, but an excellent product creator. However, instead of sticking to and capitalizing on her strengths, Teri undertook a strategy to be everywhere and oversee everything. She tried to exercise control over the company by becoming an expert in all areas. The problem was that she was not well versed, nor did she have the experience to adequately respond to or learn about all these other areas of operation. She lost her effectiveness because she lost focus on her strengths, and the tension was felt company wide.

The consequences of our UI are imminent and not easily avoided. It can lead to missed opportunities for growth and improvement, as individuals may not even realize that they need to develop certain skills or knowledge. UI can have a negative impact in all relationships and teamwork settings, as individuals may be unaware of their own behavior or communication style that is hindering effective collaboration. This negative impact is further exacerbated when individuals do not take the necessary steps to acquire new skills or knowledge.

To address UI, it is important to encourage self-reflection and self-assessment. The first step I recommend is to count to "2" and create space between the initial thought or reaction. Then gauge whether that belief came from a fear or love-based motive. This is the hardest part! It requires active energy to question every thought before acting on it. Seeking feedback and constructive criticism from others can also help to identify areas for improvement. Embracing a growth mindset, which involves viewing challenges as opportunities for learning and growth, is also crucial in addressing UI. Continuous learning, mind monitoring, and addressing the motives for the behavior up front are what I believe will make the most impact. There are additional steps, but let me stick to this one, critical element for making the biggest impact on UI (more to come, later).

When Teri realized she could get more production by trusting her team leaders to manage their own areas of expertise and not try to do it all herself, she discovered she would have more time to think deeply about the direction in which the company’s products were going and how to improve them. This led to an increased focus on interacting with customers and understanding their needs, which generated vital feedback. Everyone in the company was able to return to a level of competence and confidence that had not been present for a while.

Factors such as cultural influences, limited exposure, resistance to change, and fear of failure contribute to UI. It can have consequences such as missed opportunities for growth, negative impact on relationships and teamwork, and hindrance to personal and professional development. Strategies to address UI include creating a 2-second space before responding is the best place to start; then self-reflection, seeking feedback, embracing a growth mindset, and continuous learning. on this topic will help. Recognizing the significance of UI and actively working towards greater self-awareness and personal growth will allow for greater success.


bottom of page