The Four Stages of Competence

How many times do you drive to a destination and have little recollection of the journey?

I know when I first got in a car to drive I was aware of everything I couldn’t do. Trying to release the clutch whilst depressing the accelerator seemed nigh on impossible without lurching the car forward. You could say I was consciously incompetent.

When implementing change, understanding the skills (as well as limitations) of yourself and your workforce is critical to success. Noel Burch, an employee with Gordon Training International, developed the Conscious Competence Ladder in the 1970s.

He defined the four stages as follows:

1. Unconscious incompetence
It may be that you don’t know a skill exists and therefore don’t know to try to learn it. Likewise, it could be that you know it’s there, but don’t understand how it could be useful to you. In both instances, there’s a lost opportunity to develop and there could also be a resistance to change.

2. Conscious incompetence
Although this can sometimes be a demoralising phase, knowing that you don’t have a skill can be very valuable. Recognising weaknesses allows you to acknowledge gaps and address them.

3. Conscious competence
At this stage you know you have a skill, but it still takes a lot of thought or effort to perform it. On the plus side, you may well be willing to promote yourself as having this skill.

4. Unconscious competence
These skills are second nature and we perform them without a backward glance. When there are individuals at this stage of competence, they can be utilised to help train and develop others. There is a risk here that we become complacent, but similarly that we don’t recognise our own value to its full.

Outside of delivering change, consideration of this model is very useful for self-awareness and it can also be advantageous within coaching and training situations to develop individuals on a regular basis.

For more information on the Conscious Competence Ladder, contact us on