Unconscious Incompetence

I was introduced to the idea of “unconscious incompetence”  in a Harvard Business Review article by Ulrik Juul Christensen.

Here’s the idea. When tested, most employees don’t know all they could know about their jobs. Pressed further, most employees think they know more than they actually do. As they take on their jobs, they make assumptions about “why” certain things are done, and those assumptions frequently are built on incorrect facts.

What makes matters worse is when the wrong “whys” are taught to the next generation, and the misinformation grows.

This “unconscious incompetence” prevails in a dynamic, fast-changing environment. There is no easy fix. The best things we can do is know it exists and adjusts our mindset.

Here are some adjustments you can make:

Rather than say “I know it all,” assume there is “more to learn.” These days of high change assures there are likely new facts and information. Commit to looking at routines and procedures to see if they are still true.

Look carefully at the “why” we do things. When teaching, endeavor to figure out what one knows and doesn’t know. This may require to slow down and to step back. Endeavor to learn and to teach the fundamentals.

Ask those who you are training how sure they are about their knowledge. Step back and slow down when doubt is expressed. The goal here is to build an atmosphere where it is o.k. to admit “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know.” When the safety to be vulnerable exists, better learning occurs.

Acknowledgement of “unconscious incompetence” creates an atmosphere of continuous improvement. When individuals think we can always get better and always learn more, there will be a greater tendency to build competence. When leaders and trainers become aware of the concept “unconscious incompetence,” they shift their to focus on assuring the fundamentals are covered.