Dissecting Noel Burch’s Conscious Competence Ladder

Conceived in the ’70s, this model dissects how we learn and eventually master new skills.

“Awareness is king. We must have knowledge of what stage we are in to move to the next stage.” –Daryl Wizelman

Noel Burch, with Gordon Training International, developed the Conscious Competence Ladder in the 1970s. It’s a tool to help us understand our thoughts and emotions during the sometimes dispiriting learning process. The model highlights two factors that affect our thinking as we learn a new skill: consciousness (awareness) and skill level (competence).

There are several valuable uses in understanding and mastering this model. It can be used to understand the emotions you will experience during the learning process, which can be useful in coaching and training situations because it allows you to stay in touch with what your people are thinking and feeling. 

Stage 1. Unconscious Incompetence: We don’t know that we don’t have this skill or that we need to learn it.

Image Source: Shutterstock

  • You don’t know that you don’t know.
  • You are unaware of your weaknesses.
  • You are disconnected and unfocused.
  • You lack the skills, knowledge, and capacity to do a certain skill with excellence.
  • Ignorance is bliss.
  • The least stressful of the four stages. This stage can linger for years.
  • Example: A dog applying for med school, or a child being told to color between the lines.

To coach this person, you’ll either have to terminate them (unfortunately) or give them strong and lasting supervision.

Stage 2. Conscious Incompetence: You know you don’t know.

  • You are aware of your weaknesses.
  • You are aware that you have not mastered your strengths.
  • Improvement requires thinking and a plan to improve to conscious competence.
  • This is a dark stage that can lead to depression.
  • It can be painful to realize that there is so much knowledge out there that you aren’t using.
  • Be careful not to get stuck here. One step at a time.

To coach this person, help them create a self-development plan. Give strong encouragement, but remember that they also need consequences for continued incompetence.

Stage 3. Conscious Competence: You know you know.

Photo by Swapnil Dwivedi on Unsplash

  • You are good at something and you know it.
  • You are aware of your strengths.
  • You have mastered your strengths.
  • This requires thinking, focus, and practice.
  • This requires dedication and a consistent conscious effort to continue to improve.
  • Become accountable to a coach, boss, or other.

A person in stage 3 is usually self-sustaining with their skills. They earn confidence and value from their skill, and typically either seek more value through refinement and continued practice, or simply become content and move on to a different skill or aspect of their environment (i.e. “jack of all trades”).  Accountability is important for someone in Stage 3 as it builds trust and conviction. Coaches can also encourage more practice.

Stage 4. Unconscious Competence: You don’t know you know.

  • You succeed without focus or thought.
  • You perform effortlessly at a master level.
  • Commonly referred to as being in “the zone.”
  • Examples include: brushing your teeth and tying your shoes. On another level: Michael Jordan and/or Tiger Woods.

To coach this “gifted” person, teach them love and support. If you are knowledgeable in their trade, both praise and criticize constructively. Those with unusually high skill levels often take it personally and can be selective when it comes to coaches and mentors.

Legendary athletes usually operate in Stage 4. Here is Tiger Woods during the 2018 CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Image Source: Shutterstock

Final Thoughts

Learning and mastering a new skill is challenging. However it can be done with a plan and consistent practice. By acknowledging the states of competence, especially the one(s) you are in, you can perfect a certain activity after a few trainings. Create and maintain a life plan and business vision. Be abundant. Share what you know. With an abundant mindset you will never need another “script” again. Care, give. Care, give. Care, give.

Daryl Wizelman is the Executive Vice President of California Production for Draper and Kramer Mortgage Corporation. He retains 25 years of experience in the mortgage industry.