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Competent or incompetent? The 4 stages of learning


written by Chris Bourne

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A few years back I attended a training course that outlined how we’re all at different stages in any task that we undertake. These stages of learning are directly related to our level of knowledge or experience, resulting in our level of competence.

The training course explicitly explained the four stages of learning – unconsciously incompetent, consciously incompetent, consciously competent and unconsciously competent.

It may seem like a complicated model and I probably asked the same as you when I first heard about it – “What on earth does this mean?” It’s only when you associate an example with this model that you can truly grasp the different stages. I think a perfect example that everyone can relate to is the ability to drive a car.

Unconsciously incompetent

Driving maturity: Your first driving lesson.

Level of competence: A car is just a lump of painted metal to you. You have no idea what to do and don’t possess the necessary skills to accomplish the task. You are not conscious about your inefficiency, but realizing that you have one is the quickest way to move onto the next step; the faster you realize you need to learn something and see the value in it, the quicker you will learn it.

Consciously incompetent

Driving maturity: You’re a few lessons in.

Level of competence: You now know how the car is supposed to drive and what you need to do, however you haven’t yet built up the necessary skills to do it. You are aware of your incompetence and you have the desire to close the knowledge gap.

Consciously competent

Driving maturity: Wahey, you’ve passed your test.

Level of competence: You understand how to drive a car and you’ve acquired the necessary skills to do it. However, your execution is mechanical and each step is consciously and deliberately managed to ensure you don’t make a mistake. You add little flexibility to your approach and you probably drive without the radio on for maximum concentration.

Unconsciously competent

Driving maturity: You’ve been driving for years.

Level of competence: Every time you step into your car you feel like Michael Schumacher. You have amassed a wealth of driving knowledge meaning your journeys are now completed with minimum thought and feel almost instinctive. You’re now flexible in your approach and alter your driving style depending on conditions. You may even listen to distracting music or even check your text messages! Even so, you do this because you’re so good at driving that you’re not even thinking about completing the task.

Can the stages of learning be used elsewhere?

To this day, I still remember this training course because of how relevant the Four Stages of Learning theory is to almost every daily task. Think about your sales team for example: you’ve got the new blood who are learning the processes and who have to think about every step before doing it. On the flipside of the coin, you’ve got your experienced sales pros who could sell hot dogs to vegetarians without even thinking about their process.

Using the Four Stages of Learning model, you can assess the maturity and competence of the sales professional and stimulate thoughts around where they are from a sales growth perspective and where they want to be. For a sales manager, it provides a useful perspective for the development and expectations from your team.

That said, it’s also important to note that, while a sales manager definitely knows more than a new-blooded youngster, they’re also far more likely to be learning less, simply for the fact that they’re unconsciously doing their job in the same way that they’ve done it for years.

To that effect, it’s important to not only use this model to understand how your team members learn, but also to ensure that they continue to do so. Many will stop learning as soon as they find a successful method, but there’s always a better way to do things. Any sales manager who realizes this and continues to refine their process and learn as a newbie does will be incredibly successful.

Learn how to use your business’ data to improve your sales processes by downloading ‘Why your sales performance sucks’ eBook’ or click here to see it in action throughout a salespersons day.

Written By -

I'm the Marketing Manager here at sales-i and being in marketing I obviously love crayons and of course I have a toy Chewbacca on my desk (fully equipped with the 'Maaaaaarh' noise! I have worked in the technology industry for over 7 years and have a good grasp on what's happening in the industry. I also enjoy* the technical side of software development. *The term 'enjoy' relates to the very few occasions where the techy side actually goes to plan, otherwise replace with the term 'gets frustrated'.

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