The joy of incompetence

We usually mean someone is competent when they are good at doing something. They perform some task, demonstrate some knowledge or skill, to at least a satisfactory level. But competence isn’t something you suddenly have or don’t have. You’re not incompetent just because you aren’t as polished as a master craftsman. You’re not incompetent if you rely on checklists to help you complete risk assessments when others do it in their head. Competence is developmental, so there are degrees of it. So you don’t have to excel to be considered competent – you just have to be adequate for the task in hand. But you might also have an off day.

There’s a popular four stage competence development model that’s been around since the 1970’s. The origins are disputed but some ascribe this, at least in part, to Maslow (of ‘hierarchy of needs’ fame). The four stages are:
1.Unconsciously incompetent
This is kind of the naïve stage, where you don’t know what you don’t know or don’t know you can’t do something or maybe that you don’t even see the value of learning it – perhaps in denial. Bit of a barrier to learning new stuff if you don’t see the point.

2.Consciously incompetent
This is where it hits home that you don’t have the skill or knowledge. You’re now receptive to learning new stuff.

3.Consciously competent
Here you can demonstrate the skill or learning if you concentrate hard but you need to practise to make it smooth.

4.Unconsciously competent
By this stage, you’re so good at it and well practiced you can do it without thinking. You know, like tax avoidance for the rich.

We loop through these stages all the time. As safety people, we’re encouraged to recognise our deficiencies and plan to address them. It’s called continued professional development (CPD). The danger is when we think we know when we don’t. That’s called arrogance or denial and there’s a lot of it about.