Are You Conscious of Your Competence?

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This is getting seriously heavy now.

A number of years ago (a lot of number of years ago..) a friend of mine introduced me to a series of audio cassettes (how many remember those things?) by Mike Vance. I was amazed at the story Mike was telling. One of the many things that came out of those tapes—much of which has stuck with me since—was the Four Levels of Competence, as depicted below.

Competence is so very important in what we do every day of our lives. On the personal side and on the business side, and I was thinking about that today in two very different contexts:

  • Yearend review of staff and

•A question often asked of what makes a successful consultant, to which I typically answer by saying "put yourself in your clients' shoes and look at the world from their perspective."

I remembered this model and thought I would pass it on.

Many business professionals are familiar with the multi-stage “competency model” made famous, in part, by Disney University’s legendary dean, Mike Vance. This examines that model, and its potentially surprising and sometimes even hazardous implication for the consultative salesperson in her/his client interactions. Let’s look at the four levels of competence:

Unconscious Incompetence— not unexpectedly, this is the lowest and most challenging level, where we have little or no awareness and knowledge and literally “don’t know what we don’t know.”

• An example: a baby is not only unable to tie his/her shoes but, in fact, does not even know what shoelaces are, or that they need to be tied.

Some unconscious incompetence situations are very serious: the usually confident, product-savvy salesperson who doesn’t fully understand a complicated new product could easily blow the sales presentation. The next stage above such “blissful ignorance” is:

Conscious Incompetence— Here, we are aware of our shortcomings; we do “know what we don’t know.” This isn’t always a bad or dangerous condition (if it’s temporary); indeed, when we’re new at any job or activity, we’re all consciously incompetent until we learn, practice, and develop proficiency. That baby can eventually understand the need for shoelaces and learn how to tie them. Progressing toward the next higher level is very satisfying:

Conscious Competence— Here, we do have competence, but must consciously think about what we’re doing; it doesn’t come very easily or “automatically.” Despite our proficiency, we aren’t very efficient, or good at problem solving or multi-tasking. The low-handicap golfer who must always be thinking about his stance, grip, back swing, etc., is consciously competent—but not likely to become a champion. The top competence level is:

Unconscious Competence— Here, we have such a high level of proficiency that we can perform most or all of the task with little conscious thought; we’re operating largely on autopilot. The star athlete who’s “in the zone” isn’t thinking about the mechanics, just strategies. We all strive for this, and feel proud if we get even close.

Now, the punch line: for the consultative salesperson, unconscious competence is arguably the second most dangerous level of this model. Client/salesperson dialogs are so complicated and variable that even your most historically successful communication and relationship techniques risk being ineffective—if not downright destructive—in this particular dialog with this particular client in this particular situation. Always be a “fly on the wall,” continuously observing, analyzing and, as necessary, changing your tried-and-true techniques; take nothing for granted. (We might name this “conscious unconscious competence,” but that seems a bit over the top.)

Happy New Year!

Steve Emspak (; Twitter: @stevestollroad) is a partner with Shen Milsom and Wilke in New York, NY.