Conscious Competence Ladder – Developing New Skills

When we set out to learn a new skill, or indeed teach someone a new skill, it is helpful to know that there are a number of predictable stages that we will go through so that we can manage ourselves or support others to achieve their outcome. One model that explains these clearly is the Conscious Competence Ladder.  The origins of the model are disputed, but many attribute it to Gordon Training International who developed it in the 1970s.

conscious competence ladderThe model focusses on the interplay between awareness and competence and identifies 4 clear stages:

Unconsciously incompetent – we don’t know that we don’t have this skill, or that we need to learn it.

Consciously incompetent – we know that we don’t have this skill.

Consciously competent – we know that we have this skill.

Unconsciously competent – we don’t know that we have this skill (it just seems easy).


Level 1 – Unconsciously Incompetent

This stage might be characterised as “ignorance is bliss”.  Generally something external to us will trigger a shift to the second level. This might be a performance appraisal at work where a shortfall in our abilities is brought to our attention, or feedback from a friend or family member.  It might even be something that we have read or heard in the media that triggers a realisation in us.

Level 2 – Conscious Incompetence

This level can feel uncomfortable, we have gone from blissful ignorance to now being aware of the need for change or learning.  We are aware of our shortcomings and may compare ourselves unfavourably to others who have the skills that we now realise are missing in us.  This is the stage where learning begins.  We need to commit to the learning process even though we might feel demotivated and demoralised.  This is the stage to have a clear goal and a clear idea of the longer term benefits of putting in the effort now.  It is also useful to engage support from a teacher, mentor or coach at this stage to assist us in our learning.

Level 3 – Conscious Competence

At this level, we have acquired the skills and knowledge we need.  With regular practice confidence builds.  We still need to concentrate when using the new skills, they haven’t yet become second nature.  All this concentration may seem exhausting, so this is the time to remind ourselves of how far we have come in developing this skill, and to refocus on the benefits of persevering with it.  As we become more experienced, the activities will become more automatic and will feel more effortless.

Level 4 – Unconscious Competence

At this level, we are able to use our new skills effortlessly, and to perform tasks without conscious effort.  This is a level of mastery, the new skill has been integrated and has become a habit – a part of who were are, we don’t need to think about it at all.

What next?

Developing the ability to identify the skills we are unconsciously competent at and bringing them back to the Conscious Competence of Level 3, can allow us to figure out the HOW of the skill.  In NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) we call this modelling.  It is possible to map the underlying strategies and beliefs (the recipe) that enable us to perform this skill and then teach it to others.  Having the model enables us to assist others on their journey through the levels.

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