349: Four Stages of Competence | Master Sales Series

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The four stages of competence, also known as the four stages of learning, show that individuals don’t know how little they know, or are capable of when it comes to a specific skill; they don’t know their incompetence.

George Leith is back with another edition of the Master Sales Series, we’re exploring the four stages of competence. When the learner recognizes their incompetence, they start acquiring a skill and consciously using it. Eventually, the learner will begin to utilize the skill without even having to think about it: they will have reached unconscious competence.

The four stages are classified as:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence,
  2. Conscious Incompetence,
  3. Conscious Competence, and;
  4. Unconscious Competence.

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George: Are you being unconsciously incompetent? I remember the first time that somebody said that to me and any of you who’ve known me for a number of years will go really only the first time somebody’s told you that? But I was offended because the word incompetent, it’s like, that’s not how I see myself. Although really, if I was honest, there are times when I’ve been completely and totally and utterly incompetent. And then I realized that the person that was adjudicating me was right. I had a deficit; I was unconsciously incompetent. So I did the thing that we all do when we want to learn something. I went to Google. But when I researched the term unconsciously incompetent, it opened up an entire world that I didn’t even know existed, as a learner, and I like to think of myself as a lifelong learner. But then more importantly, as a coach and as a teacher.

George: And I put in, unconsciously incompetent into the search bar. And what I found was Wikipedia with the four stages of competence. And I started to read. Reading through, there was a gentleman in the history called Martin Broadwell back in February of 1969, who used the term in his four levels of teaching. And then later the model was attributed to Maslow. I’ve always wanted to use the name, Abraham Maslow on a podcast. Although Maslow never really talked about it. It’s not in his major works. This psychology around the four stages of competence is really a thing. And it’s something that I’ve been using recently when it comes to building out coaching models and training models for salespeople. So let’s unpack each of the four stages.


The Four Stages of Competence

George: The first one is the one that offended me right out of the gate. You are unconsciously incompetent. As an individual, you do not understand or know how to do something and you don’t necessarily recognize the deficit. And you may even deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence and the value of the new skill before moving on to the next stage.

George: Then we have conscious incompetence. Imagine if someone were to say, you’re consciously incompetent, meaning you know what to do you just choose not to do it. You may be in denial if you think about that, or you may just be lazy or, I don’t even know. Like why would we choose to be consciously incompetent on something? The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage. So it’s the idea of, although the person does not understand or know how to do something, they recognize the deficit, but they just choose not to learn the new skill to solve the problem. It probably is a little bit of that, but maybe it also, because I believe that coaching and training somebody, there’s two layers of responsibility. There’s a responsibility of the student and the responsibility of the coach. And maybe it is that the coach just hasn’t given a compelling enough reason for the person to make the change and that is a really important part of coaching.

George: And then we’ve got conscious competence. The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. And what they can’t do is break it down into the tangible steps.

George: And then we have unconscious competence. The individual has had so much practice that it’s become second nature. And this is one that I’d like to focus on because I’ve really been struggling with this of late. One of the most frustrating things for me is why doesn’t that sales rep understand how to do needs analysis? Why doesn’t that sales coach understand how to figure out what the knobs and the levers are to motivate that rep? And those two items right there, I like to think I’m actually pretty good at that, but because it’s second nature, it’s hard to break it down into those tangible steps for someone else to learn it. It also takes an enormous amount of discipline as a coach to hold that person accountable for something that you just do instinctively. It’s the instinct thing. And then how do I teach it?


Tools for Teaching: What, How, and Why?

George: I recently broke it down for one of my new captains. I’m going to give you what we’re going to do. So here’s the what, and then I’m going to give you how we’re going to do it. And then the most important piece, I’m going to give you the why. And I really liked Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why, because it really speaks to this last piece. It’s around giving them why that it’s important.

George: So those three stages, although they’re very simple, what we’re going to do, how we’re going to do it, and why we’re going to do it is the piece that I find a lot of coaches aren’t working with. And in sales, you can’t scale suck. So if you have a process or you have something that you’re doing in your organization and it’s bad, you can’t scale that thing for success. So it’s not about doing it right yourself, it’s about being able to teach other people how to do it.

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George: So that’s why this psychology around the four stages of competency is so important. And I find that it could be a very pivotal moment for you as a coach and as a teacher and for your team as students because the student bears that responsibility as well. We have to measure them and we have to show them where they are on these various stages. And then we have to come up with why we need to move and change. And then we have to come up with how we’re going to do it and everybody bears a bit of a responsibility. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task and the individual may be able to teach it to others depending upon how and when it was learned. So there are these four stages of, in the early days, it was called learning, but is the four stages of competence.


Training Challenges: Rethinking the Process

George: So I want to talk about a couple of these because it’s something that I personally have been struggling with over the last couple of years. Getting in front of a client and performing a needs analysis and coming up with a strategy to solve their problem and presenting it in a way that is commercially viable to them, and to the organization you’re representing, and then to be accountable and stand by that solution and figure out a way to make sure that it’s working and what I like to call own your shit. So that if something doesn’t work properly, you step up and you take ownership rather than denying that it even happened or trying to confuse the person into thinking that it didn’t happen. All of those things, if you’ve been selling long enough, become that unconscious competence, just something that you do on a day to day basis. It’s actually almost second nature. And then when you start to work with an organization and you’re starting to develop raw talent and bring in new people and build systems, that’s where it really becomes a struggle, especially if it reaches the point of being second nature.

George: I remember when I was teaching my daughters how to drive, it’s the learner thing and they get the learner’s license. And as a parent, you’re scared because now you’ve got to sit on the other side of the car and your butt cheeks pucker up because they run a stoplight or something like that. And actually I realized that while I consider myself to be a good driver, although my wife would say I’m not, I was not good at teaching it. In fact, I would get frustrated, and then I would yell at my kids and it would turn into the crying. And mostly it was just a horrible experience.

George: So I turned to my father who is much more patient than I was at the time. Still is to this day, a phenomenal driver. And he’s actually a really good driving teacher. He taught me how to drive and he taught my brother how to drive. And he was very good at articulating the things that I just took for granted as a driver. And my learner driver, my daughters, they didn’t know, they didn’t know how to do a two-point turn, they didn’t know how to shoulder check.

George: So when you think about that and that my example is something as simple as learning how to drive there, it’s pretty easy to see why we curse at drivers as we’re going through the commute. Because they were probably taught by somebody who was a horrible teacher and is a horrible driver themselves. And then we put this into sales. We’re like, why doesn’t that person understand what they’re doing? And then you meet the sales manager and the sales manager, while they may be able to do the sales thing in their sleep, nobody has taught them how to be a teacher and how to be a coach. So when we’re building out the competency of coaching and teaching in sales, it is different than selling.

George: But one thing I will go to the grave defending is that sales is one of those things where you really have to be able to do, to be able to teach. There are all sorts of people … That saying of those who can’t do, teach. In sales, I don’t necessarily think it’s like that, and I have yet to have somebody prove me wrong on this. And it isn’t just the fact that I’m stubborn and loud. It’s talking to salespeople that have become successful. They usually talk about some mentor or some coach that while they were either consciously competent or unconsciously competent, they created a model for the learner to figure out how to move and how to adapt their style. So I think that this idea of learning and it’s interesting as I continue to grow as a sales leader and as a sales coach, I find that I’m more often than not pointed towards psychology. It’s a crazy thing. I’ve almost considered taking some psychology courses at night school or online or something like that because I believe that it is a missing component inside a high performing sales organization.

George: When I think about psychology, I think about the great Showtime TV series called Billions. And while it’s a piece of fiction, one of the key roles inside that organization at the C-level is the shrink, is the psychiatrist, she’s on the executive team and she spends her time with the top characters and talks them through the mental issues that they’re having. And we all have mental issues. There are outside factors that are impacting us, and those, we’ve got to figure that out. We’ve got to get inside the head of the person on our team. And then we have to figure out a skill where we can self-assess.

George: We think about the series around emotional intelligence and emotional intelligence is the ability to self assess. So when we think also about learning, and we think about the levels of competency, it’s a matter of using some of those psychological skills to be able to work with the individuals on our team. And then also to be able to work with ourselves, to take that look inside, maybe even, oh, it was so surreal just to kind of sit outside and have a look at yourself and analyze whether you are unconsciously incompetent, whether you are consciously incompetent, you’re consciously competent or unconsciously competent. There are four different stages that we need to understand when it comes to growing. And when it comes to being a better mentor or coach, as you continue to lead your organization.



George: So your takeaways from this episode, I’m hoping, are there are four stages of competence. Wikipedia told me so. It is psychology. And I’m finding more and more, as crazy as this might sound, that psychology is such an important piece to be an effective salesperson. Understanding the prospect, understanding yourself, understanding the people on your team, understanding where you are in your journey, and your learning, figuring out where the gaps are. Where do I have to improve my skillset? Where do I have to come and get somebody to help me that’s good at it, rather than me learning something that I’m going to really suck at? There’s a very famous line in our organization. George Leith and a spreadsheet is a bad idea. But I also know some people in our organization that are really good in a spreadsheet that I wouldn’t want to put on stage or wouldn’t want to put on a podcast as a host.

George: So we’ve got to stick with the things that we’re good at, and when we find a gap, we’ve got to figure out, can I figure this out? Can I learn it? Can I improve it? Or do I just bring in an expert that can help me? And we get to our goal a lot faster? I hope that you’ve found this valuable, do some of your own research. If you are unconsciously incompetent, someone calls you that, could be a hell of a lot worse. They could have called you something else. It actually was a great moment for me to learn something new and thanks to the person that said that to me that day because I got a hell of a lot better idea of it. And it’s helped me in my coaching, and it’s also helped me in my pursuit of being a lifelong learner.

George: We’re continuing to try to unpack some of the things that will make you better as a salesperson, you better as a sales coach and get you better results. It’s called The Master Sales Training Series, and it’s right here as part of the Conquer Local Podcast. My name is George Leith, unconsciously incompetent. I’ll see you when I see you.

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