Leaders tend to see higher rates of success if they are able to meet the employee where they are in their learning curve. There are lots of different assessment tools out there to determine where your employee is at in different skill-sets, personality traits and preferences. However, for coaching purposes, one tool that is extremely helpful is the Conscious Competence Model.

This article will give you a quick and dirty rundown of what this model is, and tips on how you as a manager can get the best out of your employees if you meet them where they are and support them accordingly.

The Conscious Competence Model

Put simply, this model demonstrates that people can fall into four quadrants based on the skills they have or don’t have in particular areas or tasks. For example, my career has been in Human Resources, so when I became an entrepreneur, building a website became a conscious incompetenceI realized that this is a skill I don’t have. However, back in my HR days, one could say website building was an unconscious incompetence – I didn’t realize or think of the fact that I don’t have this skill set. In other words, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

As one progresses in acquiring the skill, the next stage is conscious competence – where you have either acquired the skill or have the skills but need to put in the effort to continue improving in that area. Continued development would then lead to unconscious competence – you could do the task on autopilot or in your sleep! (I am definitely far from being unconsciously competent in website building.)

For a more in-depth look at the model, check out this infographic on how to tell where your employee falls within the learning stages and how to support them.

Applying the Model to Management

Let’s look at the Conscious Competence Model in the perspective of the below chart:

This chart demonstrates that the best approach for someone who has a high level of competence and confidence in a specific skill (falling in the unconscious competence box) needs to be challenged. Alternatively, if you are managing someone with low confidence and competence (the conscious incompetence box) your best approach would be to teach them. This makes sense as someone who falls in the conscious incompetence category (knows they are lacking the skill) would want the support from others to learn the skill and likely wouldn’t want to be challenged on it as they are not confident or competent in that skill yet.

The two areas not specifically addressed by the Competence Model are the low confidence/high competence stage, and the high confidence/low competence stage. These are interesting stages in the learning curve as they may not happen as often as the other stages. A good example is someone who is highly competent in skill but doesn’t have the confidence to perform. As a manager, if this is where your employee is at, your best approach would be to encourage him or her, as this would build their confidence around the already competent skill.

In the same way, someone who is highly confident in skill but is low in competence would respond best by being coached by their manager. This is because a confident person needs to find his or her own solutions and avenues for improvement in that area. Coaching would maintain the person’s confidence while allowing the individual to have control over their own development.

As a leader, when you are able to meet the employee in their learning stage, you will know where to hone your energy when it comes to their development. Unfortunately, many leaders don’t know about these learning stages and instead of focusing energy in the right developmental areas, the leaders quickly move towards performance improvement plans. This leads to unnecessary stress on the employee, and for those lacking in confidence or competence, it could further deteriorate performance.

Before concluding that your employee is just not “cut out” for the role, take the time to ask some questions to assess where they fall in the Conscious Competence Model. Here are some questions that will help:

1. Where or when do you feel stuck when you are performing your role?

2. What are your challenges/barriers?

3. What are some quick solutions or resources to support you in these challenges/barriers?

4. What would it take for you to feel successful in this area?

If you sense that your employee falls in the unconscious competence box, or is demonstrating a high level of confidence in the area or skill, consider asking them:

1. In what ways could you take this skill to the next level?

2. (If problem-solving with the employee) What other alternative solutions can you think of?

3. How would you go about developing this skill with a teammate?

Notice that the first set of questions focuses on understanding the gap in skill-set so that you can provide training and directive coaching support to the employee.

The second set of questions focuses more on challenging the employee to further refine the skill, get them thinking more creatively and openly about it, and finding ways to get them to teach the skill to others. This is the ideal opportunity for the leader to engage in non-directive coaching with the employee.

So leaders, meet the employee where they are and you will see results. Interested in taking this to the next level? Book a complimentary 30 minute consultation to discuss how we can support you to build customized development plans for your employees:


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