Unconscious Incompetence

By Douglas Weinstein
Published on: October 6, 2017

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Companies spend gazillions of dollars on education and training programs for their employees. And they assume they have the people in place with the skill sets and knowledge base to carry out their mission – whether they are in sales, marketing, HR, accounting, manufacturing, etc. Even the employees assume they have been properly trained and are fully up to the task of performing their job at a very high level. If that were so, then why are there so many screw-ups and missed deadlines and disgruntled ex-employees? Not to mention ex-customers!

The reason is often related to unconscious incompetence. Think of it like this – there are things people know they are competent at – that’s conscious competence. There are things people know they are bad at – that’s conscious incompetence. Unconscious incompetence is just the fact that there are things we don’t know we are incompetent at, and it’s probably because we never trained or educated ourselves to handle those things.

Unconscious incompetence can be found in almost every organization. And at almost every layer of the organization. So how does a company correct for this competency gap? Especially if no one is aware it exists? Here are a few suggestions to kick around:

Assign someone the role of Unconscious Incompetency Manager. Someone has to take the lead and try to analyze repetitive problems and mistakes that are costing you money, and try to figure out where the education/training ‘agenda’ missed the boat. In other words, just don’t assume you can send your techs to CEDIA training and Maverick Training and – voila! – they’re properly trained. Don’t just assume that any continuing education program or training program is a one-size-fits-all proposition.

Test your people based on your own standards and processes. There needs to be complete engagement between teachers and learners. Are your people really up to speed? Have you tested them internally? What’s that old saying, “Trust, but verify.” You should periodically be testing your people to make sure they fully understand the complexities of their job and role within the organization. If someone doesn’t seem to have the full grasp of their assignments, perhaps specialized training is in order.

Build a culture of continuous improvement. Get your team together and explain to them that no one really knows what they don’t know. But in realizing that, your bosses have decided to properly test everyone and work towards a culture of continuous improvement.

Continuing education and training programs should be designed to better engage learners and empower them to admit what they don’t know. Every learner is different, so you need to tailor education and training to the individual for best long-term results. Always remind your staff, we don’t know what we don’t know we’re incompetent at – but we’re going to discover it and make plans accordingly.

Douglas Weinstein

Douglas Weinstein

Doug is the Managing Editor and co-founder of TIG. As the manager of the website, he can wax prophetic about his career, if that was in his mind to do so. Here’s his top achievement – he co-founded the non-profit Elf Foundation, a charitable org that created Room of Magic entertainment theaters in children’s hospitals across America.

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