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Stepping into management: the learning and development journey

One of the drawbacks of being a trainer is that now and again you fail to realise that what is obvious for you is new to others. In a recent young managers program the “eureka” moment came when, following a young manager’s “Maybe I’m not cut out for this job”  statement, I shared the Conscious Competence model”.  The model, developed by Noel Burch, has been around since the 1970s – and it’s a great way to prepare for and reflect on your development as a manager (or development in any other role).  I assumed my participants knew the model already but they had never heard of it. This is a quick recap.

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Stage 1 – Unconscious Incompetence

Ignorance is bliss, and you don’t even realize that you are performing poorly. As a new, young manager perhaps you don’t even realize you are making elementary mistakes. Instead of delegating you are dumping tasks on people and walk away convinced you are empowering them to find their own solutions. Perhaps your tasking is incomplete, or maybe you don’t have clear goals because you didn’t consider this your role.  Are you delaying giving feedback because you don’t want to upset anybody and it will sort itself out anyway – or perhaps the way you give feedback is so clumsy you demotivate somebody.  The list goes on and on. You assume you know what y0u’re doing –  it’s more or less the same as before but with the better desk and more benefits. You’re not aware that you don’t have the necessary skill. Perhaps you don’t even realize that the skill is relevant.  In the first stage, your confidence exceeds your management skills. Before you can move to the next step you need to know and accept that certain skills are relevant to the role of manager, and that mastering this skill will make you more effective.

Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence

Someone helped you understand that you need to develop a new skill. Or, you have been sent on a management training programme and your eyes have been opened. Or perhaps confronted by poor results you’ve actually  taken a step back and reflected on what’s been going on and the role you’ve played. You are aware of your lack of skills. You are consciously incompetent. This is a difficult phase as you are now aware of your weaknesses, or in today’s insipid jargon your “developmental areas”.

Nobody is born a manager, although some people may well have innate skills, making the transition to manager easier. Learning by feedback, learning by suffering, learning by doing and learning by failing – these things brought you to the second stage. Training can play a role as can learning from your peers and exposing yourself to opportunities to learn. By staying positive and embracing the small successes your confidence in your own management abilities grows.


Stage 3 – Conscious Competence

At this stage you have learnt some reliable management techniques and processes, but they have to be consciously implemented.  It’s a bit like painting by numbers. You know how to facilitate a meeting well, but you still want to take time to reflect on the steps beforehand.  You can make a great presentation and get your message across … and you know what you need to do in advance to get the success you need. You can provide feedback in an appropriate manner – but not without thinking it through beforehand. At this stage, your ability to be flexible and proactive in unexpected situations is limited – but you can do it. The task-oriented aspects of managing are becoming fine-tuned but it is still learning by doing, trial and error, or copying managerial role models. You are testing your limits.

Stage 4 – Unconscious Competence

Quite simply you have become what you wanted to be –  a skilled manager. The task and relationship aspects of managing are now “part of you”.  You know how to achieve the task, develop individuals and build a team – and can do it without too much thinking. Non-routine situations are challenging, yet do not faze you. You are like Beckenbauer in football, or Federer in tennis. You always appear to have enough time and space to make good decisions. But even masters can lose matches and need to learn and practise.

To summarize

The model can be universally applied as a model for learning. It suggests that you are initially unaware of how little you know – you simply don’t know what you don’t know. As you recognize your incompetence, you acquire a skill consciously, then learn to use that skill. Over time, the skill becomes a part of you. You can utilize it consciously thought through. When that happens you have acquired unconscious competence.

  • It will help you understand that stepping into a management role is a learning journey -and not an instant enlightenment.
  • It reinforces that rank does not automatically give you authority.
  • It reassures you that you can succeed as a manager. You just need space and time to find your feet.
  • Understanding this dynamic and learning basic management techniques will quickly help you overcome the early frustrations.

And finally you can manage your emotion as you develop.  You are going through a well-known learning process.  Nobody is born a manager!


Read more about the model (this article suggests a fifth stage and has a matrix to clarify the four stages). And finally, a few blog posts you might be interested in: