by Achim Nowak

Do You KNOW What You Don't KNOW?

May 18, 2020

Last Tuesday I had a chat with Mitch, the President of a manufacturing company. Mitch announced that he had just promoted a fellow named Art into a General Manager role. Regardless of dire job statistics, there are industries in which executives are job-hopping with abandon right now.

Do you think Art is ready for the job? I asked Mitch.

Well, Art knows what he doesn’t know, Mitch replied.

We both understood this to be a very good thing.

Personal growth can be unleashed only when we know what we don’t know. At a time when much of what goes on in the world seems beyond our control, you and I can choose to uncover more of what we don’t know about ourselves. Any moment, any day.

We see leaders everywhere who don’t know what they don’t know. We see how reckless their decisions can be. The pressure in the C-Suite to know, or act as if we know, can be daunting. After all, we’ve been anointed to a senior role because we’re supposed to know and have solutions to problems. We’re not supposed to NOT know, right?

I think of a conversation I had in 2002. I was chatting with a fellow at a cocktail party in Manhattan. When I asked him what he did for a living he explained that he owned a temporary staffing office, with an office in Brooklyn and another one in Tampa.

I could never do that, I blurted out without much thought.

Sure you can, he said with a kind but firm voice.

Whoa, what did I just say? I thought to myself as I left that party.

6 months later I was offered a contract to write my first book. Besides having to write the book, it was also very clear to me that I needed to start my own business around the content of my book. That’s when I remembered my chat with this fellow.

I was terrified of starting a business. I really didn’t know how to run a business. The gift of this fellow’s comment? He brought something that was hovering just below the surface into consciousness for me.

He helped me know something I didn’t know.

Mitch’s comment about Art, and my cocktail party encounter, remind me of the classic 4 Stages of Competence Framework that I haven’t thought about in many years. This framework is often erroneously attributed to the psychologist Abraham Maslow but was, in fact, first developed and popularized in the 1970s by a management trainer named Noel Burch.

Here is how this Framework breaks down our stages of knowing and not knowing:

Stage 1: Unconscious incompetence (Ignorance)

We do not understand or know how to do something and do not necessarily recognize our deficit. We may deny the usefulness of the skill. We must recognize our own incompetence AND the value of the new skill before we move on to the next stage.

Stage 2: Conscious incompetence (Awareness)

Though we do not understand or know how to do something, we recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. Our willingness to make mistakes can be integral to our learning process at this stage.

Stage 3: Conscious competence (Learning)

We understand or know how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. The skill may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing this new skill.

Stage 4: Unconscious competence (Mastery)

We have had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task, and we may be able to teach it to others.

Powerful, right? Our world needs more leaders with Mastery. These 4 Stages are such a wonderful gift for personal reflection. I invite you to ask yourself the following questions as you consider how you currently “show up” in the world:

1.   Are there areas in my life where I am ignorant AND where my ignorance may be a barrier for me?

2.   What are some areas in my life where I clearly lack knowledge or skills that it would behoove me to learn?

3.   Do I actually need to learn these skills, or are these tasks I can delegate to someone who has already mastered these skills?

4.   What steps can I take to acquire essential knowledge or become more skilled at things that are crucial for my success? How do I ensure that I truly master these areas of expertise?

I believe in life-long learning. The moment we are rigorously honest with ourselves, these questions never go away. Deny these questions, and you are likely stuck in Stage 1 in some aspect of your life.

The gift of my cocktail party moment? While I was writing my first book, I enrolled in a Think Tank for small-business owners. I began my journey toward Business Mastery. How liberating that was!

Choose to know what you don’t know.

The alternative isn’t pretty.

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