Neil's News

Unconscious Incompetence

30 September 2018

The "four stages of competence" is a theory of learning that tracks a person's progression. Briefly, these stages are:

Unconscious incompetence
The individual doesn't know how to do a task, but also doesn't know what they don't know.
Conscious incompetence
The individual doesn't know how to do a task, but knows what they need to learn.
Conscious competence
The individual can do the task, but has to think about it when doing it.
Unconscious competence
The individual does the task without thinking about it.

This four-stage model is often used by managers to figure out what level an employee is operating at and what kind of support to use. The recommendation for a "unconscious incompetent" employee is to "tell them how to do [the task] with a high level of detail, and check in on their progress frequently." [Source]

For some types of work, this recommendation is appropriate. For instance, a new employee working on something safety-critical should be kept on a very short leash. However, outside of this case, I disagree with this recommendation for three different reasons:

1. New employees are uncontaminated by the weight of established processes. They may see problems and opportunities that seasoned employees are blind to. At one point in my career at Google I bounced from one project to another every month. As the new guy, I fixed UX flaws and performance issues that everyone else was so used to that they couldn't see them. Once I could no longer see obvious opportunities for improvement, I moved on to the next project. Being a perpetual outsider was my advantage. Properly managed, inexperience can be an asset, one that is temporary and easily lost if the employee is told exactly what to do.

2. Another reason for giving an employee at this level a long leash is that one probably hasn't been working with the person for long, and thus one doesn't really know them well. The advisor for my master's thesis thought my proposal was "too ambitious", and "mostly unrealistic". That might be a good guess for a random grad student at that university, but it wasn't a good guess for me. I successfully completed what I proposed, and it ended up powering Google Docs.

3. Even if the established process is actually optimum, there is value in spending time stumbling around trying to figure out the task from first principles, before later being shown the optimum process. Good teachers often do this. For example asking elementary math students to add 42+42+42+42+42+42+42+42+42+42 before teaching how to multiply 42*10. This sequence increases understanding of the value of the established process.

When you are managing a new employee who is self-motivated, consider giving them the latitude to explore on their own at first.

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