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The four-level process of change

by Miki Saxon

To change any part of your MAP you need to progress through each of the four levels of competence:

  1. unconscious incompetence,
  2. conscious incompetence,
  3. conscious competence, and
  4. unconscious competence.

Along with the tenacity to follow through, you need the right catalyst: awareness, and how to use it correctly.

The Catalyst

There are many kinds of awareness; in this instance, awareness refers to the cultivated ability to see one’s own actions objectively. “Objectively” means seeing our actions unfiltered by “reasons,” (the mental explanations and rationalizations of which we may or may not be aware). In other words, seeing ourselves in third person context instead of first. Objective awareness is not a right brain/left brain function, (I’ve met too many over-the-edge left-brainers who have absolutely no objective view of themselves, their thoughts or their actions), it is an attitude that can be developed with effort.

You can start cultivating awareness at any point in your life and develop it to whatever level you want. One way to do this is to use the two-fold approach of reviewing something you did as if it were done by someone else and then combining your analysis with feedback from others involved. Include not only verbal feedback (if you’re the boss they may say what they think you want to hear), but how people responded and what actually happened. Additionally, feedback from trusted sources who will “tell it like it is” can be of great use.

Objective awareness is necessary or you’ll never even get to the first level; moreover, it is objective awareness that carries you through the next two levels, although it plays no part in the fourth. Truly competent people have become unaware of their competency as it has become automatic.

The Levels

The four levels are fairly self descriptive, but it’s the quality of the catalyst that keeps things from getting lost or minimized in the translation.

  1. Unconscious incompetence: Doing something automatically with no idea that we do it poorly.
  2. Conscious incompetence: Recognizing that we do it poorly, identifying why and setting out to change that.
  3. Conscious competence: Learning to do it correctly and, through constant mental vigilance, making it a habit to do it correctly.
  4. Unconscious competence: Doing it well without any conscious thought.

The Process

Once you start developing your objective awareness, you’ll start noticing your incompetencies (we all have them). Choose one to start working on. Your first effort should fit these criteria.

  • It should matter to you;
  • be of a manageable size with defined parameters, e.g., “improve communications with the people I manage” as opposed to “be a better manager”; and
  • have measurable results.

As you focus on your managerial communications you’ll probably notice at least some confusion, misunderstandings and the resulting mistakes; however, this time you’ll use objective awareness to determine what’s really going on. As you move to level two, objective awareness may show you that the misunderstanding was a result of unclear instructions or that the confusion stemmed from a shortage of needed information. By consciously monitoring what you say and soliciting feedback to make sure that what you meant to say is what you did say and that it was understood, you will slowly move to level three. The move from level three to level four is rarely noticed. It happens as specific objective awareness efforts become habit, i.e., automatic and are no longer thought about.

Which is why when you compliment a truly competent person on their skill you’ll usually get a blank look and a response something like, “Well, how else would you do it?”

10 Responses to “The four-level process of change”
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