Helping Your Team Move Through the Four Stages of Learning

One of my early mentors inspired me to restart, after each painful management lesson, by paraphrasing the following excerpt from Teddy Roosevelt’s 1915 speech at the Sorbonne.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the one who points out how the strong stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the one who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends oneself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if one fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that one’s place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

While working for this same manager I was assigned to a series of different jobs. Each one was a bigger mess to clean up than the last. While I was getting exposure to different aspects of the operation, I was feeling used because as soon as I got one job working well, my boss moved me to another. In discussing this with him, he registered surprise and asked if I would rather just work in the mail room where nothing ever changed and no hard decisions were required. Of course I said no.

He told me he kept moving me to give me an opportunity for growth as well as to bring a fresh perspective into a new department. He suggested that if I really wanted to become a successful manager, I needed to not only accept these clean up assignments, but to look forward to them. Furthermore, he stated that there was significant financial reward for those managers with the skill, fortitude and enthusiasm to “parachute in” and fix organizational disasters.

I expressed concern about the possibility of getting in over my head with an assignment for which I knew nothing about. He explained that failure was an essential part of the learning process. As long as I did not keep making the same mistake, he was willing to support and coach me. He also offered to mentor me if I wished. However, his offer came with a few caveats. First, I needed to always be truthful with him and let him know when I was stuck on an issue. Second, I needed to listen to his analysis of the issue and then develop a solution on my own rather than just do as he said. Finally, if my solution did not work, I needed to take full responsibility for the failure and not blame him or anyone else.

To give me confidence to take on any new task he shared these four stages of learning:

Unconscious incompetence
Conscious incompetence
Conscious competence
Unconscious competence

To further expound on the concept he used the following example regarding a child learning to tie shoe laces.

Four Stages of Learning

The secret he said was in being able to move through the stages of this learning model without letting your ego get in the way. You must be able to start with absolutely no understanding of a process, system or situation and methodically work your way through the fundamentals until you reach a satisfactory level of competence. It is not necessary to reach the Unconscious Competence level on everything. I will never reach this level as a poker player, bowler, golfer, etc. In fact, I remain Consciously Incompetent at all of these activities all and still enjoy them.

Take the time to help your team members get “In The Arena”. Give them the opportunity to fail, while providing a safety net and active mentoring.

About the Author

William Mince

William Mince is an experienced public company executive who has successfully grown organizations through organic development of new product lines and acquisition of both public and private entities. He has been on the due diligence and integration team for over twenty-five acquisitions. He is a results driven leader with significant operational and margin improving successes.