Corporate training skills applied to the 4 stages of adult learning

Simon Thiessen

Simon Thiessen About The Author

Feb 19, 2015 8:16:00 AM

corporate training adult learning Blind to reality

The four stages of competence – sometimes called the four stages of learning – is a simple model that illustrates the process people go through in order to learn a new skill.

It may be simple but is highly relevant to creating real learning in the training room – a skilful learning facilitator will respond to different stages of learning by using different training strategies.

This model has been attributed to a number of researchers, including Albert Maslow. Its original focus was on learning skill – as corporate trainers, we can equally apply it when someone has plateaued on an existing skill.

You can’t deal with what you can't see

The underlying premise of the adult learning model is that a person can’t learn or improve in an area that they don’t recognise they have a deficiency in.

  • If a person is abrupt with customers but doesn’t realise that is the impression they create, nothing changes
  • If a team member produces mediocre results but they believe those results are good, improvement is unlikely
  • If a manager neglects a critical aspect of leadership that they aren’t even aware is important, they won’t magically start doing it

In each of these cases – and thousands more every day in the workplace and the training room – something happens to trigger a learning process.

The four stages of competence and learning

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According to the model, learners progress through the following stages of learning.

Unconscious incompetence

The learner doesn’t have the skills, knowledge or attitude to perform the task or behave in the required way - but doesn’t know they lack them. As a result they are unaware and ineffective.

This could be because they have never needed the skill or it may be a result of poor self-awareness. Each of the people described under the previous heading is in this category.

Conscious incompetence

The learner still doesn’t have the skills, knowledge or attitudes but now they know they don’t have them. They have become aware and ineffective.

These people have experienced a trigger event. Maybe they tried a new task and struggled with it (remember learning to drive)– or perhaps they received some feedback which created self-awareness.

Conscious competence

Now the learner has the skill, knowledge or attitude but needs to think about them as they do the task. They are aware and effective. They perform the task well but they need to concentrate on it.

Unconscious competence

The learning has become so embedded that the task or behaviour can be performed without conscious thought. They are unaware and effective. This is important because higher level skills can be learned as others become ‘automatic’.

Wake up Jeff: the four stages in real life


We worked with a company a few months ago. A member of their leadership group, Jeff, had a really abrasive manner when talking with his team. He came across as abrupt, blunt and confronting.

Jeff’s people felt intimidated by him and rarely spoke openly or honestly for fear of the reaction they would receive.

The teddy bear delusion

By contrast, Jeff thought he was a loveable teddy bear! Seriously. He genuinely believed his people felt really comfortable with him and that they felt able to talk to him about just about anything.

Jeff was firmly stuck in the unconscious incompetence stage of learning – he was ineffective and completely unaware of it.

The corporate trainer's role in the first stages

Sometimes training participants walk into the room having had a ‘wake-up call’. This could happen from some personal feedback from a colleague, a surprising comment in a formal performance review, unexpected results in a 360 degree review, etc.

They may be highly uncomfortable with the feedback and they may be ‘prickly’ or defensive – but at least they have started to transition from the first to the second stage of learning.

However, as a corporate training professional, it sometimes falls to you to provide the trigger for the move to the next stage of learning – which was the situation with Jeff.

How we woke Jeff up


During the first leadership training session, Jeff participated enthusiastically. So far, so good. But – his participation was based on loudly explaining to everyone that would listen that ‘I already do all that stuff. Just ask my people.Fortunately, we had.

Over the following weeks, we helped Jeff move to conscious incompetence by:

  • Asking him about the sort of conversations he had with his team and coaching him to recognise that those conversations weren’t as open or as frequent as he thought they were – or as they should have been
  • Showing him what being the style of manager he wanted to be REALLY looked like
  • Gathering some feedback from people around him and presenting a summary of that – carefully processed so individuals couldn’t be identified
  • Talking about some of the results his team produced – including staff turnover, satisfaction, bottom line performance, etc – and contrasting that with results from other leaders
  • Recognising that his problem was one of execution not intention. He knew what he wanted to do, it just wasn’t playing out that way. We debriefed a number of discussions and  ‘incidents’ that had occurred with his team members – and coached him to refine his strategy to get the intended result.

Change, grief and new habits


This was a confronting process for Jeff. At first he was defensive and resistant and then he went through a period of vulnerability and even despair – he now realised he was ineffective and was doubting his ability to make the change. It was very much like a grieving process.

Finally, Jeff became determined and committed. As he did, he acquired new skills and strategies. He wasn’t perfect and he had to make a real effort to override old habits and use new ones – he certainly became more effective but only when he maintained high awareness.

This stage is called conscious competence – he was doing well but only when he consciously thought about it. When he went back to ‘operating on autopilot’ he used old and less effective habits.

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A great learning outcome

Today, Jeff is partly consciously incompetent – in technical terms he still stuffs up but he knows when he does – and largely consciously competent – he mainly gets it right but has to actively think about it.

If Jeff keeps working on good habits, and we don’t intend to let him stop now, he will eventually become unconsciously competent – he will be able to trust himself to work on autopilot and still get it right because the habits are deeply ingrained.

How long does it take to go through the four stages?


If you are looking for a definitive answer, I am going to disappoint you. But, there are lots of variables that you could observe to get a sense of the time and difficulty involved.

  • Think about the person involved and ask questions like:
  • How long have they been doing the unconsciously incompetent thing?
  • How comfortable are they with it?
  • How complex is the behaviour you are trying to change?
  • Is it a technical skill or a personal behaviour – behaviour will usually take longer?
  • How much support is available in making the change?
  • How complex is the new behaviour?
  • Are the benefits of the new behaviour obvious, desirable and tangible?

The fifth stage of adult learning and competence

Many learning and development professionals believe that there is a fifth stage that wasn’t included in the original model.

A lot of the descriptions of this fifth stage are, well, a bit fluffy. Even after reading some of them numerous times, I still don’t quite understand what they mean.

For us, it is simple. The fifth stage is ‘insightful competence’ which really just means that a person can recognise for themselves that they are unconsciously incompetent. They don’t require on an external trigger to have that moment of realisation.

We usually see this in people who have a long standing habit of challenging themselves and being open to personal growth. As a learning facilitator, it is your responsibility to use quality training skills to help people learn regardless of where they sit on the stages of competence.

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