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  • Writer's pictureTerry Dockery


The Chief Learning Officer scratched his head and scowled. He thought to himself "Why aren't these managers improving their performance according to my expectations? We have provided all of them with a boatload of training on every management skill know to man (or woman). How am I ever going to demonstrate a reasonable return on investment to the CEO if we can't show better results than this?"

How would you explain this situation? Is the training that the managers are receiving not of high quality? Everybody knows that training improves performance, right? Perhaps a more accurate answer is "maybe"

While there are several models of skill acquisition, I will share one with you that I have found to be particularly useful in its simplicity and value. In this model there are 4 basic stages of skill acquisition:

1. Unconscious incompetence: you don't know what you don't know 2. Conscious incompetence: you now know what you didn't know 3. Conscious competence: you can employ the new skill with a considerable conscious effort 4. Unconscious competence: the new skill is now second nature; you can employ it without considerable conscious effort

Let's use our example above; teaching the skill of effective management of others to a manager.

In the first stage, Unconscious Incompetence, our manager would doing her best but may be unaware that there are more effective techniques for managing others. She basically suffers from a lack of information; she doesn't know what she doesn't know. So how do we move her to the next stage? Typically she will be provided with some form of training to give her the information that she is lacking. While quality training usually includes some form of experiential practice, time constraints usually limit the amount of time that can be devoted to this practice, and it is usually of a somewhat artificial nature; e.g., practicing with another manager for a short time in the training workshop.

Through training (lecture, discussion, and limited artificial practice) we have moved our manager to the stage of Conscious Incompetence, in which she now knows what she didn't know, but still has not acquired the new skill. What do we need to do to move her to the next stage of skill acquisition, Conscious Competence, in which she can employ the skill, even though it may take considerable conscious effort?

The most effective tool for this purpose is coaching or mentoring. Our coach would set clear coaching goals for our manager and ways to measure her progress, provide her with in-depth additional instruction and practice, and then send her out into the workplace to practice the new skill. The coach would provide regular feedback and additional instruction so that our manager could make whatever adjustments are needed to meet her skill proficiency goals as efficiently as possible.

Now we're making real progress! So how do we get our manager to the highest stage of skill acquisition, Unconscious Competence, in which she can employ the new skill without considerable conscious effort, or by "second nature"; The answer is continued practice supplemented by feedback and coaching as necessary. As an added bonus, now our manager is prepared to serve as a coach and mentor for another manager.


Technique #1: Training is a valuable tool, but don't expect training alone to result in new skill acquisition.

Technique #2: The most efficient tools for new skill acquisition are effective coaching and mentoring, which include in-depth instruction, clear goals, and regular measurement and feedback.

Technique #3: A combination of coaching and continued practice result in the highest level of skill acquisition; then the mentee is prepared to become a mentor.

Copyright Terry "Doc" Dockery, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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