When an individual achieves a great degree of proficiency in a skill that it becomes second nature to him, is it time to put that ability in a safe and perpetual auto-pilot mode? Will that guarantee an effective and predictable outcome each time that ability is habitually exercised?
There are different ways to describe the evolution of a person’s proficiency in any skill. The most intuitive depiction is the commonly used four-step progression of proficiency – Unconscious incompetence Conscious incompetence Conscious competence Unconscious competence. This model being familiar to the L&D community won’t need elaboration. However, in offering my perspective on the question that we started with, I would like to explore the ‘unconscious competence’ phenomenon.
Unconscious competence is a matter of habit. A good example is driving a car. For an experienced driver, the hand-eye-foot coordination, maintaining awareness of the surrounding traffic and driving at the right speed are all largely a matter of habit.
During my initial years of driving in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, there were very few vehicles on the road. Soon enough, I had reached the ‘unconscious competence level’. I would look once for oncoming traffic when taking a U-turn. The light traffic back then did not need me to continuously stay alert for speeding vehicles in the opposite direction when completing the turn. This habit of mine worked very well until the early ‘80s, when I knocked over a speeding motorbike rider trying to squeeze past my car. On reflection, I realized that the context surrounding my driving had changed; context in terms of traffic density, a generally faster pace of life and other such factors. I needed to be alert until I’d completed my turn. In other words I needed to alter my habit!
Had I been mindful of the changing context, I would have proactively examined my driving habits and realized they needed changing, and could have avoided this costly mistake. My unconscious competence in driving served me well but using it in an auto-pilot mode carried certain risks.
I will share another incident in which the role of context is negligible, but the need for flexibility for an L&D facilitator emerges.
When facilitating a program for administrative heads, discussing empathy, I put across my point of view on empathy, that the empathizer ‘should avoid saying anything, but just listen, reflect, and acknowledge the other person’s emotions till the other person has vented out.’ One of the participants with a different view felt that some people that she interacted with needed a periodic response from her; she felt waiting until they’d fully had their say before she said anything in response would not work for them.
Though I disagreed, I decided to experiment. A day prior to my workshop, I had asked each of these participants to practice principles of empathy in a discussion with one of their colleagues. I requested this particular participant to call in the person that happened to be one of her direct reports, with whom she had had this discussion.
Soon after she came in, I asked her to recount her experience from her discussion with her boss – this participant that I am referring to – the previous day. She mentioned she’d felt uncomfortable during that discussion. She had been working with my participant for a long time. She got used to her frequent acknowledgement, reciprocity, and also liked it during their discussions. But on the previous day she’d observed that her boss (my participant), didn’t speak for a long time, and wondered if her boss ‘wasn’t interested in what she was saying.’
This, of course, was exactly the opposite of what my participant, working to my suggestion, had hoped to achieve. She had sought to practice and demonstrate empathy but her direct report sensed a complete lack of it.
This was a revelation to me. While there was no question in my mind about the fundamental importance, to demonstrating empathy, of listening fully and intently before offering opinions or challenges, this incident revealed to me that I had assumed incorrectly that this was a habit to be developed into an unconscious competence and used in all circumstances without exception.
From then on, when I teach empathy, I share the basic process, and then, quickly add “Play it by the person, relationship and conditions at that time”. Unconscious competence practiced with awareness, I felt, helped in developing flexibility in my facilitation methods.
When I teach Emotional Intelligence, I talk about the importance of ‘not shooting the messenger’, which is a phenomena of misplaced emotion. Once we internalize this learning, we may not consider the possibility that sometimes the messenger might have delayed the delivery [which is in his/her control] and we as L&D professionals have a responsibility to set that right. In other words, the unconscious competence that says “never shoot the messenger”, when practiced in auto-pilot, could impact effectiveness.
Getting back to our question, does it pay to habitually exercise unconscious competence?
My experience tells me that unconscious competence is without doubt great to achieve. But when this proficiency is coupled with the mindfulness that recognizes exceptional situations, greater effectiveness and more consistent outcomes can be achieved.
My question to the reader is “can we therefore integrate mindfulness with unconscious competence to be appropriate in real time and also proactively be sensitive to changing contexts?”