Three Ways to Avoid Becoming Unconsciously Incompetent

Three Ways to Avoid Becoming Unconsciously Incompetent
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I experienced a moment of satisfaction early in my corporate career when I ranked in the top 10% of my department. I was a corporate trainer of engineers and technicians, helping onboard them into their new roles. I felt immense pride in my ranking, knowing that I rated among the best at a well-respected, international corporation.

When I later started working at a different company and compared best practices with my new colleagues, I quickly realized how incompetent I was at developing corporate curriculums and defining successful training metrics — two critical aspects of my role. It wasn’t that my work ethic or abilities had changed; it was just that I became aware of how unconsciously incompetent I was at performing the duties of my position. What’s more, it no longer mattered how the initial corporation ranked me, I hadn’t been performing my job to a satisfactory degree all along. This experience was a crushing blow for me. I understood it would require a concentrated period of time, effort and energy to become the type of trainer and instructional designer I thought I had always been.

Unconscious incompetence is when an individual does not understand or know how to do something, and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. Here are three ways to help you become more conscious of your work and avoid incompetence in your career:

Do Your Research

In the beginning, you don’t know what you don’t know. So, consider casting a wide net and try sample-size portions of what’s available. You’re researching so that you can determine the quality of the information you’re reviewing and what topics you should be ingesting. This research should be more of a buffet-style setup, where you want small bites to decide your meal’s main course. Listen to just twenty minutes of the hour-long podcast. Review a few different blog articles. Flip through an entire book and read a few portions. By focusing on breadth instead of depth at this stage, you’re in a better position to define your parameters of what type of information you need to learn. Here are some great sources of information to consider:

    • Blogs/articles
    • Podcasts
    • Online training courses
    • Conferences
    • Webinars
    • Books

Although this list may come off as daunting and can seem overwhelming, consider starting by setting aside a half-hour twice a week. While it can be tempting to throw yourself into the research and try to make up for the lost time, remember that consistency is critical.

Build Your Network

Building up a network of peers within your industry can be an invaluable source of information that allows you to stay tapped into best practices and trends. Who are influencers in your field, and are you following them on social media? What are some companies that work in complementary roles to your business, and are you connected with employees in similar positions to yours on LinkedIn so that you can see their posts? Are there any industry organizations in which you can become a member or get involved? You’re not in this alone; many people are interested in staying tuned into trying to understand current and future trends. By creating a community of professionals, you can share best practices and learn from theirs.

Request Feedback

Seek out genuine feedback to stay tuned into how your colleagues view your work performance. And as this Havard Business Review article states, ask for feedback in real-time, pose specific questions, and press for examples. Ask thoughtful follow-up questions and make sure you fully understand the points made. Thank the person giving the feedback. People can often feel hesitant to offer genuine feedback because it can make others defensive. Remember: you don’t have to change what you’re doing based on the advice given. However, when you’re open to getting feedback from multiple sources, you’re in a better position to understand how others view your work, thus empowering yourself to have a more holistic view of your performance.

Whether you start your career being unconsciously incompetent or become that way by resting on your laurels, with ever-increasing technological changes, it’s crucial that you become more aware of which areas could use some work in your professional career. By staying tuned into your industry’s trends through the plethora of material available, building a supportive professional network, and requesting open feedback, you can cast light on those blind spots and really shine in your role.


Jacquelyn Adams is a storyteller and an award-winning CEO. She lives in a world of constant exploration, whether it’s summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, vlogging about the future of work… or discovering how she’d do in a chocolate eating contest (answer: last place). Find more of her Lessons on Leadership articles here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.


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