Secrets of a Brighter Workplace


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Why feeling stupid is an essential step in the learning process


“At some point today, you’re going to feel really, really stupid.”

This is not, you might think, the most encouraging thing to say at the start of a training workshop.

No one, after all, likes feeling stupid. No one enjoys feeling incapable. It undermines your confidence and makes you want to retreat to the safety of stuff you do know.

But if we did that, we’d never learn anything new.

Feeling stupid is a natural and necessary stage in the learning process. But it’s also the stage where we’re most likely to give up.

That’s why I often start a training session with this warning. And by explaining the four stages of competence that learners go through.

It’s a model that resonates both with trainees and trainers. Which is why I wanted to share it with you.

You might assume that participants of a training course all understand why they’re there. That they are all aware that they are deficient in a skill, knowledge, behaviour or ability. That they understand there’s a benefit in learning that skill, knowledge, behaviour or ability. That they’re ready to learn.

But this misses an important stage in the learning process.

Stage one: unconscious incompetence

Most learners start in a position of unconscious incompetence. A state, you might say, of blissful ignorance. They don’t know what they don’t know.

They think they have a pretty good idea of the thing you’re about to train them in. But they don’t yet appreciate the complexities and intricacies of that which they’re about to learn.

I see this all the time when I run interviewing skills training workshops for senior managers. At the start of the training, they think they know how to do it already. They may have some experience conducting interviews. Or have seen it done. Or just think it can’t be that hard.

How little they know!

Then I start talking about ORCE, a best practice model for observing, recording, classifying and evaluating the evidence candidates provide in an interview.

It’s a methodical and, when you’re not used to it, painfully meticulous approach and it goes against everything these managers are used to.

For instance, instead of listening to a candidate’s answer and writing down ‘gave a good example of team-working’ as many interviewers do, with ORCE you write down verbatim everything the candidate says. That way, you don’t miss anything and you defer making judgements until after the interview.

At this point, my trainees start to look like rabbits caught in the headlights. The fear is upon them. They suddenly realise they don’t actually know anything. That what they thought they knew is wrong. That they’re going to have to start from scratch.

This is the moment the learning really starts. When they reach stage two.

Stage two: conscious incompetence

Remember when you started learning to drive. You’d watched your parents drive and it didn’t look that hard, they seemed to do it without even thinking about it. But when you sat in the driver’s seat for the first time, with your L-plates on, you had a sudden realisation of just how much there was to learn. Which pedal did what. How to change gear. How to stop. And you couldn’t imagine ever being able to do it.

This is the conscious incompetence stage – when you realise you don’t know what you’re doing. When you suddenly become aware of just how much you don’t understand.

It feels uncomfortable and difficult. You feel stupid.

For my senior management trainees, this can feel particularly shocking. They’re not used to feeling stupid. It makes them feel unconfident. And they’re not used to that either.

But without feeling stupid, you’d never learn anything. You’d remain unconsciously incompetent, unaware that anything needs to change. Feeling stupid jolts you out of complacency.

But it also makes you want to give up. It feels safer and easier to stick with what you know. To stay ignorant. It’s an entirely natural response to our inbuilt fear of the unknown.

Which is why I share this model with my trainees at the beginning of the training. As soon as people realise that the process they’re going through is a process that all learners go through, they’re better prepared. Less likely to throw the towel in. More able to move onto the next stage. Which is:

Stage three: conscious competence

Only through practice do we get more competent. The conscious competence stage is when we take deliberate steps to practise our new skills, practise applying our new knowledge and understanding.

So in my training, I get participants to practise the ORCE techniques, so they start to become more comfortable and more competent in them.

It’s why most learner drivers spend a good few weeks practising driving before taking their test.

This is why reflecting on your training after a course and deliberately building practice into your routine are so important. Otherwise, you may not reach the next stage – which is:

Stage four: unconscious competence

Eventually, by putting their new skill into practice, learners reach the stage where it feels like second nature. Where you don’t think about doing it, you just do it. This is when we become unconsciously competent. This skill or behaviour or ability becomes part of how we do things.

Having used the ORCE technique for many years, I do it now without even thinking about it. Even if I tried I don’t think I could not do it. With practice and patience and time, my trainees will also get to this stage.

Using the four stages of competence model

Advice for trainers:

Understanding the four stages of competency can help you ensure your learners get the most out of training.

four stages of competence

If they don’t feel stupid at some point, if they don’t have a lightbulb moment when they realise what they thought they knew was wrong, or out-of-date or simplistic, they won’t be motivated to learn. After all, why would you need to learn something you already know?

Advice for learners:

Give yourself a break. Don’t fret about feeling stupid. It’s an essential part of the learning process. It’s good for you! 


For more on the ORCE model – read my good practice guide to assessing candidates.

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