Avoid the fifth stage of organizational (in)competence

Arrogant incompetence is a barrier to learning and strategic execution.

Geoff Wilson

On some level, every strategic leader must have a healthy appreciation for social science and psychology. Success is elusive without it. But what happens when the best that psychology has to offer actually fails?

Picture it: You’re working to ensure that a key manager in your organization executes on a project that will deliver the five key customers you absolutely must have to make plan this year. You provide all the tools, resources, and feedback that a person in the role needs, but they just don’t get through. The manager, convinced of her correctness, takes the project off the deep end. It fails, and so does your plan.

Sound familiar? I’ll bet it does. But what happened? I’ll put it mildly: You probably never learned that there’s a fifth stage of competence. And it’s the most insidious one.

I’m a huge fan of the four stages of competence learning model. The gist of it is that we progress through four phases of capability with any skill. The stages are:

  1. Unconscious incompetence: We don’t know what we are bad at, or even why it’s important. We must recognize that we might have a gap.
  2. Conscious incompetence: We realize we are bad at a skill, and why it’s valuable to improve at it.
  3. Conscious competence: We learn a skill “with reps,” as it were. We concentrate on being good at the skill.
  4. Unconscious competence: The skill is second nature and embedded. We are free to learn other things.

Those stages are outstanding, but there’s another one. Let’s call it Stage Zero: Arrogant incompetence. This is the stage where the manager’s ego lets her think she has it together, without even needing to consider that she might be wrong.

Arrogant incompetence is the realm of people who can’t stand to be critiqued or judged. It afflicts entry-level hires and CEOs alike. You see it when the entry-level hire bristles at feedback—and when the CEO ignores sound advice. It festers in organizations that close ranks to outsiders when their performance is poor.

Arrogant incompetence destroys trust. It is the opposite of truth-seeking.

Why is this important to know? Well, you’re likely reading this because you have an interest in strategy, and strategy means putting people in position to affect change. If you place your bets on people who choose arrogance over inquiry, you’re taking chances on those least likely to accept feedback, seek progress, and positively impact your organization.

The fifth stage of incompetence is a barrier to the flexibility required in today’s strategic organization. Avoid it at all costs.

What do you think?  

3 replies
  1. Bunny
    Bunny says:

    The humble bunny is all for TRUST, all for that is virtuous. All for learning, all for positive influence, all for contribution, all for change — personal and social, all for progress, all for peace, love, service, ….

    Arrogance NOT! Perhaps confusion…trust. Trust ==>clarity==>dedication==>result

    Reply

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