Unconscious Incompetence


Whatever the size of your learning and development budget, is it having the desired effect on your employees? US companies spend billions and billions of dollars each year on training programs, attempting to arm their teams with the skills and knowledge they require to perform to a high standard.

What’s more, the employees who take part in these programs feel prepared and well informed after their training sessions. But is this training teaching employees everything they need to know in order to carry out their daily tasks? The studies show that it isn’t as effective as all involved think it may be. The phenomenon of ‘unconscious incompetence’ is a growing problem.

Recent data shows that people in many industries (including healthcare, manufacturing, retail, sports, and business services, technology, academia and more) are far more unprepared than they think they are. This data highlights that in a typical work environment, staff members are ‘unconsciously incompetent’ in 20% to 40% of their duties. This goes far beyond unfamiliarity with contingency plans or rare tasks – it includes many areas that are critical to their performance.

A global technology company mentioned in this HBR article found that its valuable sales employees were completely unfamiliar with, didn’t understand or simply didn’t even know approximately 22% of their product features. Here’s the kicker – they believed that they did! When quizzed, they thought that they were well versed in all aspects of the product. This could be costing you new clients and sales, and destroying your ROI.

While you might think that unconscious incompetence is more prominent in your junior employees, it has been found to be more prominent in experienced staff members. They then pass on this erroneous information to those beneath them, either through direct training or when leading by example. This leads to mistakes, damaged reputations and angry clients.

So, how can you tackle this seemingly insidious problem? Simply put, your corporate training sessions and modules need to be redesigned. Empower people to ask questions, create engaging content and avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Consider your specific target audience and mould the content to fit their needs, and then let them know that they will be rewarded and supported when asking questions.

People are loathed to show that they don’t understand content, so whenever possible, make it clear that these are difficult concepts and that not everyone ‘gets’ them at first. Successful trainers also demonstrate that they too had problems at first and that there is absolutely no shame in admitting that you don’t understand. Reward questions, provide extensive training and check in regularly with new hired (and members of the old guard) to ensure that they are fully comfortable with the content. By bringing ‘unconscious incompetence’ to the forefront of your training plans, you can eradicate it completely.