What About Bob? The Four Stages of Competence

Training Design – By David Brin

Knowing where learners are on their journey helps trainers deliver effectively

Training is a crucial component of personal and professional development, allowing individuals to acquire new skills, knowledge and competencies. However, not all training methods are created equal. To be most effective, training programs should be designed with an understanding of the four stages of learning competence: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence.

The four stages of competence is a model based on the premise that before a learning experience begins, individuals are unaware of what or how much they know (unconscious incompetence), and as they learn, they move through psychological states until they reach the final stage (unconscious competence).

By recognizing where an individual is in their journey of learning and development, trainers can tailor their approach to best meet the needs of their learners and support them in their progression through the stages.

Let’s explore each of the four stages of learning competence and provide insights into how trainers can design and deliver effective training programs to support their learners in their journey of growth and development.

Unconscious Incompetence

Unconscious incompetence is the initial stage of learning competence where an individual is unaware of their lack of skill or knowledge in a particular area. They may believe they are proficient in the area and possess the required skills, but they do not. At this stage, the individual may be oblivious to their mistakes and limitations and may need to be made aware of knowledge gaps before they can begin to learn and improve.

For trainers, it is important to identify learners who are at the stage of unconscious incompetence and help them become aware of their limitations, provide them with the necessary knowledge and skills, and encourage them to take the necessary steps to improve. This stage is a crucial opportunity for trainers to help individuals gain a deeper understanding of their strengths and weaknesses and set them on the path toward personal and professional growth.

For example, take Bob, a recent college graduate, who just landed a job as a pharmaceutical sales representative. He is excited about the opportunity to start his career and ready to hit the ground running. However, he does not yet realize that he has a lot to learn about the pharmaceutical industry and the products he is responsible for selling.

Bob is in the stage of unconscious incompetence. He is unaware of his lack of knowledge and skill in the pharmaceutical industry and thinks he can easily sell the products he is representing. He quickly learns that he doesn’t know as much as he thought he did and struggles to make sales. Confused and frustrated, Bob doesn’t understand why he is having such a hard time.

Lucky for Bob, his trainer fully understands and appreciates the learning competency model and the value of using different tools and resources at each stage of his development.

At Bob’s stage of unconscious incompetence, his trainer uses assessments and evaluations to identify and communicate to Bob some fundamental gaps in Bob’s knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry, the products he is representing and how to effectively sell to his customers.

Bob’s trainer creates a custom learning path based on his findings and begins by providing Bob with basic training materials, such as product brochures and industry overviews, to help him gain a foundational understanding of the industry and the company’s products.

Conscious Incompetence

Conscious incompetence is the stage of learning competence where an individual recognizes their lack of skill or knowledge in a specific area. They are aware of their limitations and understand that they do not possess the necessary skills or knowledge to perform the task or behavior effectively. At this stage, the individual is motivated to learn and is open to feedback and guidance from trainers.

For trainers, it is important to provide a supportive and encouraging environment to help learners move from the stage of conscious incompetence to conscious competence. This can involve breaking down complex tasks into smaller, manageable steps and providing clear, actionable feedback to help individuals improve their skills and knowledge.

Turning back to Bob, he has entered the stage of conscious incompetence and is aware of his lack of skill and knowledge. He fully realizes that he needs to improve his understanding of the products he is selling, as well as the industry as a whole. Motivated and willing to invest the time to improve, Bob actively seeks out information and welcomes product and market training opportunities.

Now that Bob has reached the stage of conscious incompetence, his trainer uses more in-depth training materials, such as product manuals and industry reports. The trainer also provides Bob with opportunities to practice and apply what he is learning through role-playing exercises and simulations.

Further, Bob is paired with a mentor who helps guide him through this learning process and offers valuable feedback on his performance.

Conscious Competence

Conscious competence is the stage of learning competence where an individual has gained a basic understanding of a skillset and can perform it with effort and focus. They are aware of the steps involved in the task and must concentrate to complete it correctly. At this stage, the individual is starting to develop the necessary muscle memory, but still requires conscious thought and attention to perform the task.

For trainers, it is important to recognize when a learner is at the stage of conscious competence and provide them with opportunities for practice and repetition to build their proficiency and move toward the next stage of unconscious competence.

As Bob continues to gain competence in his product and industry knowledge as well as selling skills, he sees improvements in his sales numbers. He enters the stage of conscious competence, where he can effectively perform his job, but doing so still requires much effort and concentration. Bob can effectively communicate the value of the products he is selling to potential customers and continues to gain more confidence in his ability to consistently produce desired results.

With Bob having reached the stage of conscious competence, his trainer leverages advanced training materials and real-life scenarios to help Bob increase his confidence and refine his skillset. Bob’s trainer provides him with relevant and consistent opportunities to practice and apply what he has learned in real-world situations through job shadowing, observing seasoned sales representatives and attending sales meetings.

Unconscious Competence

Unconscious competence is the highest stage of learning competence, where an individual has developed such mastery over a skill set that it becomes second nature and can be performed automatically, without conscious thought. This stage is characterized by a high level of proficiency and efficiency, allowing the individual to perform the task effortlessly and with confidence to consistently produce the desired results.

For trainers, recognizing when a learner has reached the stage of unconscious competence is a sign that they have successfully learned and internalized the knowledge and skillset being taught. At this stage, the focus of training can shift toward advanced topics and further refining their expertise. It’s important to remember that even those at the unconscious competence stage can still benefit from training.

After months of hard work and dedication, Bob reaches the stage of unconscious competence. He sells the products effectively and efficiently. Because he can navigate conversations about the industry and the market with ease, he can focus his energy on listening for a deeper understanding of customer needs.

Connecting what he hears to his knowledge of the market has made him a top performer at his company. Bob has successfully worked his way from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence. He is seen as a consistent performer, but Bob’s trainer knows the journey is not over.

At this stage of unconscious competence, Bob’s trainer provides him with ongoing advanced training and cross-training opportunities as well as resources — all combined to help Bob stay current with industry trends, best practices, product innovations and complementary related skills. Bob’s manager, trainer and mentor stay aligned to provide gap analysis assessments, performance feedback, continued coaching and mentoring and opportunities for professional development and advancement.


In summary, Bob’s trainer provided a custom learning path using a variety of tools and resources to help him acquire the knowledge and skills he needed to become successful as a life sciences sales representative. These tools and resources were tailored to his needs at each stage of his development and made an integral difference in helping Bob progress in a timely and effective manner from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence.

Whether someone is just starting out, or they have already reached the unconscious competence stage, the learning competency model provides a roadmap for growth and improvement. And remember, even those at the unconscious competence stage can still benefit from training, as it can help them improve their performance, develop complementary skills and stay current with industry trends.

The learning competency model is a powerful tool for creating effective training programs by providing a roadmap for skill development. By understanding the four stages of competence, trainers can tailor their approach to meet the needs and abilities of their learners.

Trainers can assess where their learners are in the process and provide training that is appropriate to each individual’s level of proficiency. This helps trainers to create training programs that are relevant, engaging and effective, resulting in better outcomes for both the learners and the organization.

David Brin is senior director, learning strategy & operations USCAN, GE Healthcare. Email him at david.brin@ge.com.


About LTEN

The Life Sciences Trainers & Educators Network (www.L-TEN.org) is the only global 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization specializing in meeting the needs of life sciences learning professionals. LTEN shares the knowledge of industry leaders, provides insight into new technologies, offers innovative solutions and communities of practice that grow careers and organizational capabilities. Founded in 1971, LTEN has grown to more than 3,200 individual members who work in pharmaceutical, biotech, medical device and diagnostic companies, and industry partners who support the life sciences training departments.

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