The Conscious Competence Ladder

Keeping Going When Learning Gets Tough

Also called the "Conscious Competence Matrix," the "Learning Matrix," and the "Four Stages of Learning."

The Conscious Competence Ladder

Do you know what you don't know?

© iStockphoto/winterling

When we learn new skills, we experience different emotions at different stages of the learning process.

For instance, at the beginning, we may not appreciate how much we need to learn. Then, when we discover what we don't know about a subject, we may get disheartened, and we might even give up.

This is why it helps to understand the emotions that you're likely to experience at each stage of the learning process, so that you can manage the emotional ups and downs that go along with learning a new skill.

The Conscious Competence Ladder helps you do this. In this article, we'll look at this model, and we'll highlight how you can use it to learn new skills more effectively.

Understanding the Model

Noel Burch, an employee with Gordon Training International, developed the Conscious Competence Ladder in the 1970s. It helps us understand our thoughts and emotions during the sometimes-dispiriting learning process.

The model highlights two factors that affect our thinking as we learn a new skill: consciousness (awareness) and skill level (competence).

According to the model, we move through the following levels as we build competence in a new skill:

  1. Unconsciously unskilled – we don't know that we don't have this skill, or that we need to learn it.
  2. Consciously unskilled – we know that we don't have this skill.
  3. Consciously skilled– we know that we have this skill.
  4. Unconsciously skilled – we don't know that we have this skill (it just seems easy).

This "ladder of learning" is shown in figure 1, below.

Figure 1 – The Conscious Competence Ladder

Conscious Competence Ladder Diagram

Reproduced with permission from Gordon Training International.


The Conscious Competence Ladder is useful in several ways.

First, you can use it to understand the emotions you'll experience during the learning process. This helps you stay motivated when times get tough; and it helps you manage your expectations of success, so that you don't try to achieve too much, too soon.

For example, during the consciously unskilled phase, you can reassure yourself that, while learning this skill is difficult and frustrating right now, things will improve in the future. And, when you're unconsciously skilled, the model reminds you to value the skills that you've gained, and not to be too impatient with people who have yet to gain them.

It's also useful in coaching and training situations, because it allows you to be in touch with what your people are thinking and feeling. You can then help them understand their emotions as they learn new skills, and encourage them when they're feeling disillusioned.


Some people prefer to think of this as a matrix, with incompetence/competence on the horizontal axis and unconscious/conscious on the vertical axis. Use the representation that works best for you.

Applying the Model

Let's look at each level in more detail, and highlight strategies that you can use to move yourself through each stage successfully, as you learn a new skill.

Level 1 – Unconsciously Unskilled

At this level, you are blissfully ignorant: you have a complete lack of knowledge and skills in a specific area, and you're unaware of this. Your confidence therefore far exceeds your abilities.

To move out of level 1, use tools like Personal SWOT Analysis   and a Training Needs Assessment   to identify your strengths and weaknesses, and to understand which skills you need to learn. As part of this, ask other people for their input, so that you can uncover weaknesses and skill needs that you might otherwise miss.

Also, make sure that you understand your learning objectives – there's no point learning skills in areas that don't align with your personal or work goals  .

Level 2 – Consciously Unskilled

By this stage, you've discovered that you need to learn new skills. You realize that others are much more competent than you are, and that they can easily do things that you are struggling with.

This level can be demoralizing, causing people to lose confidence   or even give up on their learning efforts altogether. Therefore, it's important to stay positive   at this stage.

Use tools like affirmations   and Treasure Maps   to combat negative thinking and to refocus your energy on days when you feel down. Remember, learning might be uncomfortable in the short term, but these skills will help you reach your goals and build a better life.

Level 3 – Consciously Skilled

At this level, you know that you have acquired the skills and knowledge you need. You put your learning into practice regularly, and you gain even more confidence as you use your new skills.

You still need to concentrate when you perform these activities, but, as you get more practice and experience, these activities become increasingly automatic.

To move successfully through Level 3, look for opportunities to use your skills as often as you can. For example, you could volunteer for projects that require your new skills, or craft your job   to use these skills more often in your current role.

Level 4 – Unconsciously Skilled

At this level, you use your new skills effortlessly, and you perform tasks without conscious effort. You are completely confident of success.

Once you master one set of skills, it's important to learn more if you want to continue to grow.

A good way to do this is to teach these new skills to others in your organization. This will keep information fresh in your mind, deepen your understanding of the material, and give you a rewarding way to pass this knowledge on to others.

Also, bear in mind that you may go backwards down the ladder if you don't use your new skills regularly.

Coaching With the Conscious Competence Ladder

You can also use the Conscious Competence Ladder when you're guiding people through the learning process. Let's look at strategies that you can use with people at each stage:

Level 1 – Unconsciously Unskilled

At the beginning of the process, people may not know how unskilled they are, so you'll need to make them aware of how much they need to learn. You'll also need to explain why they need to learn these skills.

Be sensitive at this early stage, and give plenty of positive feedback   to keep people's motivation high.

Level 2 – Consciously Unskilled

During this stage, provide plenty of encouragement and support, and explain the idea of the Conscious Competence Ladder, so that people understand any feelings of discouragement that they are experiencing.

Also, help them improve their self-confidence  , if required.

Level 3 – Consciously Skilled

At this stage, keep people focused on the skills that they need to learn, and give them plenty of opportunities to practice these skills.

For example, you could assign them projects that use their new skills, or set them relevant training exercises.

Level 4 – Unconsciously Skilled

At this level, you'll need to make sure that people avoid complacency, and that they stay up-to-date with their skills.

You may also need to remind people how difficult it was to reach this level, so that they are kind to people who are at an earlier stage in the process.

Key Points

Noel Burch, an employee with Gordon Training International, developed the Conscious Competence Ladder in the 1970s. You can use it to manage your emotions during a potentially challenging learning process.

The model has four learning levels:

  1. Unconsciously unskilled.
  2. Consciously unskilled.
  3. Consciously skilled.
  4. Unconsciously skilled.

The model can be a useful guide for your own learning, but you can also use it when you are coaching others, to guide them through the emotional ups and downs of acquiring new skills.

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Comments (7)
  • RATNAKAR wrote Over a month ago
    Really worth while to read &Learn
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Willow,

    There are some great tips in Gaining the Trust of Your New Team that I think will help you as well. Namely the whole issue of being open and honest and creating a great 'team' expectation relight from the start. I think we often make the mistake of thinking people expect more from us than they do. As you get to know your new team think about who has complementary skills that you can leverage to help you address these organizational weaknesses. If you start with an environment that nurtures and supports team decisions and feedback it will only make you a better and more effective team player and leader.

    What do you think?

  • Willow1154 wrote Over a month ago
    I'm starting a challenging new job in a great organization. I'm on Level 2, as I'm very conscious of all I don't know, but the team that hired me thinks I know much more than I do and is counting on me to fix some organizational weaknesses, right off the bat. Thanks for a tool that will help me understand and accept my emotions as I try to quickly meet expectations.
  • James wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Everyone

    We’ve given this popular article a review, and the updated version is now at

    Discuss the article by replying to this post!


  • bigk wrote Over a month ago

    magazines might only show some examples and also show current trend of the accepted or unaccepted innovation.

    There are likely to be several more ideas that you have not yet uncovered, perhaps these are within yourself. If these are within you then it is finding the right opportunity and the situation in which to use these separate from providing a job and work that can an be used for a customer or yourself without being self indulgent to push for excellence in whatever area you feel there is room to improve and show innovation or just good completion of idea, solution and problem resolving.

    Sometimes the plain and what might appear the boring are the excellent. Sometimes it is the innovation and the change or the methods used that are in this area but most often it is the desire to continue or progress, from any advance you might make on using or developing excellence that might give you the further desire or drive to push harder to explore or deliver something you feel is above what is expected but yet accept humility of knowing your output you have created coyld be improved or that another push into some unknown territory or that all previous efforts are but just a small example of what you might be able to offer are where you might feel you find yourself drifting or exploring.

    Finding the opportunities or making solutions work with or without any trends are what will drive you further to progress or improve or reuse any pre-existing ideas and knowledge to help yourself or others make changes and advances to improve the work output or any of your efforts.

    There might be other options. What you need to develop is the confidence to try them out but not let your customer get the wrong result by delivering unsatisfactory work.

    These and other methods or ideas and drive will get you what you want, although at times you might not see them.

    The important aspect is to use your development to know you have the skills and the ideas to make progress and deliver results.

    This could help you assess or develop success.

    Magazines...? which ones? Maybe you could use them for checking or adapting ideas, or are you looking for a mention of you in them?
    I might like to be mentioned in magazines but... is it important (?)

    I can't answer all these variables right now with a good enough answer I would be happy with but I could give an answer to each of them all.

    Maybe knowing you can develop it or have the potential to develop it, might be enough to reassure yourself that the skills and knowledge can be learnt and shared.

  • marat wrote Over a month ago
    The worst thing is when you are "blissfully aware" of your competence in the given area whereas actually this particular task or that particular project could've been completed much more effectively if you'd possesed extra knowledge that you didn't know about at all.

    For example, you may think of yourself as a very good designer, but until you see a truly amazing piece of design work you will be blissfully unaware of your lack of taste/knowledge/skill.

    So the question is - how do I know that I don't know something if there is no stimulus for me to 'push the envelope' and gain extra knowledge? Reading magazines?
  • Fidget wrote Over a month ago
    Well, the thing about "unsonscious incompetence" really struck a chord with me - I found it so helpful to have these levels (which I think I unconsciously realised existed) spelled out like this!

    So often people think they can do something, and they can't at all, but they're actually at such a bad level they don't even realise what doing it well involves. And it might even be someone quite high up thinking they can write/spell! I've also seen it time and time again in education porgrams, and it can be a real challenge to keep peopel on board once they get past that level 1 and realise that they're actually cluueless and awful at something and will need to do a vast amount of work just to become vaguely competent.


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