What Are The Four Stages of Competence? The Four Stages of Competence In A Nutshell

The four stages of competence are often attributed to American psychologist Abraham Maslow. However, the concept was first mentioned by management consultant Martin W. Broadwell in 1969 to characterize four different types of teachers. Four years later, it was then incorporated into a life skills training course by Paul R. Curtiss and Phillip W. Warren. The four stages of competence is a psychological model describing the progression from incompetence to competence in a specific skill.

Understanding the four stages of competence

The four stages of competence as we know them today probably stem from a similar course developed by Noel Burch – a former employee of Gordon Training International. Burch argued that when an individual decides to learn a new skill, there are four learning stages they must transition through. 

With an awareness of each stage, the learner can come to terms with the long, slow, and sometimes painful process of learning. What’s more, teachers can use the model to identify learning needs and develop objectives based on which stage the learner occupies.

The four stages of competence

Let’s now take a look at each of the four stages:

  1. Unconscious incompetence (Ignorance) – here, the individual does not understand or know how to do something. They fail to recognize the utility of a new skill or their incompetence. In other words, they cannot see that a knowledge or skill gap exists. Progressing to the second stage requires the individual to acknowledge that there are some things they don’t yet know which could be useful to them.
  2. Conscious incompetence (Awareness) – in the second stage, the individual accepts a knowledge gap exists. This may be an uncomfortable experience for some people. To progress, the individual must recognize the value of a new skill and become motivated to learn.
  3. Conscious competence (Learning) – in the learning stage, the individual develops some degree of competency with disciplined concentration. The individual is a novice working toward skill acquisition with a focus on trial and error and continuous improvement. 
  4. Unconscious competence (Mastery) – over time, the individual becomes so adept at practicing a skill that it becomes second nature. While learning still occurs, the individual has established a strong foundation and is confident in their own abilities. In some cases, they may be able to teach the skill to others.

Key takeaways:

  • The four stages of competence is a psychological model describing the progression from incompetence to competence in a specific skill. The model is often attributed to Maslow but was developed by Martin W. Broadwell to categorize different types of teachers. 
  • The four stages of competence provide clarity for individuals engaged in the long, slow, and often painful learning process. It can also be used by teachers to assist in effective instructional design.
  • The four stages of competence are unconscious competence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence. The individual must move through each stage linearly and maintain a focus on growth and continuous improvement.

Connected Frameworks

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was developed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow. His hierarchy, often depicted in the shape of a pyramid, helped explain his research on basic human needs and desires. In marketing, the hierarchy (and its basis in psychology) can be used to market to specific groups of people based on their similarly specific needs, desires, and resultant actions.

Maslow’s Hammer

Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).

PESTEL Analysis

The PESTEL analysis is a framework that can help marketers assess whether macro-economic factors are affecting an organization. This is a critical step that helps organizations identify potential threats and weaknesses that can be used in other frameworks such as SWOT or to gain a broader and better understanding of the overall marketing environment.

STEEP Analysis

The STEEP analysis is a tool used to map the external factors that impact an organization. STEEP stands for the five key areas on which the analysis focuses: socio-cultural, technological, economic, environmental/ecological, and political. Usually, the STEEP analysis is complementary or alternative to other methods such as SWOT or PESTEL analyses.

STEEPLE Analysis

The STEEPLE analysis is a variation of the STEEP analysis. Where the step analysis comprises socio-cultural, technological, economic, environmental/ecological, and political factors as the base of the analysis. The STEEPLE analysis adds other two factors such as Legal and Ethical.

Porter’s Five Forces

Porter’s Five Forces is a model that helps organizations to gain a better understanding of their industries and competition. Published for the first time by Professor Michael Porter in his book “Competitive Strategy” in the 1980s. The model breaks down industries and markets by analyzing them through five forces.

SWOT Analysis

SWOT Analysis is a framework used for evaluating the business’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It can aid in identifying the problematic areas of your business so that you can maximize your opportunities. It will also alert you to the challenges your organization might face in the future.

Main Free Guides:

Scroll to Top