Conscious and Unconscious Competence and Incompetence
Another way of looking at what happens when you learn something new is to view it from a Gestalt perspective. The Gestalt psychologists suggested that people have a worldview that entails some things being in the fore- ground and other things being in the background of their consciousness.
To illustrate this, the room where I am writing this looks out on to a gravel path which leads into a cottage garden sparkling with the sun shining on the frost-covered shrubs. Before I chose to look up, the garden was tucked back into the recesses of my consciousness. (I doubt whether it was even in yours.) By focusing attention on it I brought it into the fore- ground of my consciousness. Likewise all the colours in the garden are of equal note, until someone mentions white and I immediately start to notice the snowdrops, the white narcissi and the white pansies. They have come into my foreground.
Now in those examples it does not really matter what is fully conscious or not. However in the example of driving a new car for the first time some- thing else is happening. Assuming that I am an experienced driver, many of the aspects of driving, for me, are unconscious. All of these aspects I hope- fully carry out competently. So perhaps I can drive for many miles on a motorway, safe in the knowledge that a lot of the activities I am performing I am actually doing unconsciously. We might say I am unconsciously compe- tent. However, as soon as I am in the new situation of an unfamiliar car I realize that many of the things I took for granted I cannot now do as well as before. I have become conscious of my incompetence. Through some trial and error and some practice and some experience I manage – quite consciously – to become competent again. But it has required focus and attention. All these tasks have been in the forefront of my world and my consciousness. It will only be after a further period of time that they recede to the background and I become unconsciously competent again (Figure 1.3).
Of course there is another cycle: not the one of starting at unconscious competence, but one of starting at unconscious incompetence! This is where you do not know what you do not know, and the only way of real- izing is by making a mistake (and reflecting upon it), or when someone kind enough and brave enough tells you. From self-reflection or from others’ feedback your unconscious incompetence becomes conscious, and you are able to begin the cycle of learning.
The underpinning theory
Kolb’s learning cycle David Kolb (1984) developed a model of experiential learning, which unpacked how learning occurs, and what stages a typical individual goes through in order to learn. It shows that we learn through a process of doing and thinking. (See Figure 1.4.)
Following on from the earlier definition of learning as ‘the process of acquiring knowledge through experience which leads to a change in
Theoretical concepts Theorist
Figure 1.4 Kolb’s learning cycle
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Figure 1.3 Unconscious competence
behaviour ’, Kolb saw this as a cycle through which the individual has a concrete experience. The individual actually does something, reflects upon his or her specific experience, makes some sense of the experience by drawing some general conclusions, and plans to do things differently in the future. Kolb would argue that true learning could not take place without someone going through all stages of the cycle.
In addition, research by Kolb suggested that different individuals have different sets of preferences or styles in the way they learn. Some of us are
quite activist in our approach to learning. We want to experience what it is that we need to learn. We want to dive into the swimming pool and see what happens (immerse ourselves in the task). Some of us would like to think about it first! We like to reflect, perhaps on others’ experi- ence before we take action. The theorists might like to see how the act of swimming relates to other forms of sporting activity, or investigate how other mammals take the plunge. The prag- matists amongst us have a desire to relate what is
happening to their own circumstances. They are interested in how the act of swimming will help them to achieve their goals.
Not only do we all have a learning preference but also the theory suggests that we can get stuck within our preference.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
If you were writing a book on change and wanted to maximize the learning for all of your readers perhaps you would need to:
- encourage experimentation (activist);
- ensure there were ample ways of engendering reflection through questioning (reflector);
- ensure the various models were well researched (theorist); • illustrate your ideas with case studies and show the relevance of what
you are saying by giving useful tools, techniques and applications (pragmatist).
The underpinning theory
So activists may go from one experience to the next one, not thinking to review how the last one went or planning what they would do differ- ently. The reflector may spend inordinate amounts of time conducting project and performance reviews, but not necessarily embedding any learning into the next project. Theorists can spend a lot of time making connections and seeing the bigger picture by putting the current situation into a wider context, but they may not actually get around to doing anything. Pragmatists may be so intent on ensuring that it is relevant to their job that they can easily dismiss something that does not at first appear that useful.
STOP AND THINK! Q 1.1 A new piece of software arrives in the office or in your home. How
do you go about learning about it?
- Do you install it and start trying it out? (Activist)
- Do you watch as others show you how to use it? (Reflector)
- Do you learn about the background to it and the similarities with other programmes? (Theorist)
- Do you not bother experimenting until you find a clear purpose for it? (Pragmatist)
THE BEHAVIOURAL APPROACH TO CHANGE
The behavioural approach to change, as the name implies, very much focuses on how one individual can change another individual’s behaviour using reward and punishment, to achieve intended results. If the intended results are not being achieved then an analysis of the indi- vidual’s behaviour will lead to an understanding of what is contributing to success and what is contributing to non-achievement. In order to elicit the preferred behaviour the individual must be encouraged to behave that way, and discouraged from behaving any other way. This approach has its advantages and disadvantages.
For example, an organization is undergoing a planned programme of culture change, moving from being an inwardly focused bureaucratic organization to a flatter and more responsive customer oriented organi- zation. Customer facing and back office staff will all need to change the
way they behave towards customers and towards each other to achieve this change. A behavioural approach to change will focus on changing the behaviour of staff and managers. The objective will be behaviour change, and there will not necessarily be any atten- tion given to improving processes, improving relationships or increasing involvement in goal setting. There will be no interest taken in how individuals specifically experience that change.
This whole field is underpinned by the work of a number of practi- tioners. The names of Pavlov and Skinner are perhaps the most famous. Ivan Pavlov noticed while researching the digestive system of dogs that when his dogs were connected to his experimental apparatus and offered food they began to salivate. He also observed that, over time, the dogs started to salivate when the researcher opened the door to bring in the food. The dogs had learnt that there was a link between the door opening and being fed. This is now referred to as classical conditioning.
Unconditioned stimulus (food) leads to an unconditioned response (salivation).
If neutral stimulus (door opening) and unconditioned stimulus (food) are associated, neutral stimulus (now a conditioned stimulus) leads to unconditioned response (now a conditioned response).
Further experimental research led others to realize that cats could learn how to escape from a box through positive effects (rewards) and negative effects (punishments). Skinner (1953) extended this research into operant condi- tioning, looking at the effects of behaviours, not just at the behaviours them- selves. His experiments with rats led him to observe that they soon learnt that an accidental operation of a lever led to there being food provided. The reward of the food then led to the rats repeating the behaviour.
The underpinning theory
Using the notion of rewards and punishments, four possible situations arise when you want to encourage a specific behaviour, as demonstrated in Table 1.1.
STOP AND THINK! Q 1.2 What rewards and what punishments operate in your organization?
How effective are they in bringing about change?
So in what ways may behaviourism help us with individuals going through change? In any project of planned behaviour change a number of steps will be required:
- Step 1: The identification of the behaviours that impact performance.
- Step 2: The measurement of those behaviours. How much are these behaviours currently in use?
- Step 3: A functional analysis of the behaviours – that is, the identifica- tion of the component parts that make up each behaviour.
- Step 4: The generation of a strategy of intervention – what rewards and punishments should be linked to the behaviours that impact performance.
- Step 5: An evaluation of the effectiveness of the intervention strategy.