Steve Pham

They say that those who can’t do, teach. If that’s true, then the inverse must be true as well: Those who do, can’t teach.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that happens more frequently than you might think. For example, it’s well known that great sports players rarely make good coaches. Just look at Wayne Gretzky, aka “The Great One.” The four-time Stanley Cup champion and holder of 60 NHL records is indisputably the best player in hockey history. After retiring from the sport, he emerged as head coach to the Phoenix Coyotes in 2005. To the disappointment of many, he failed to lead the team to the playoffs in his four seasons as coach, which begs the question — why?

An explanation can be found in something called the “conscious competence learning model,” which outlines the steps everyone goes through when acquiring a new skill. Here’s how it works.

Stage 1 is called “unconscious incompetence.” The individual has no understanding and/or know-how of the skill, and does not even recognize its importance. They are not interested in learning. (Example: A person who doesn’t drive a car.)

Stage 2 is called “conscious incompetence.” Here, the individual acknowledges the value of the skill and their need for it. This is important because people only respond to training when they are aware of their deficit and see how they would benefit from learning the new skill. (Example: A person with a driver’s permit.)

Stage 3 is called “conscious competence.” Training begins and the individual is hard at work practicing the new skill, which requires deliberate, or conscious, effort. (Example: A person who has just passed their driver’s test.)

Stage 4 is called “unconscious competence.” At this point, the individual has mastered the skill to the point where it’s become second nature, requiring no thought, and can perform it while executing another task. (Example: A person who gets to work, but doesn’t remember the drive.)

As a professional athlete, Wayne Gretzky was performing at the highest Stage 4 level — the sport had become almost instinctual in nature to him — and those performing at such a high level often have a difficult time breaking down the steps to explain to others how they do what they do. Because of this, they may be worse teachers than those in the “conscious competence” stage.

So how does this relate to your business? Well, understanding this learning process can help managers train their staff more effectively. It stresses the need to train people in stages, which is vital to overcoming training obstacles. These obstacles often can be solved by identifying which stage the individual is at and exploring the reasons preventing their progress.

A few more notes: Regression is common. People can slide from Stage 4 to 3 or even 2, requiring advancement through 3 to get back to 4. Mastering a skill takes continuous practice, and it’s easy to lose ground without that discipline. But those in Stage 4 shouldn’t rest on their laurels: Those performing at the highest level may be in danger of becoming complacent, which can cause them to dismiss important new technologies or methods. This, in turn, puts the expert at risk for being unconsciously incompetent once more.