The Hierarchy of Competence: Unveiling Unconscious Incompetence

Jul 12, 2023

In the world of personal growth and professional development, there exists a fascinating journey known as the Hierarchy of Competence. At its core, this hierarchy unravels the stages one goes through while acquiring new skills or expertise. In this blog post, we will delve into one particular stage of the hierarchy: unconscious incompetence. We will explore the experiences of Sheri Fluellen, a psychologist turned leadership coach, and Faisal Ensaun, as they uncover their own moments of unconscious incompetence and transition into conscious incompetence. This stage marks a critical turning point in their growth and highlights the importance of seeking knowledge and support from others.

Unveiling Unconscious Incompetence:

The first level of the hierarchy is characterized by unconscious incompetence—being unaware of one's lack of skill or knowledge in a specific area. It is a phase where individuals may struggle without realizing the extent of their shortcomings. Sheri Fluellen shares a personal experience during her transition from psychology to leadership coaching. While working with a successful business owner, she suddenly realized her limitations in dealing with clients who did not fit her usual profile of mental health-related issues. This realization marked her transition from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence.

Conscious Incompetence and the Quest for Growth:

Conscious incompetence is the subsequent stage in the hierarchy. It is when individuals become aware of their lack of expertise or skill in a particular domain. Faisal Ensaun recounts a similar experience in his coaching journey, where he encountered clients outside his comfort zone. These moments of uncertainty and realization of inadequate knowledge led Faisal to seek guidance from other experienced coaches, join masterminds, and engage in continuous learning. Recognizing the need for growth and seeking resources become crucial during this phase.

The Importance of Community and Support:

Sheri and Faisal emphasize the significance of surrounding oneself with a community of individuals with greater expertise or knowledge. Being in the company of people further along in the competence chart provides valuable insights and feedback. They can identify blind spots and areas for improvement that individuals may not be aware of. Having such support is particularly essential during the early stages of the hierarchy when unconscious incompetence dominates.

The Journey to Conscious Competence:

Conscious competence is the third level of the hierarchy, representing an improvement in skills or expertise where individuals must still consciously think about their actions. Analogous to learning how to ride a bike, this stage requires deliberate planning and consideration. Sheri Fluellen uses the example of riding a bike, where one must think about steering, balancing, and leaning while navigating a challenging terrain. Similarly, in coaching, conscious competence is evident when practitioners must actively strategize their approach and anticipate the next steps.

Unconscious Competence and the Cycle of Growth:

The pinnacle of the hierarchy is unconscious competence, where skills and knowledge become second nature. At this level, individuals no longer need to think about their actions consciously; they effortlessly navigate complex situations with ease. However, Sheri Fluellen highlights an interesting phenomenon—entrepreneurs and individuals often seek new challenges to avoid complacency, which leads them back down the hierarchy. Pursuing new certifications, exploring unfamiliar territories, and embracing discomfort become catalysts for growth, causing a shift to conscious incompetence or even conscious competence in a new area.

Embracing the Journey:

Understanding the Hierarchy of Competence allows individuals to appreciate the process of growth and development. It reminds us that the journey from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence is not linear, but rather cyclical. Moments of feeling inadequate or uncertain are natural and should not be internalized as personal failures. Instead, they serve as opportunities for self-reflection, seeking guidance, and pushing boundaries to embark on new challenges.


The Hierarchy of Competence serves as a valuable framework for understanding the stages of skill acquisition and expertise development. Unconscious incompetence is the starting point where individuals lack awareness of their own shortcomings. The transition to conscious incompetence marks a significant turning point, urging individuals to seek knowledge and support. Conscious competence requires deliberate thinking and planning, while unconscious competence represents mastery. Embracing the cycle of growth and seeking new challenges ensures continued progression in the pursuit of excellence. Remember, every journey begins with acknowledging and embracing our unconscious incompetence.