Demolishing Doubt During the 5 Stages of Learning

Could you be damaging your psychological and physiological well-being when trying to achieve a goal or learn something new?

In a 2012 study about giving up personal goals, the researchers found that when we reach the stage in goal attainment where we believe the difficulty of the task outweighs the value of completing it (known as an action crisis) we not only damage our psychological and physiological wellbeing but we also smother our ability to evaluate the goal at hand effectively.

The thought of damaging our mental and physical well-being when facing difficulty may start to make sense when we reflect on the below questions:

  • Have you ever given up on something you wanted?
  • Have you ever felt so defeated and frustrated that you were unable to complete a challenge or task?
  • Have you ever felt like a failure for being unable to grasp what you initially perceived to be something simple?
  • Have you ever wondered why you even bother?

Each of the above questions may have conjured up negative feelings and memories for you, which helps us make sense of what they found in the study.

Most people will have given up on a goal or pursuit of a skill at least once in their life. Most of us know how that feels and the impacts it can have on our confidence, well-being and overall health. If this is or has been you, consider adding the 5 stages of learning to your tool kit, it can help you understand and combat some of these pain points so that you can more effectively push through these difficult stages and become an expert at your chosen skill.

Think about how good will you feel when this difficult task, skill or goal becomes so familiar to you that you can do it in autopilot. Better yet, how will you feel becoming so masterful that you will be able to teach your skill to others?

The goal of this article is to help you lead yourself and others through the 5 Stages of Learning – using empathy, coaching and persistence to get the best out of the situation. We will discuss the different stages, what they look like and how you can guide people through their learning journey. Supporting effectively through the difficult times and celebrating together through the successes.

What are the 5 Stages of Learning?

The initial model only had 4 stages of learning and was often displayed as a matrix instead of a pyramid. A final and 5th stage was added and it is now often displayed as a pyramid or ladder. The new model is the one we will look at today.

The 5 stages are used to describe the different phases people go through when they are learning something new. This allows you to understand where you or your Followers are on their learning journey, enabling you to find the best way to help progression through each stage. 

The author of this model is unknown, with different people claiming it as their own. Given this and the fact that we have been unable to find any real challengers to the theory, the 5 Stages of Learning look to be more of a universal truth rather than just a model. Whilst we will refer to it as the 5 Stages of Learning, you may have heard of it as the Conscious Competence Matrix or the Learning Matrix.

Whilst we will go through these stages in more detail later in the article The 5 Stages of Learning are:

  • Unconscious Incompetence
  • Conscious incompetence
  • Conscious competence
  • Unconscious competence
  • Reflective Competence

It’s time to break this model down into its individual phases:

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

Unconscious Incompetence is where we all begin on our learning journey. At this stage, it is simply impossible for us to grasp the scope of what we do not know. This is what we mean by Unconscious Incompetence – we are that incompetent, we don’t even know it!

Consider the arm-chair coach, who thinks they  know better than the actual coaches and the athletes on TV who have dedicated their lives to mastering a sport.

This stage could also be likened to a child that sees a parent driving, it looks simple – the child would probably be brimming with confidence about being able to drive because to them, all they need to do is turn a wheel. They don’t know anything about the degree in which to turn the wheel, let alone the theory, the law, road signs, traffic lights, crossings, clutch control, gears, indicators, fuel, engine checks and so on – They are unconsciously incompetent, they do not know the extent of how much there is to learn.

This was explained in Dunning & Kruger’s 1999 study where they identified that those with low competence greatly overestimated their actual competence levels and those with higher competency slightly underestimated their competency, in other words, it takes competency to identify competency!

So let’s put ourselves at this stage – we are blissfully unaware of what we don’t know, we are overestimating our abilities and our ego is telling us how great we are. What do you think a good thing to do here would be?

If you’re thinking take a step back and assess, you’re on the right track. We know that setting unrealistic goals is one way to make ourselves feel deflated when we inevitably fail to reach the impossible. We know that where we don’t prepare for a threat, we are less capable to deal with it and we know that when we don’t look at our strengths and available resources, we are not operating at our full capacity.

With this in mind, a SWOT analysis can be a useful tool to honestly look at your situation, your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats associated with this new learning journey.

From here you can use the SMART model (or any goal setting model) to set realistic goals. If you are looking to help others or have a wider group of people to train, consider a training needs analysis to build an effective program to support your learners.

Another useful tool to use at this stage is Situational Leadership. Hersey, Angelim, and Carakushansky (1982) found evidence that using the Situational Leadership model during a learning journey can help embed information and aid in learners development.

At this stage, we would look to utilise Directive leadership – a Telling approach where step by step guidance is provided. This helps yourself or others understand exactly what is involved in the task and can aid in repetitive practice.  This method also ties in the wider purpose and objectives associated to the steps so the learner can begin to understand the importance of these tasks. 

Think back to a time you wanted to learn a new skill, you likely sought out expert guidance in the form of books, people you respected, videos, podcasts and articles. These formats don’t engage you in discussion about what to do, they tell you what needs to be done. 

The benefits to this are:

– It provides clear steps on what you need to do

– It helps you understand why the steps are important

– When dealing with the unknown, an authoritative voice can build confidence 

– It helps you see how much work you need to put in, giving you realistic expectations

Pro Tip: Positive feedback is vital here to increase confidence and reinforce positive behaviours towards success.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

As you begin to understand your development areas, the journey ahead of you and what skills you need to develop in order to be successful, you begin to move into the conscious incompetence stage. Here you are getting the grips with what you dont know.

Lets think about what this may be like.

We’ll take Jim for example, he has seen Mixed Martial Arts on TV, he is confident he can do it and that he will be a champion in no time (Unconscious Incompetence). He goes to his first training session and the following happens:

In the warm up session, Jim struggles to breathe and keep up with everyone else.

Then, someone smaller than Jim gets him to submit (give up) due to a submission.

Another person lands multiple body shots on Jim, who has never been hit before – causing more pain than he expected.

When practicing basic jiujitsu transitions, Jim struggles to get to grips with the movements.

Consider how Jim felt at the start of the session – full of confidence and ego. How is he feeling now? – take a few minutes to reflect on this.

Did you get the below?

  • Defeated
  • Low confidence levels
  • Unfit
  • Unworthy
  • Weak
  • Stupid
  • Like he’s made a mistake
  • Like he wishes he never started
  • Like he doesn’t see the value in continuing 

Jim is now conscious about what he doesn’t know – and that feeling can weigh a lot of people down, leading to regret, frustration and low self esteem. Knowing about this stage allows you to positively reinforce the correct behaviours or actions taken, helping to counter some of the negative feelings associated with Conscious Incompetence. This is the stage we will most likely reach an Action Crisis – where we question if the task is worth it and consider giving up. Try to remember that an action crisis isn’t good for you psychologically of physiologically. Your opinion on the worth of the goal will also be clouded by the difficulties you are facing. Be kind to yourself and others here, this is a normal phase to go through.

It’s important here to remind people why they are on their journey, consider Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle or emphasising their purpose, reignite the passion that caused them to start this journey. The Golden Circle works on the basis that your ‘Why’ should drive your ‘How’ and ‘What’. Your goals should be connected with a higher purpose, this will help you understand the importance of the task and can keep you going when your journey gets tough.

If we use Situational Leadership here, we would look for the Coaching or Selling style of leadership. Here we encourage people to work towards their own solutions using their experience alongside providing direction and reinforcing the purpose of the tasks and the outcome of their success.

Here are some great motivating questions:

  • What did I set out to achieve in the first place? How will it add value to my life?
  • What lessons can I take from this?
  • What did I do well and what am I proud of?
  • What can I do differently to make this a more valuable experience?
  • How can I use this to add value to others?
  • What will my life be like after I get back up and achieve?

Be patient with people here, understand that frustration and disappointment are normal and can make people react in less than beneficial ways. Mix empathy with positive reinforcement to help yourself or others build the skills to become competent.

There are other methods to motivate and rekindle passion – consider what works for you whether that’s a vision board, reviewing your end goals and the results of your success or even just understanding that discipline and resilience can get you through the process when motivation levels are low. This is a tough stage – so keep a clear picture in your mind of what awaits you when you pass it and begin to reach mastery.

Stage 3: Conscious Competence

By being resilient, getting back up and working on your skills you reach the next stage, conscious competence. Here, you are fully aware of what you know and the skills that are enabling you to be competent at the task you are performing.

You are aware of your actions as you do them, methodically working through the steps required, making conscious effort to perform each part of the process. This is a great time to celebrate, you have done it! All of your hard work had led to this moment and you deserve to be proud of yourself as you mindfully work your way through each part of the process you have just learnt.

At this stage, you still have to pay attention to what you are doing so take as many opportunities as you can to practice, embed and improve your skill set. Remember to celebrate how far you have come but understand that now is not the time to tick the skill off as complete and move onto something else. Encourage practice here to reinforce your skill or behaviour to really see progression and movement into mastery.

As you work on your own or your Followers confidence here, consider a facilitation style of leadership. This method can drastically improve confidence and motivation levels in skilled individuals. Practice your new skill in different situations and settings, making your practice varied and somewhat unpredictable can give you a greater understanding and ability to utilise your new skills. For example, if your goal was to throw a ball into a hoop that’s 10 feet away, you would be better if you practiced at varying distances of 5, 10 and 15 feet instead of just repetitions at 10 feet.

Support through reflection and questioning, allowing yourself or your Followers to apply your or their own thoughts, experiences and creativity to the newly learnt skill. Think about the different situations you have already or could use your new skill in, we know that when we can connect ideas from one skill to another, it helps embed and refine our understanding. This is called Elaboration and was discussed in Peter Browns, Henry Roediger III and Mark McDaniels book ‘Make it stick – The Science of Successful Learning’ – here’s what they said:

Stage 4 Unconscious competence

The penultimate stage (or final in the original model) is Unconscious Competence. Here, you are so skilled that you don’t need to think about what you are doing, the process happens in autopilot.

At face value this sounds like a great state to be in and whilst it does have its advantages, it actually comes with it’s own set of risks. What do you think some of the risks could be for someone who is Unconsciously Competent? – take a few moments to consider this before moving on.

Did you get the below?

  • Overconfidence
  • Complacency
  • Mistakes get made
  • Bad habits may get reinforced
  • You stop looking for efficiency or improvement
  • You may stop reflecting
  • You may not be teaching or coaching others
  • You may not be empathetic to those going through the other stages of learning – you have forgotten your journey and don’t understand why others don’t find it as easy as you.

Unconscious Competence is great for automating but as you can see, operating at an unconscious level has its risks.

Some great methods to combat this Unconscious Competence stage come from the next step of the Learning Matrix – so don’t rest here for long!

Stage 5: Reflective Competence

As you have likely gathered, a person that has spent a lot of their resources and efforts getting to the Unconscious Competence stage, to then discover that potentially the best way to be consistently good and attentive to your skill is to step back down to Conscious Competence, could be quite disheartening.

Numerous people have put in a new fifth stage of the Learning Matrix – Reflective Competence. This creates a level above Unconscious Competence, creating real expertise and mastery. Remember the Dunning-Kruger effect? Being this skilled allows you to rate competency in others and identify where on the learning journey they are! What does that mean though? Well, it varies from author to author but here’s a summary below of a few key points.

Linking theories

Reflective Learning can create ‘lightbulb’ moments where you can connect what you have learnt to different situations. a eureka style moment where you gain a deeper understanding – this is the Elaboration method we looked at before.

Early on in my leadership career, I was given the task of bringing an entire new policy and process to a different part of the company I was working with. I had come from a site the policy and process had been created and tested on and was told there would be resistance to the change at the other site. The culture at this other office, despite being the same company was vastly different. My approach was very matter of fact with the process changes and made the process much harder than it needed to be. Whilst this initially inspired me to research change management and influencing techniques, which improved my relationshp management skills, it wasn’t until reading the book ‘Scaling Up Excellence’ by Huggy Rao and Robert Sutton, that allowed me to reflect on my approach almost a decade later with a ‘lightbulb’ moment, connecting the dots for me in ways that my other research and experience hadn’t. It felt like I had flipped a switch where I instantly understood the times to be strict with process and policy implementation and when to allow for culture to influence the change, I saw my mistakes now not just from an influencing and relationship management perspective but also understood what makes the most business sense and how to establish essential parts of process implementation versus ‘nice to haves.’

A key message here is to ensure you reinforce yourself and others at this stage, it isn’t an easy task to keep assimilating and adapting – keep morale high by celebrating that you are still learning and evolving. True masters of a skill look out for ways to refine their technique further and rarely rest at their current level.

Reflecting on performance

This is a great way to maintain competence in a field. Thinking about how and what you did to accomplish your activity enables you to find errors and areas of improvement as well as focus on the most efficient and effective parts of your process. By reflecting, you begin to reinforce your skills and behaviours, rewarding and training your brain by focusing on the right actions. Let’s say you want to work on your communication skills, after each meeting you could take time to reflect on the following:

Who spoke the most and what was the reaction to this?

Who was the most effective at listening and how do I know this?

What body language was used?

Who was most influential?

How conscious of this was I in the moment?

You can quickly develop your own reflective questions when you understand what it is you want to work on.

Pro Tip: We tend to have reflection templates in the resources part of each article we write for you to utilise, check them out and consider which type of questions work well for you in order to create your own reflection template.

Teaching others

Noticing incompetence in others is regarded as one of the key skills linked with Reflective Competence. It gives you a great opportunity to establish where in the Learning Matrix others are in order to effectively guide them through it. As much as you may think you know about a certain topic, it is only when you begin to teach it that your understanding reaches new depths. When you reflect over the task, the best way to accomplish it and how you will transfer this knowledge to someone else, you begin making more connections and thus build a deeper understanding. Teaching others ensures you are at the top of your game as you will have to keep up to date with your skills and the wider field to ensure you are in the best position to train others.

Exercise: Consider something you are proficient in, take 15 minutes to write down all of the skills or attributes that make you great at it.

Next, list the ways you could impart your knowledge, skills and attributes to others. Write down how they could use this knowledge to become proficient themselves. How could you get your understanding across to others as simply as possible? Notice how you feel about this exercise, have you achieved a greater understanding just by doing this alone? Take it a step further, write a session plan and deliver it to someone, how did this engagement make you feel? What did you learn from it?


The 5 Stages of Learning are:

Unconscious Incompetence – Here, you have no idea how much you there is to learn. As such, people at this stage are often over confident. A SWOT analysis to take stock of your strengths and weaknesses. Its important here to be realistic about your abilities as the higher your confidence is at this stage, the tougher the next stage will be for your ego to manage.  Directive or Telling approaches work well here.

Conscious Incompetence – At this phase, you are aware of how much you need to learn. It can be tough here to persevere as you weigh up the difficulty of the task and the end result. Use compassion, empathy, celebration and coaching to support people through their frustrations during this stage. Remember, 1 step a day is 365 steps a year – you’ll be miles ahead of the person who isn’t trying.

Keep yourself and others focused on the purpose of the mission, use coaching to help embed the learning and encourage people to adapt and overcome barriers. This is where you are likely to enter an ‘action crisis’ so use positive reinforcement and seek support on whether to keep trying, change your approach or identify a new goal. Being disheartened at this stage can unfairly influence whether you want to stick at the goal or not, a coach can help you find the best way forward.

Conscious Competence – This stage is where things start to click, you are skilled but you need to think about what you are doing. Keep practicing, getting feedback and reflecting at this stage to move into mastery.

Unconscious Competence – This phase is where your skill becomes almost auto-pilot. It takes very little effort to think about what you need to do – its second nature. Reward yourself for getting this far but be mindful not to linger here for too long, that can be risky.

Reflective Competence – The final stage is where you can identify competence in others and use your skills and knowledge to train people. Link theories together, reflect on your performance and train others to keep your skills sharp and effective.

Take some time to consider your skill sets and where within the five stage of learning you are for each skill. What was the most useful thing you will take from this article and how will you support yourself and others through the Stages of Learning?


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– 5 stages of learning one page guide

– 5 stages of learning reflection template

– 5 stages of learning Guidebook

File Name: 5-stages-of-learning-guidebook.pdf

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