Conscious Learning to Ease Leadership

To create lives and leadership that will truly contribute to our thriving planetary future we are all going to have to embrace change. Change in the way we think and act to meet our needs, as well as our pleasures. The truth is that we live in a context of constant change. It seems to be a human tendency however not to like change, especially when we can’t see clearly how it will bring immediate benefits.

Lots of research has been done on why we resist change. Today I’m going to talk about a personal experience that points to some of why we resist change.

I’m going through a change that makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable. I’m having to learn to drive again. The short story is that having moved from the US to Scotland I have to resit the theory and practical driving tests to get a licence to drive here.

The practical aspects of why I’m experiencing discomfort are because, although I drove in the US, it was in automatic cars, on the other side of the road. And living in New York City, I drove infrequently, preferring to use my bicycle or public transport.

According to the four Conscious Skill or Competence stages, evolved by a number of people and organizations in the learning and training world, I’m at the level of being consciously unskilled or consciously incompetent. Consciously incompetent. Ouch!

To be aware of how not-good I am at doing something, is excruciatingly unpleasant. What makes it even worse is that it used to be something I was already skilled at.

The first stage of learning is unconsciously unskilled or incompetent. This is where I’m blithely going through life not knowing I need the skill or that my life would be even better if I knew how to do it. In the case of my driving experience I know that driving is useful as and when I need it.

Consciously unskilled or incompetent is the second stage. This is the stage I’m at now. I get in the car and have to think about everything in detail. Mainly because I need to unlearn habits I’ve picked up over years of driving. It’s commonly asserted that most people who’ve been driving for years would fail the test if they took it again due to developing sloppy practices.

Anyway here am I going through the painful process of cleaning up my driving act with the help of my instructor, who patiently reminds me which mirror to look in first, or that I forgot to look over my shoulder at the right time in the moving off sequence.

Consciously skilled or competent is the third stage. When I get here I imagine I will experience some relief. I won’t have to think about every single detail and will be able to confidently move through the manoeuvres and sequences in the order that is designed to make me a driver who communicates well with my fellow road users.

Of course the stage I’m looking forward to experiencing is the fourth stage. This is where I become unconsciously skilled or competent. At this stage I could easily chat with a passenger while driving.

People who’ve worked with this model of learning stages have found that there’s a fifth stage. It seems that our competence can go a few ways once we get here. We can either be in a place of being able to see the whole of the learning process we went through, and with that be able to help others who are just starting out. Or we can slip into a state of complacency.

My story here is about re-learning to drive a car. I share this story, because I have a sense that each of us will have to go through these learning stages with a range of things we already do or don’t yet know we need to do. If we want to make a contribution to our thriving future, the way we are accustomed to doing things will have to change.

The challenge we face, is ourselves.

Unless there’s an external force that requires us to make changes, most of us are not going to willingly choose to put ourselves in a situation where we feel anxiety, stress and incompetent. I mean, would you?

I wonder if this awkward feeling we get when growing our edges, and the anguish the consciously incompetent stage can bring up, is why most of us settle for a life that is a chasm apart from our dreams. Getting there is just too uncomfortable.

Could this also be part of the reason why we aren’t responding to the emergency situation we are currently living in? To actually start to unpack our lives, and put them back together in a way that will truly contribute to a thriving future on this planet, is a choice that has too many moments of conscious incompetence in it, and along with them the stress and anxiety of not knowing how to do something, or be good enough at it.

This, however is where we need to go, now. To the place of collective, conscious incompetence. We need to go to the place of being conscious of our lack of skill or competence.

If you’re an early adopter and have already started your journey of unlearning and learning skills, or if you get that this is what you need to start doing, I’d like to offer six actions you can implement that will provide you with the support and context that will make embracing your incompetence or lack of skill a more enjoyable experience.

  1. Begin by seeing everything you do in life as an iterative experiment or exploration. We don’t have to get it right the first time, we can try it out and see where we need to make changes for the next time.

  1. Ask your co-workers, family and friends to join with you in creating relationships where it’s okay to experiment and make mistakes. Make sure you all agree to the range of mistake-making everyone involved can tolerate, based on the aims you seek to accomplish together.

  1. Look at areas in your life where you are operating from unconscious competence and see how you can design interventions into your system to keep you from drifting to a state of complacency.

  1. Embrace your learning with passion. The energy that comes from being fully engaged and passionate will carry you a long way through the difficult parts of learning the new skill.

  1. Consciously choose to limit the number of growing edges you go on to two or three at any time. There have been times in my life where I’ve been on numerous growing edges simultaneously, and it’s just been too much. If the situation you are in requires that you go on numerous growing edges, who’s in your support web?

  1. If the emotions you experience as a result of going through your learning process become too much, find a support person who can give you good attention, so you can express your emotions in a safe place. Emotions are only bad when they stay stuck and fester inside us.

Most of us have to go through the conscious incompetence stage. It’s not like with driving, where we can shift from third gear to first, by-passing second. We have to go through each stage. Apparently there are a few people, who can go from discovering a new skill to immediately being able to do it without thinking. I personally haven’t met one yet.

As always the conversation’s richer when you make your contributions. What areas of change in your leadership life are you avoiding, because you don’t want to go through the pain of being conscious of your incompetence or lack of skill? What support systems have you developed that make you continue learning new skills?

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