Updated: Mar 2, 2022
You have probably gone through various training scenarios with your employee teams and feel like your employees have the skills and knowledge necessary to fulfill their job duties. Employees themselves may think they are prepared as well. However, in a study published in Harvard Business Review of employees across a vast array of industries, between 20% and 40% of employees are actually "unconsciously incompetent". That is, your employees may think they know what they are doing, but they actually don't.
Unconscious incompetence can be found at every function, discipline and level in organizations, says Ulrik Juul Christensen, who is the executive chairman of Area9 Group and a former senior fellow for digital learning on the executive leadership team for McGraw-Hill Education. "In fact, it's often more prominent among experienced staff, which is particularly problematic because, as the go-to people in their circles, they often pass incorrect or incomplete information and skills on to others."
So what can you do about it? Christensen has some advice:
Redesign training programs to engage learners and get them to admit what they don't know. "Better learning modules are adaptive - that is, moulded to each person's needs by probing what they know and don't know, they’re offering tailored content as the learner performs or struggles," Christensen says.
When being trained, get learners to rate the confidence of their answers. Christensen suggests, for example, if a person does well on a training assessment do not just focus on the few questions the person got wrong, but on the ones that the person can admit were lucky guesses. "When learning programs prompt employees to admit that they're guessing, they begin to see the previously hidden gaps in their skills and knowledge," Christensen says.
Promote a strategy of continuous improvement. "More companies should keep formal or informal records of--and openly discuss--errors because they can yield invaluable insights about employees' knowledge gaps and make everyone more aware of what they don't know," Christensen says. The goal is to make people more comfortable about acknowledging their mistakes. "Emphasize that saying 'I don't know' is always better than pretending to know something."
“Unconscious incompetence is pervasive. The only way to address it, is with adaptive, individualized learning programs that promote a culture of continuous improvement.” - Ulrik Juul Christensen,