Coaching the Unconscious Incompetence

The Four Levels of Competence model, developed by Noel Birch in the 1970’s, reinforces how we all have hidden strengths, blind spots and behaviours that we consciously do.  In leadership development it can be the blind spots, also known as unconscious incompetence, that are the most difficult to change and may feel like ‘mission impossible’, even through coaching.

The answer to mission possibilities may lie in discovering what is underneath our unconscious behaviours (the reasons) through identifying possible belief structures that were instilled early and reinforced throughout life; how we do things – habits.

Habits and the Conscious, Sub Conscious and Unconscious

It is important to note that there are distinct differences between levels of consciousness. Leadership development approaches should differ for each.

  1. Conscious behaviours require focused attention and generally are the ‘how to’ in leadership development. A conscious behaviour is like driving in a snowstorm. Your hands grip the wheel as you focus all your attention on where you are going and how. It is something you are not used to doing. In a business sense, it is akin to providing feedback in a more constructive way – it takes effort.
  2. Sub conscious behaviours are automatic, natural and help you get from point A to point B. It is like when you drive to a familiar location and upon arrival, you can’t completely recall the journey. These behaviours require no thought and in identifying them explicitly, we can acknowledge the impact they have on self and others. This awareness enables deliberate corrective action in the moment – self awareness, like interrupting old patterns.
  1. Unconscious behaviours are those behaviours, functional or dysfunctional, that we can’t see and when we become aware of them, may not know the reason why we do them. This would be similar to being an ‘aggressive driver’, yet we point our fingers at the poor driving habits of others. These behaviours can be best identified through direct feedback, life-changing experiences, deep reflection, burnout, or 360 feedback surveys. Think of someone who is always trying to prove themselves to their own and others’ detriment. These behaviours generally are formed generationally, through our parents, experiences and trauma.

Coaching the Unconscious, Consciously

Unconscious behaviours are largely driven by self-belief. Remember riding a bike for the first time? It was likely a bit of a struggle and once you realized you could do it, a belief was formed of “I can ride a bike.” Your belief wired your brain and its associated neurology accordingly. Now, when riding, you don’t even think about how to do it – you just do it. If the beliefs informing behaviours are not addressed first, any conscious action may lead to ongoing struggles. By understanding the beliefs and why they exist, we are better able to rewire habitual brain patterns.

“I think, therefore I am.” – Rene Decartes

When coaching the unconscious, it is important to:

  1. Address the body and mind connection: The book, ‘The Body Keeps the Score’, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, and the work of Gabor Maté explain how distressing experiences may be locked in our memories or body parts, but the consequences are not. They are in the world for everyone to see and to us, may appear emotionally through body sensations or feelings. In coaching, ignoring associated body sensations is like ignoring the oil warning light when driving a car. Our body sensations are like stories that need to be told – we just need to be willing to ask and listen.
  2. Let the history out: We read biographies to understand how someone came to be who they are today. As a certified Clear Beliefs Coach, I am able to help clients get down deeper to their autobiography to make links to associated unconscious behaviour. In rediscovering significant historical events, we can use an adult lens to identify and rationalize old created belief structures that may no longer work as they once did. Consider how you experienced conflict as a child and how that links to how you deal with it now.
  3. Change the belief: Beliefs drive behaviours. Through proven coaching methodologies, transforming dated beliefs to new empowering ones sets the stage for new beliefs to direct conscious and more empowering behaviours, allowing old ones to disappear.

Coaching can be enormously effective in helping us understand our beliefs, consequential behaviours and the parts of us that make us who we are. If we’re willing to inquire and own them, we can more easily transform any limiting beliefs to ones that create desirable habits and patterns.

Kwela’s one-to-one Coaching Services provide leaders with objective support in their attempts to bring about desired change.

Glen Sollors, Partner