Skip to main content

Why should I be an unconscious competent?

Bear with me as I am going to compare being a carer with driving a car, but by the end you will hopefully understand the analogy and be able to translate the thinking into practical actions to improve care.

Ok, strap yourself in we are setting off!

Remember when you were a child and you went on a car journey, you just got into the back seat when you were told and then got out at the other end. If you were anything like me you had no idea about how the car worked or what was done to make the car move forward, to me it might as well have been a magic carpet! This state is known as being an ‘unconscious incompetent’ which basically means that as a child in the back of the car you would be unable to drive the car (incompetent), but you are unaware of this as it is not on your radar (unconscious). Now if we compare this situation to care it is a dangerous situation as an ‘unconscious incompetent’ will not know how to deliver good care and would be unaware of the fact that they are providing poor care.

Let’s fast forward a few years to when you started learning to drive at this stage you would probably be a ‘conscious incompetent’, as you were aware of what you needed to do to make the car move but if you were like me you weren’t very good at it. For a carer this position could relate to being a new starter that is early on in induction or shadowing other staff – they have been informed what they need to do (conscious) but are maybe finding it difficult (incompetent) and need a lot of support to do it well.

So, let’s move on with the journey and you’ve just passed your test and free to drive on your own and if you were like me I might have had a bit of paper saying I was safe to drive on my own but I spent most of the time looking at the gear lever, worrying about hitting the wrong pedal or what the different lines on the road meant. All these factors meant that I had to think really hard about what to do to get from A to B, so at this stage I was a ‘conscious competent’ – which meant I was officially good at what I was doing but needed to think very hard to make it happen. In care this is where most staff currently sit as they may have got some qualifications, done relevant training, shadowed colleagues, had good supervisions etc. but still need to think every day about what they need to do to deliver good care. But I’m sure that we don’t want staff to wake up in the morning and remind themselves that ‘today I have to deliver good care’.

Now let’s go to the present day. Think about the last time you drove, I bet you didn’t think about which way to go around a roundabout, what gear you need to be in or when to touch the brake. It just happened naturally, this is the nirvana position and you are an ‘unconscious competent’ which means you are really, really good at something but you don’t have to think about it. Just relate this to care and how good would it be if staff just naturally delivered fantastic person-centred care, didn’t have to refer to others, read manuals or think about whether what they were doing was right?

I am not simplifying the effort needed to get staff to the position of unconscious competent. It takes belief, time, dedication, investment, monitoring and mentoring. But the rewards will be worth it especially if you can recognise when people have reached this level of skill. I am also not suggesting that an unconscious competent is complacent, won’t challenge best practice or will be set in their ways. To the contrary an ideal unconscious competent will be freed up to explore new ideas and ways of working rather than being fixed to one way of delivering care and support.

I would suggest that you could undertake a review of your staff using this 4 point scale, or even use this example as a training exercise yourself to ask where people feel they are on their journey. You might be surprised what people say – and you may even find that you have some staff that could have passed their test years ago, or conversely some that may need to go back to driving school!

Thanks for reading. If you would like to share any comments, thoughts or ideas with me get in touch and lets start a conversation.

Ed Watkinson

Author Ed Watkinson

My passion is improving the quality of social care for people that use services, and I want to share my vision of how you can do this alongside achieving the best CQC rating possible.

More posts by Ed Watkinson