Unconscious Competence: The Language of Leaders

The Hyatt Place Des Moines Downtown has made First Hospitality Group history with three consecutive Super Bowl wins! When I asked General Manager, Jared Heglin, of the award-winning, history-making Hyatt Place team, what he has done to help create this kind of success he needed time to step back and think about it. This prompted me to reach out to some of our other seasoned leaders with the same question. Everyone has their own methods, but what was consistent with each person was the long pause that precursed their response.

Unconscious competence is the idea that the skills and strategies key to strong leadership become second nature to those performing them over time, being executed with little to no consideration. It’s such an integral part of those leaders that they don’t even stop to think about it. Though they may have been unaware of it, this is the reason behind Jared and the other General Managers’ need for pause. Before they could get to the level where tasks start to be performed with competence on an unconscious level, they had to overcome three obstacles.

The first obstacle is to pinpoint and acknowledge that which we do not know. As smart as any one person can be, you can’t know everything. It is your responsibility to identify growth points, as well as strengths. Once you have done that, you determine if there is value to be seen in learning this new skill or behavior. If you don’t take the time to invest in your arsenal of knowledge and strategy, you are living in a state called “unconscious incompetence;” a blissful state of ignorance, wherein you don’t know what you don’t know and you don’t know that you don’t know it.

The second obstacle is the most difficult and, consequently, where the most people give up – asking for support. Taking the initiative to learn means that you have to ask for help and make yourself vulnerable. It’s scary and can involve judgment, but you have to remember that your harshest critic will always be yourself. What happens when you ask for help? My experience is that most tend to forget that the reason individuals are in this business is to help people. I know that I get a tremendous sense of satisfaction in seeing our team leaders grow and my sense is that you as leaders take that same pride in seeing your associates develop. Remember that, as eager as you are to assist in the growth of others, others are equally eager to invest in your growth. If you feel discouraged, the thing that you have to remember to tell yourself is “I do not know this skill…yet.”

The third and final obstacle in learning how to be unconsciously competent is to first be consciously competent. Let’s be real: you have to learn to walk before you can run. When you finally understand how to perform these new skills, you demonstrate those new skills with a heavy focus on the steps it takes to execute that discipline. This is a good place to be; eventually, what you do consciously will lead to second nature execution over time.

Unconscious competence is experimental and experience based. Mistakes are to be expected; they are an integral part of learning. It takes trial and error, in addition to having the strength to be in error without getting overwhelmed in judgment of self. Just keep in mind that the more tolerance you have for yourself, the more tolerance you will have with others. Unconscious competence is the language of leaders. It is well understood by those who speak it but, like any other language, it is something that needs to be learned. Be curious, be eager, be conscious – the rest will follow in time.

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