Unconscious to Conscious: The Learning Cycle

There is a great model first developed by Noel Burch which is called The Learning Cycle. This model describes four states which we move through as we learn.

The Learning Cycle - and how to adapt your management style to it
The Learning Cycle – how to adapt your management style to the states that your team will move through

Being aware of this model is important as a manager; if you’re expecting your team to learn something new then expect them to move through these states. Your management style may need to adapt depending on which state your team member is in.

I will talk through each section of the model using learning to drive a car as the example.

Unconscious Incompetence

When a child observes his/her parents driving a car, the skill seems easy. You move a steering wheel and gear stick around – how hard can that be? The child is unaware that driving a car is a very complex task that will take many months to master.

As a manager you will encounter this state whenever you have a new member of your team. They will observe their new responsibilities from a this-must-be-easy angle, and may attempt to over-simplify. Your management style should be hands on, getting involved in the process and reviewing stuff at a granular level. You also need to make sure your team member knows what your expectations are – which will help when they first attempt the task.

Conscious Incompetence

Conscious incompetence arrives when you first try to perform the activity. You are sitting in front of a steering wheel with no idea how to make the car move forward. You are still incompetent, it’s just that now you know it.

As a manager this state will present itself when your new team member is attempting the tricky activity for the first time. They will have under-estimated the requirements and may well miss targets or deadlines. Your management style should be supportive, helping them to understand what went wrong and what they could do better next time. You need to help your team member believe that they can master the skill, and that failure is part of learning. Failing is never a problem as long as you learn from it.

“Just because you fail once doesn’t mean you’re gonna fail at everything.” Marilyn Monroe

Conscious Competence

Once you have mastered the task you enter the conscious competence state. Do you remember your driving test? You are hyper-aware of every aspect of driving and every action you take is conscious. You are now competent, but you are working really hard to be so. This state is tiring.

As a manager you need to use an encouraging management style, reinforcing their performance with positive feedback. As they are hyper-aware of the task, they are also hyper-aware (and perhaps hyper-sensitive) of what you think. A little acknowledgment and feedback goes a long way in this state.

Unconscious Competence

Once you have been doing a task for a while it will become unconscious. Think how you drive a car now. Do you actively think through each action as you do it? No, your hands and feet do their work almost automatically.

As a manager you will find it rewarding when your team members enter this state. For me, it’s one of the features of a high performing team. However great leaders don’t just stop here and put their feet up. Their management style will be challenging, or even demanding. By further pushing/encouraging your team members to improve performance on the task you will start to embed a continuous improvement culture, which will make your team (and you) stand out from the crowd.

Not all learning cycles are the same length; it might be that you only spend hours or minutes moving between each state…


The Learning Cycle is a great tool to help you understand what steps your team are going to move through when learning new things. The key success factor of great managers is the ability to adjust and adapt your management style to the situation; you need to be flexible as you manage your team to their next great success.