How to Deal with Your Unconscious Incompetence

Author and leadership consultant Dr. Sam Chand observes in his book, Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code:

“People have an almost limitless capacity for self-deception. We don’t know what we don’t know and are therefore unconsciously incompetent. If we were aware of our deficits, we’d ask questions and find solutions, but because we’re not aware, we stay stuck in the status quo until something shakes us awake” (p. 41).

There’s an element of not knowing what we don’t know that sounds crippling, almost even hopeless. If you don’t know that you don’t know something, where do you even start? There’s obviously not a fool-proof answer to this question. In fact, the answer to your “how do I know what I don’t know” question isn’t what you don’t know. Confused?

There are thousands of “I don’t know what I don’t know’s” out there that I will never know. And I can’t frantically search for the answers I don’t even know that I need. Instead, the only way to deal with our unconscious incompetence is to cultivate a set of ingredients that make it easier, and more likely, to discover what I don’t know. What are those ingredients? I suggest five:

1. The Attitude of Humility

First, we need an attitude of humility to dwell deeply in our hearts and minds. Without humility, we’re a thousand miles away from admitting we don’t know what we don’t know. Pride is the achilles heel of leadership, but humility is what makes us teachable in the first place. Author Steve Moore observes, “In a chemical laboratory, two elements may be mixed together with no resulting change. A catalyst is needed to trigger a reaction. Humility is a catalyst for learning because it produces teachability. It is impossible to learn without being teachable.”

2. The Discipline of Communicating with God

The Bible clearly asserts that the sheep (followers of Christ) know His (Christ’s) voice. Scripture further teaches us that the Holy Spirit is our teacher, counselor, and guide. He knows what we don’t know…and I’m convinced He’s willing to tell us if we cultivate a listening ear. The discipline of communicating with God is much more than a spiritual practice. It’s a life-shaping practice that bears fruit in every area of our lives.

3. The Practice of Unanswered Question-Asking

Whether it’s addressing issues, casting vision, encouraging staff, or simply building camaraderie with the team, leader’s tend to talk much more than they listen. But talking never draws you closer to what you do not know. It only reveals your past experience and your present knowledge. Great leaders are those who regularly ask questions for which they do not already have pre-conceived answers. They don’t ask questions just to make the team feel like their opinions count, knowing all along they plan to do what they’ve already dreamed up in their own head. Instead, they ask questions because they honestly don’t know the answers. In other words, they practice unanswered question-asking.

Great leaders regularly ask questions for which they do not already have pre-conceived answers. Click To Tweet

4. The Assumption of Incomplete Assumptions

All of us live with a set of assumptions that shape how we view the world. The problem is that most of us believe our assumptions are right…otherwise we would would change them, right? A good assumption to add to the mix is that your assumptions are incomplete. This raises your cautionary antenna to the fact that our assumptions are usually filled with gaps where much of what we need to know is hidden. When you assume that your assumptions are incomplete, you are more likely to challenge your assumptions before creating new strategies.

5. The Association of Wise Leaders

Finally, leaders who uncover their unconscious incompetence have learned to associate regularly with a broad spectrum of wise leaders. They surround themselves with people who think differently than they do. And, they spend more time learning how leaders think rather than what they do. These connections and conversations help leaders become aware of what they’ve never considered. In fact, that’s a good formula to remember: Wise Connections + Strategic Conversations = New Considerations.

Wise Connections + Strategic Conversations = New Considerations. Click To Tweet

Question: Which of the five suggestions above would be most helpful to you?