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How to Use the 4 Stages of Competence to Onboard Community Members

You may have seen the 4 stages of competence before, but have you ever considered how they might inform your onboarding experience for your community members?

If you’ve never heard of the four stages of competence, then follow me as I lead you into conscious competence. Tee hee :)

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

This is where you don’t know what you don’t know. You never heard of the four stages of competence before and this is your first time hearing about them. You can’t consciously know about something you never heard and you certainly can’t be competent in it. While people tend to be the most intimidated by stage 2, stage 1 is actually to be the scariest place to be because you are flying completely blind. You are often stuck here until something crosses your path that reveals your unconscious incompetence. The primary job at this point is to pay attention.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

Now you realize the vastness of what you do not know. You are consciously aware of your lack of competence in an area of knowledge, skill, or expertise. This part feels the most scary because you immediately feel behind, vulnerable, and aware of your prior ignorance. It can also be an incredibly empowering stage if you have a treasure chest of resources or even a guide like Gandalf to help you become competent. Regardless, to get to the next stage, you must commit time and effort to gaining the necessary competence.

Stage 3: Conscious Competence

With effort, you are now beginning to master the skills, knowledge or expertise. You are competent in the thing at hand. But the process is a little clunky and manual. Think about the first time you drove a car and how you had to consciously lay out every step to make a left hand turn. Conscious incompetence requires practice and patience.

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

Over time, the conscious effort to master the task at hand becomes less and less and your brain goes more and more on autopilot. You don’t consciously think about having to make a left hand turn while driving at all anymore. It’s an incredible feeling to apply less calories of effort to something and get equal if not better results. This stage is enriched by reflecting back on where you were at stage 1 and seeing how far you’ve come.

How the stages impact your member’s onboarding journey.

When your members join your community, they are beginning something new. Even if they are experts in your space, they have never joined this community with these people in this way before. There is some level of unconscious incompetence that is drawing them to join your community. Don’t be afraid to tell them explicitly what they don’t know yet or the skills they will gain because this is a huge motivator for them to come back and find value in the community.

This could look something like: “You are going to encounter new ideas, inspiration, and a treasure trove of helpful tools you never knew you had available. Stick with us, trust the process, and start with ____.”

In stage two, they will feel overwhelmed about what they don’t know. This is your chance to empathize with how they are feeling AND call on your authority to lead them from overwhelm to empowerment. This is where you introduce the plan for how they will progress through the community and it should live somewhere in the onboarding sequence.

In stage three, they are starting to get the hang of it and what’s important here is ritual and repetition. Structure your community with rituals they can count on and consistently practice with while infusing it with something special every now and then to keep it fresh. That could mean a set rhythm for posts in the announcements “Mindful Monday, Winning Wednesdays, and Finally Fridays” with an occasional special cameo post from an expert in the industry.

Pro tip: the more your rituals guide members in a habit formation pattern of prompt, action, reward, the more quickly they will reach unconscious competence. 🤯

Finally, we arrive at stage four where your community members are contributing and engaging not because of your prompts and encouragement and structure, but simply out of habit.

Where to Start

I put together a template you can use to map and better understand your member's needs at each stage in their journey through competence. Get it when you join the monthly newsletter below!

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