I have setup, successfully run and successfully sold businesses for the best part of too long to remember.  Now as a consultant working with leadership teams I encourage managers to be aware of the four levels of competence:

Unconsciously Incompetent– because you are totally unaware that you need to improve

Consciously Incompetent– so you are aware that you need to improve

Consciously competent– when you have made improvements and benefit from the change ….. and

Unconsciously competent– a state of nirvana when everything works seamlessly and without effort

The only trouble with this level is that it is very close to unconscious incompetence, because both share levels of unconsciousness.

The moral of this tale is that it reminds me that at all times I need to be: ‘conscious’ not to miss opportunities; conscious of the need to find new and retain existing customers (and ‘conscious’ that they are demanding more and demanding it cheaper; ‘conscious’ that the market place changes rapidly and I need to move in ‘real time’; and ‘conscious’ about learning and exploiting new technologies.

To help me remain as conscious as I can, I rely on the people I work with and therefore, I am ‘conscious’ about the need to develop their potential so I can grow the business and secure long term business performance. So, as a consequence I congratulate myself that I am pretty good at being ‘consciously competent’…..or am I?

A recent article in the Guardian featured some research led by Jo Handelsman at Yale University which was trying to explain why roughly 50% of women at junior levels translates into less than 15% at the top.

Their analysis of candidate ranking based on application forms from an even number of women and men, similarly qualified and experienced showed that, consistently, the women were ranked less competent than the men and were offered a lower starting salary. Strangely, the research found the women more ‘likeable’ …… so that’s alright then!

This bias was across the organisation i.e. it was not a hierarchical bias but it was an ‘unconscious’ bias from everyone, at all levels  – men and women. Now, other research tells us that you need a good minority of women (at least 3, they say) represented on boards to prevent the women from acting ‘unconsciously’ as surrogate men….. but the Yale research seems to show  that we have an ‘unconscious’ bias to acting like surrogate men anyway.

Add this to the fact that in business we have an ‘unconscious bias’ towards the traditional business model which, born out of the needs of the industrial revolution, remunerates people for the amount of time they spend at work rather than what they achieve and you have a recipe for ‘unconscious’ exclusion. This mostly affects women, who often have other demands on the time when their employer says they must be at work.

Continuing to run businesses using a century old blueprint and century old recruitment and selection processes will continue to make all this ‘unconscious’ bias inevitable and women will continue to be disadvantaged.

What’s needed are new processes that help to expose our ‘unconscious’ bias when we select people for promotion and a new flexible business model that creates a positive environment in which everyone can thrive.

Accessing the skills and potential of everyone would be good for business, and help to make businesses less wasteful of their human capital. It would also help to promote women at work and, literally, change the face of business – how consciously competent is that!

Lorina Pilgrim is CEO of PCCL and has worked with Investors in People

New Business Model, Maximising Human Potential Where all Thrive
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