When was the last time you stopped to think about why you do things the way you do them? Have you thought about how confidence or pride can sometimes hold back your greater potential?

Questions like these are key to how good professionals become great.

How do we learn?

One way to describe the learning process and how we eventually become good at any given skill are the four stages of competence. The exact origin of the learning model is unknown but it is credited to have become widely used thanks to Noel Burch all the way back in the 1970's. The four stages are:

1. Unconscious incompetence (Ignorance): One does not understand or know yet how to do something. The person doesn't even recognize his deficiency or may completely deny the usefulness of a skill. An individual needs to first recognize his incompetence before moving to the next stage. Time spent in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

2. Conscious incompetence (Awareness): The individual cannot yet understand or be able to do something, but he at least recognizes the deficit and the value of a skill. Making mistakes is an important part in this stage of learning.

3. Conscious competence (Learning): One understands and knows how to do something. The usage of the skill requires intense concentration. The skill or knowledge may be broken into parts but there is heavy conscious effort involved in executing it.

4. Unconscious competence (Mastery): The individual has used and practiced the skill so much that it has become a "second nature" and can be performed with low relative effort. As a result, the skill can be performed even while executing other tasks in parallel. The person could be able to teach it to others depending on how and when it was learned.

The four stages of competence model. Image by gwsmedia.com

When you master a skill there is however an often underestimated danger of falling back to the first stage without realizing or accepting it. The truly great professionals understand that the first stage is always dangerously near while the second stage is what they seek to keep revisiting.

Complacency and the dangers of mastery

The dark side of mastering a skill is that we assume being a master in it while becoming blind to our own deficiencies. The deficiencies may form over time as we relax our conscious efforts and the skill domain keeps changing. For example, in terms of sales professional's sphere of work the changing problem domain can be the buyer trends or preferences.

One reason to think you are a master in a skill without noticing your deficiency is because of your own complacency. Complacency is defined as an uncritical satisfaction to oneself. Being complacent and falling back into the first stage of the learning model can happen without you ever noticing it.

Suddenly realizing your own incompetence due to an externally triggered event is not the worst thing that can happen, while never realizing it in the first place for sure is. Best professionals maintain an open mind towards constant improvement and are able to leave behind their ego and pride while remaining curious towards learning.

When you master a skill, over time there is a risk that your ego will grow and you'll begin to become afraid or vulnerable towards critique or feedback. Typical blocking reasons for a sales professional to not "sharpen his set of tools" are overconfidence, pride and complacency. Additional reasons can be the fright and shying away from asking, or even just being plain lazy.

How to find your weaknesses and improve in sales?

Working in sales, one of the best possible coaching opportunities is always readily available. This opportunity are your own team and colleagues. In a good sales team open feedback culture is highly valued and the importance of it is highlighted. In a team with a truly open and constructive feedback culture opportunities for constant improvement are available in abundance and it is fully up to you to take advantage of it.

As a sales team member you should stand to lose nothing from doing "shadowing", or conducting role plays with your colleagues. In fact, you should purposefully schedule occasions and ask your colleagues to join you on a call or a meeting to give you feedback for improvement. Alternatively, you can set aside some time and play out together some customer situations in a role play format. Both of these can be immensely valuable especially after longer periods on the job when you are flying high on the fourth stage of "unconscious competence".

Best sales professionals avoid complacency and leave their comfort zones to become better and acknowledge that there may be pockets of unconscious incompetence that they are not yet aware of. This is how good professionals become better and keep sharpening their toolsets.

What do you think, could you schedule a couple of shadowing or role playing sessions next week? Do it and I'm sure you won't regret it, you'll be a better professional for it.