The danger of the unconsciously incompetent

“Do we really need to include those articles in the in-house magazine?” enquired the change coordinator.

“Yes, we do” I replied. “The first article is to create awareness around why the change is important, the second is get people involved thinking about the change when they are likely to be first impacted” I explained. “The third is meant to appear at about the time the change program should be complete and link what people have gained from the change at work to their personal life”.

“Well, why do we need to have the team briefs and the mention in the weekly corporate email and the posters and brochures as well as the intranet pages if we are writing the articles? Surely this is information overload for people? I know I’d be feeling upset if all of this communication was directed at me” the change management coordinator huffed.

Cue exasperation rising as I patiently responded, “Very few people, if any at all, will see all pieces of information. This organisation is 6500 people strong. It is made up of people with very different thinking styles and communication preferences. We have to cater for everyone and send reinforcing messages if we have a hope at all in having them see and remember our messages. We have to tell them what the change is, what it means to them and the organisation and what they need to do to participate in the change. We have to help them become engaged in the change and have a channel to give feedback. We are trying to change behaviour with this programme and our communications strategy must reflect that. We are not simply passing on a single message to inform people and request a simple action.”

The exasperation arose not because of the individual, but because this was the third change management coordinator appointed by the organisation I was dealing with that needed education in the very basics of using communications to affect changes in behaviour.

Some twelve months prior to this, we had to counter a belief that the desire to change habits could be affected, in part, by putting a message on mouse mats and distributing them to 4000 users. The rest of the offering was to create a situation where people who displayed changed behaviours would have a green balloon placed by their workstation and those clearly not displaying the preferred behaviours would get a red balloon and those neither here nor there would get an orange balloon.

The mechanics and criteria of measuring changed behaviours was not offered, the usability of a mouse mat with no trackball was not considered, the cluttering of desks with additional paraphernalia with no actual use and the reaction of people to a public reprimand in the shape of a red balloon were not thought through.

It was clear that this organisation needed help in designing and developing a change management goal, strategy and tactics to affect the change. The project manager who hired us was also clear on the need. The section of the organisation from which the project was sponsored, however, was not only not clear on the need; they were also unconsciously incompetent about creating an environment in which individuals will change their behaviour and business units will adopt the changed behaviours as part of their culture.

Managing the unconsciously incompetent

Working with unconsciously incompetent managers is difficult, but manageable. It requires some specific skills, behaviour and knowledge, in addition to patience. When managing change in your organisation (particularly when you are doing so from middle rather than senior management) and faced with the unconsciously incompetent, you will need to master them.

Facilitative Questioning

A key skill in dealing with the unconsciously incompetent is facilitative questioning. The design of facilitative questions causes the person questioned to come to conclusions, after we lead them through particular thoughts. We should use specific types of facilitative questions to elicit a result dependent on the circumstance.

For example, imagine a change which requires people to move from services provided through a decentralised model, to a shared services model. Imagine you are speaking with an executive who believes that the change is “just something people will get used to” and that at the end of the day, they just need to be told what to do. Facilitative questions for the executive might include:


  • Where are you right now with your ability to move to the shared services model?


  • Where do you want to be in a year’s time/ in three years’ time?
  • What would you like to hear employees talking about with regard to shared services?


  • What are the strengths that you could build on in the next few months?
  • What barriers/ blockages do you face?
  • What strategies have you considered to overcome the barriers/challenges?


  • What do all staff need to know to be able to implement your shared services vision?
  • Which groups of people will need to know specific information?
  • How will they get this knowledge/information?
  • How can we make sure that they actually have this knowledge?


  • What will your managers need to do, to create the shared services model in your vision?
  • What will staff need to do, to use the shared services model in your vision?
  • How will they get this skill?
  • How can we make sure that they actually have this skill?


  • What behaviours do you need people to exhibit to make the shared services model successful?
  • What change in behaviours does this represent?
  • What successes has the organisation had in the past in achieving changes in behaviour of this magnitude?
  • What failures?
  • What has been the major difference between success and failure?
  • How can we make sure that a critical mass of staff change their behaviour?
  • What is the role of the executive in leading their departments to achieve your shared services vision?


  • What will all staff need to believe for your vision to be realised?
  • What will specific staff need to believe for your vision to be realised?
  • How can we make sure that a critical mass of staff have this belief?

Policies and procedures

  • What policies and procedures do you have in place which will help move the organisation towards your shared service vision?
  • Which policies may need renewing?
  • What new procedures might be needed?

Risk management

  • What risk factors could jeopardise the successful implementation of shared services?
  • How might you manage each of these risks?


  • How will you know if shared services model is making a difference?
  • What can be measured?
  • What data could you gather pre-implementation?
  • What data could you gather post-implementation?

Asking some, or all, of these questions will slowly lead your unconsciously incompetent executive into a degree of conscious incompetence. Transitioning from their answer to further narrow open questions (or in some cases closed questions) may move them into a degree of conscious competence at the knowledge level.

Using the situation above, further questions in response to an answer might include:


Q: What would you like to hear employees talking about with regard to shared services?

A: I’d like them to be saying how easy it is to access the services and how professionally they are supplied.

Q: What is required to make them easy to access?

Q: What does professional mean and in whose opinion?


Q: What will all staff need to believe for your vision to be realised?

A: I don’t follow with this ‘belief’ stuff. All they will need to believe is that they have to make the change, they have no choice.

Q: What you are describing is a ‘command and control’ culture. Is that the current culture of the organisation? Do you want that to be the culture of the organisation?

Developing an ability to facilitate another person’s thinking will stand you in very good stead in dealing with those unconsciously incompetent in change management.


Going hand-in-hand with the skill of facilitative questioning is the ability to persevere.

Being clear about your goal is an important adjunct to perseverance. It may well be advisable to ask yourself some facilitative questions in a moment of self-reflection to be sure you know what your goal is.

As a consultant, my initial goal with a client is to meet their agreed needs. It is tempting when faced with ongoing unconscious incompetence to move to a goal which is to leave the client to their own devices, upsetting as few people as possible along the way. However, in our business that would not only damage our brand, it would send the wrong signal about acceptable consulting behaviour to our staff. So we have wider goals when we engage a client, which override the temptation to not persevere.

As the change manager within an organisation, we need to understand the organisation’s goal and our personal goal. We need to keep both in mind as we engage people who do not value what we do and potentially disagree with what we know needs to be done.

We are responsible and accountable at a personal level to be able to find a way to enlighten, then convince, the unconscious incompetents. It is our responsibility to persevere.

Facilitative questioning in the face of disagreement is a good skill to have to help us persevere. However, there is an attitude required which underpins the skill. We need to want to understand what makes the other person tick. We need to want be able to intellectually identify with people. That is not to say that we have to agree with them or mirror their feelings.

I once had a client representative that was narcissistic. In no way could I emotionally identify with them. But once I had intellectually identified with them, working with them became much easier. The style of facilitative questions to ask became more natural. The relationship became easy to manage. Similarly, I once had a boss that I originally thought wanted others to make him look good. However, I was wrong in my initial analysis. What he wanted was to ensure that he never looked bad in front of those he thought were his superiors. Once that understanding kicked in, managing him became easier too.

Knowing what makes people tick helps us find new ways to persevere when we are clear on our personal and organisation goals.

Subject matter expertise

In addition to facilitative questioning skills and a positive disposition towards understanding what makes others tick, we still need the core knowledge of our topic. This is clearly the topic of change management in our case. Knowledge of change management, however, is much more than just understanding popular models of change such as Kotter’s eight step model or Prosci’s ADKAR model. It means being able to do (or at least be able to comprehend and knowledgeably discuss) tasks including but not limited to:

  • Brochure design
  • Business process mapping and analysis
  • Business process re-engineering
  • Change management strategy
  • Communication strategy design
  • Communication planning development
  • Competency framework design
  • Cultural analysis
  • Instructional design
    • eLearning
    • Instructor-led (experiential)
    • Self-paced
    • Coaching guides
    • Virtual learning tools
  • Key performance indicator design
  • Performance management system design
  • Poster design
  • Procedure writing
  • Rewards and recognition design
  • Risk identification, analysis, evaluation and treatment
  • Stakeholder management
  • Standards of operation design
  • Survey design and analysis
  • Training needs analysis
  • Training model design
  • Training and workshop facilitation
  • Video design and development
  • Web page design.


Working with the unconsciously incompetent in managing change is frustrating. However, it is our responsibility to use our conscious competence to move them to at least conscious incompetence. The question for us as change managers is: how competent are we?