Beware the risks of being Unconsciously Incompetent

Dec 7, 2021 | Key Business skills, Professional Negligence, Sole practitioners

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and a lot of knowledge is empowering. The problem is the gap between the two can be quite large!  This is something it took me years to learn when I was in practice.

Let’s consider a simple example. What do you know about the tax rules that govern the deductibility of entertaining costs? This is probably something you know quite well and so you don’t have cause to think about the details very often.  Don’t worry, by the way, we’re not about to examine the tax rules in detail. Perish the thought!

This is simply an example so that I can ask the question: Where are you on the learning ladder as regards this topic?

You know what you know – obviously. But are there some exceptions that you haven’t had cause to consider? Do you know enough to know what you don’t know?

The longer I continued my career as a tax adviser the more I realised I didn’t know. I often envied those general practitioners who were unaware of the limits of their knowledge. They didn’t know all the details, restrictions or limits of the tax reliefs they claimed for clients. They were happy to assume all was well when HMRC didn’t question things.  Most of the time all was fine. But every now and again, the limits of their knowledge and experience would become apparent.

Whether we’re talking about a specific tax rule or any other aspect of your work, the question is whether you are
Dangerous due to being Unconsciously incompetent – where you don’t know what you don’t know? or
Wise as you are Consciously incompetent – where you are aware of what you don’t know?

There are also two other levels which are more relevant to the day to day work you do and the advice you give to clients:

Consciously competent – where you know stuff but you have to think about it. A little like a novice driver of a car.
Unconsciously competent – where you can do stuff without having to think about it. It just comes naturally.  This includes having a good feel for when to seek a second opinion or when to get someone more specialist involved in a case.

The same four levels are relevant as regards many of the key business skills we need to be successful in our business lives.

We start by not knowing what we don’t know. We are unconsciously incompetent. This doesn’t matter generally as long as we don’t try to advise clients or to attempt risky adventures whilst in this state.

Then we start to realise there’s stuff we don’t yet know – so we become conscious of our incompetence or lack of knowledge. This is one of the reasons why accountants are typically so diligent about keeping their technical knowledge up to date. When you attend a course or an update, even when you don’t learn anything new your confidence increases that you are more competent than you might have hoped.

There are some exceptions to this common sense principle but for the most part it’s true.

In the early years of this century(!) I was headhunted to be the first tax partner for a long established firm of about ten general practitioners. I didn’t pursue the opportunity for one very simple reason.

I suspected that the partners in the firm were, to some extent, unconsciously incompetent as regards the tax advice they gave clients. In other words, they didn’t know what they didn’t know.

I felt that if I became their new partner I wouldn’t be able to overlook this. It probably didn’t help that in recent years I had been in involved in expert witness work related to professional negligence. And I lectured on the topic too.

I explained my thinking to the partner leading the search and suggested that anyone good enough to warrant bringing in as a partner would share my concerns – even though they were pure speculation. I had spoken with enough general practitioners over the years to know how common was the problem.

Equally I, as an experienced tax specialist, knew what I didn’t know. I considered myself to be consciously incompetent as regards tax issues outside of my experience. And I anticipated that the partners would be unimpressed if I (as their new in-house tax partner) wanted to get second opinions from more specialist tax experts.

At the time there was still an expectation in some quarters that a tax partner could/should know everything about tax. That assumption is even less reasonable now than it was all those years ago.

This is one reason why so many general practice accountants have relationships with tax specialists. Ands it is also why so many use the Tax Advice Network ( to find such specialists.

The challenge we all have is that we don’t know that we don’t know.

Obviously this blog post alone won’t motivate you to do anything differently. Chances are you will only take action when you feel frustrated and uncomfortable with being ‘incompetent’ as regards any of the key business skills you need to be more successful in your practice and career.

Once you start taking the first steps you can expect to quickly become Consciously Competent as you begin learning and practicing each new skill.

When I work with accountants here I aim to help reduce any discomfort and awkwardness. Trying and practicing new skills often requires a lot of concentration and effort. In time though if you push through the discomfort and continue mindfully practicing, you will complete the learning ladder and arrive at the state of Unconscious Competence. It means you can confidently operate on auto-pilot as performing the new skill takes little conscious effort.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Increased knowledge can be worrying and a lot of knowledge is empowering.

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