How Small Challenges and Mistakes at Work Keep us Competent

Maintaining Awareness Through the Stages of Competence. Although many of us dread making mistakes or being challenged in work and life, could these moments be the ones which keep us competent?

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 Many years ago, I was made aware of Maslow’s stages of competence; how, as we learn, we progress through stages of Incompetence beginning with being unconscious that we are incompetent, progressing to being, in Maslow’s terms, Unconsciously Competent – so competent that we don’t even need to think about the tasks we perform.

What has always interested me, though, is just how close Unconsciously Competent is to Unconsciously Incompetent. It is my feeling that we need to remind ourselves of our competence, and there is no better way than through small challenges which test our skills and knowledge. Although we would ideally like to sail through life and work with no problems, (and of course major life events and challenges can induce huge stress and pressure) on reflection, once we have traversed these issues we may see that those challenges also provided us with huge opportunities for learning and growth.

I have three quite different examples from my own working practice which illustrated this to me over my years as a practitioner

1. Chaos in a session As a young woman I ran drama based workshops in a Pupil Referral Unit (for children excluded from Mainstream education). I thought it would be great fun early on in the programme to have a laugh with some very complicated Tongue Twisters. Quite quickly the session descended into chaos with terrible behaviour from participants. Later I discovered that many of them had trouble reading, and my introduction had brought great shame and discomfort to them and they preferred to misbehave than to be exposed in front of the group. Huge lesson as a young practitioner. Outcome 1: I learned to always ask who is comfortable to read and 2: became a more sensitive and aware (conscious), and better practitioner.


2. Refusal to participate My workshops using imagination and play can sometimes be, initially quite confronting for people as they don’t know what is coming and it is rare as an adult to feel out of control. Mostly this is easily and quickly dispelled as participants are soon so involved in the session that they quickly forget any misgivings they had at the outset. I had a participant who was required by work to attend but was quite horrified by the prospect of having to “play” in front of his colleagues and removed himself to stare at his phone. When the others were engaged in an activity, I went and spoke to him quietly and, listened to his concerns, and then gently encouraged him back into the group. To his credit, he then participated fully in the rest of the session and even had a good time. Outcome/perception: It is my experience and competence which enables me to run the group and support a reluctant participant, yet it is the challenge which enables me to continue to hone my competence and remain a practitioner of quality.

3. Out of my Comfort Zone – mistakes can improve our competence! I recently was approached to run a session which I was keen to accept as it was via a recommendation. I was distracted by life’s general events and massively undercharged for the event and also was stricken by the thought of a 2 hour drive on a busy motorway as I have always told myself motorway driving is “not my thing” I am not confident at it. I addressed the first issue quickly. Don’t agree to pricing when distracted!  If the customer is happy they will have us back for repeat business so that is a lesson learned. The motorway drive was another illumination. I can drive, I can read signs and listen to instructions on SAT NAV.  In short, I was inhabiting an irrelevant story about my driving incompetence which is not true and thus through challenging it was able to be aware of my competence. I feel we should maintain an honest dialogue with ourselves, particularly through the moments when we feel we have made a mistake. Far from causing shame, these might be the best opportunities to make us the best, most competent version of our working selves.


Jessica Shaw

Director PACT Creative training, PACT Creative Training

Jess is the founder of PACT Creative Training (Play, Act, Create, Transform). She has 20 years' experience facilitating workshops using fun and playfulness in order to boost wellbeing and lower stress. Jess runs creative team building events for companies, Staff INSET Training in Schools and wellbeing-through-play workshops for children & young people in schools.