Change and the Competence Curve

Change and the Competence Curve

Aug 01, 2022

From: Julie Hay

Few of us nowadays can remain totally unaffected by change. We may enjoy the challenge or dread the results; we may welcome change or have it forced upon us; we are not likely to feel neutral about it. Most of us, therefore, would find it helpful to understand the processes of change and transition. As individuals, this knowledge can be reassuring as we experience normal but worrying reactions to change. As managers, it will enable us to plan change in ways that cause least stress to those affected.

It can take up to four years before we adjust fully to a significant transition, even one as apparently routine as a job change. An average time for someone to feel in command of a new job is around two years. The pace of change can easily overtake us, so that we move on again without ever reaching full competence. Given time, we will eventually emerge from the change process whether or not we have been lucky with the responses of other people.

We will go through some identifiable phases. Knowledge of these phases can in itself be helpful, as it reassures us that we are behaving as most other human beings would.

During the first phase we may well seem to be immobilised for a while. In imposed changes particularly, this could even be labelled shock. We need time to absorb the change and to compare our expectations to the new reality. This phase corresponds with Stage 1 and our need to simply exist.

We will appear to be marking time, doing nothing – maybe even not coping. There are several explanations for this:

  • we lack information about the new situation
  • we are afraid of doing it wrong and appearing stupid
  • our fear of the unknown shows up as paralysis
  • we may lack the motivation to make the change work.

Even with a change that we chose and planned, a psychologically healthy person needs a short period for simply experiencing being in a new situation – before they are expected to take action.

The second phase is one of denial. We act as if our behaviour patterns from the past will still be appropriate. Again, even if we have chosen the transition, we hope our existing skills and knowledge will still be useful. Some of them will, but severe problems due to denial can arise because:

  • we feel a threat to our level of competence and skill
  • we are reluctant to experiment
  • we are simply custom bound or in a rut
  • we fear failure, and rationalise that it worked okay for us in the past so it should work now

Paradoxically, we may actually appear to be performing better during this phase than in Phase 1. This is because we now start applying our skills and knowledge, and are therefore seen to be achieving things. Unfortunately, we will not be using behaviour that relates to the current job; this will gradually become evident. People will start to question our grasp of reality, or think we are being deliberately obtuse. We, on the other hand, are unaware of our denial and continue to behave in the way that was successful previously. Slowly, we allow our defence systems to weaken and start to notice the need for change. In Phase 3 we go through a period of frustration. We now recognise we need to behave differently but we don't know how. Our frustration arises because we feel incompetent during our efforts to apply new approaches. Indeed, others too may perceive us as incompetent as we struggle with new skills, new knowledge, new situations – and this means we become even more conscious of our shortcomings. In some cases, we turn our frustration against others, and seek to blame them for our position. Even when we chose the change, we can blame others for not helping us enough, not training us properly beforehand, even for not warning us against the problems we now face.

Feeding into our frustration will be:

  • potential overload due to our genuine need to learn new approaches
  • fear of losing status through decreased competence
  • loss of our power base or our network of contacts.

So we struggle to work out how we should be different, what new skills do we need, what qualities are required in the new situation.

At Phase 4 we move into acceptance. We let go of the attitudes and behaviours that were comfortable and useful in the past. We now have the answers from Phase 3 and can start the process of acquiring new patterns. We begin to test out new ways of doing things. There will still be occasional moments of frustration, such as when our new skills are not quite practised enough, or we identify yet another area where we lack knowledge. This phase represents our move, psychologically, into our personal learning cycle. We recognise the reality of our experience – that we are in a new situation and need a new set of behaviours. We review the situation and compare it with the past to identify differences. We analyse the differences and develop frameworks for understanding where we are now. And then we begin to actively experiment. During Phase 4 we may still appear incompetent to a degree. We are working out our identity in the changed situation, so although we have now accepted the change there will still be temporary problems as we try out new approaches.

All being well, we will move on to Phase 5: that of development. In this phase, we concentrate on developing the skills and knowledge required in the new situation. We become increasingly competent at operating in the changed environment. We make decisions about the most effective techniques and then become skilled at using them. Our knowledge increases so that others come to regard us as the appropriate expert in our field.

In Phase 6 we move on to application. Most importantly, we now consolidate our identity in our changed role. We develop our own views on how the job should be done, how we should relate to others, and how they should relate to us. We resolve in our own minds the questions about our status, our beliefs about the situation, and our view of the organisation. In particular, we work out how we fit in the new scheme of things.

Entering Phase 7 means we have completion. We now feel comfortable and competent once again - so much so that we are no longer conscious of having experienced a transition. We are really into the new situation and have ceased to compare it, favourably or unfavourably, to our position before the change.

The following is a brief summary of the developmental stages in childhood, followed by a description of how these relate to changes later in our lives. The cycles follow each other in the form of a spiral, which completes one turn by the time we are about 19 years old and which then continues throughout the rest of our life.

Stage 1 – Being: from when we are born until we are about six months old, we need to experience just being in the world. To do this, we need a situation where we feel secure and wanted and loved. This affirmation must be there for us without requiring us to behave in any particular ways; we lack the ability to act on parental wishes at this age. If the people around us cannot provide such an atmosphere, we will grow up needing to rework this stage. Until we do, we may have problems centred around our belief in our right to exist.

Stage 2 – Exploring : during the period from six to eighteen months, we want to be doing things. We start by exploring objects with our eyes, hands and mouths. We become increasingly mobile and want to move around. It is still important to us that our caregiver is around to go back to but we need the freedom to do it on our own. If we are thwarted in this stage, as adults we may be reluctant to enter new situations.

Stage 3 – Thinking: eighteen months to three years is our approximate time for developing our thinking ability. We start to reason things out for ourselves and to make our own decisions. We want to choose whether to wear a warm coat or to play in the rain. We object strongly if adults attempt to impose such choices on us. If we are not allowed to develop our thinking skills we will find it hard to form our own opinions in later life.

Stage 4 – Identity: from three years to six years we are working out our identity. Who do we intend to be? Whether we are male or female is significant here but we also consider what style to adopt. Will we be sensitive or tough, frivolous or serious? Do we plan to be the cop or the robber, a worker or a layabout, a leader or a follower? Without a clear sense of our identity, we may grow up unsure of our role in life, or with rigid views that limit our potential development.

Stage 5 – Skills: once past six years old, we are ready to spend the next six years acquiring the skills we need to get by in the world. We observe how adults behave and copy whatever fits with the identity we have adopted for ourselves. During this time, we also incorporate a whole range of opinions and values that will enable us to view the world in a structured way. Obviously, we will be limited as adults insofar as we fail to acquire significant skills or values.

Stage 6 – Integration: having reached about twelve years old, we seem to start again as if we were babies. However, this time we move at twice the pace. By the time we are eighteen, we will be finishing a repeat of our first twelve years. At the end of this time, we will have integrated the different aspects into a whole, rather like putting a skin around the facets of our personality. Failure to achieve this will leave us somehow fragmented, as if we have not yet finished growing up.

Stage 7 – Recycling: we now start the process of recycling through the stages. As we pass through each stage, we will seek to take care of any needs that we were unable to deal with before. Sometimes we notice evidence of these issues for ourselves or others. Perhaps we observe that someone generally lacks life skills, or does not appear to trust their own thinking. Maybe they seem immature, or are unwilling to start new tasks without direct supervision. Alternatively, we may come into contact with people who are over-compensating. They insist on solving problems alone, or have very rigid views about what helping strategies they are prepared to accept.

If we use the cycles of development as our model, then we can predict that any change will initiate its own spiral. What then would be the ideal process to follow?

First, we need time to get used to being in a new situation, even when it is one we have deliberately created by deciding to change our approach. We want reassurance, and not to be pressured into starting the change process too quickly.

Second, we want to explore at our own pace. We want others to be patient with us while we take time to describe and assess our situation. We may want to go off on our own to get more information, or to meet with others and find out what they would do.

Third, we now want to do our own thinking about the change. We need tolerant listeners so that we feel free to discuss our thoughts and opinions. We need models and frameworks so we can analyse what is going on for us. It will help if people ask us questions and listen to our ideas with interest.

Fourth, we move into creating our revised identity. We need to believe that we have an element of choice, and that others will be accepting of whatever we decide. At this stage we consider alternatives, so it will help if we have some knowledge of problem solving and decision making models.

Fifth, we are now ready to learn the skills required to effect the change. Coaching and training might be required once we have determined our action plan.

Sixth, we want to integrate the previous stages. We now start pulling together our prior efforts of exploration, decision making and learning. Gradually, we begin to feel that we are performing as we should. We may rework some of the earlier stages to cover parts we missed.

Seventh, we have completed our transition and are on our way with a changed approach. Soon we will hardly remember how we were before we made the changes.

Especially helpful is the notion that there are smaller spirals generated in response to significant events. There may even be smaller spirals within smaller spirals, rather like those sets of Russian dolls where you continue to find a smaller doll inside each one you open. If we are unlucky, we have changes occur in our lives whilst we are at a point on our major spiral that is not comfortable for us. We may even have a series of changes, each sparking off its own limited spiral on the back of another. Loss of job may lead to loss of friends, the next job may require relocation, this may take us away from family, and so on. The accumulation of spirals then adds to our stress.

Even those of us who are at a good stage in life, feeling confident and capable, can be jolted severely by an unexpected change. Pleasant changes will also stimulate new spirals. Marriage around the same time as promotion, a new baby in the family, an exciting new project to work on, passing an exam – even a break for a holiday can generate a small spiral. Add several together and we see why people get stressed through good news.

© Copyright Julie Hay, 1993