Photo Credits

Rafting Over Waterfall

A guided whitewater rafting trip on New Zealand’s Kaituna River.

Image © Dmitry Naumov

New Leaders and Confidence


A New Look at the Conscious Competence Model

Young Hiker

“I think we passed it,” she said quietly, hoping the clients wouldn’t hear.

“No, this looks right, we’ll be able to see the cliff after one of these rises,” her co-leader replied—a reply with enough conviction to convert any doubter.
“We should’ve seen the cliff by now……” she trailed off, her hands gripping the wheel, eyes fixed on the road ahead.

My dozing was interrupted when Matt and Jamie nudged me awake, asking for my input; they couldn’t figure out where we were. I attempted to contain my frustration while I helped them pinpoint our location on the atlas.

Later, I wondered how Matt was so certain, even though his directions and the road signs didn’t match, and the cliff never rose above the horizon. How did both trip leaders miss the signs (road and landscape), when they had been to the cliff many times before? Rather than feeling initially confused, why did they feel a high level of confidence until too late?

It turns out, this type of confidence has been well-studied and has an official name: the Dunning-Kruger Effect (DKE). The DKE explains an idea that seems contradictory: confidence that comes from incompetence.

For a beginner (or the unskilled) to know they are incompetent “...would require them to possess the very expertise they lack” writes David Dunning in the Pacific Standard—The Science of Society. You most likely already know this: you don’t know what you don’t know. Unfortunately for you, and those you work with, the result of the Dunning-Kruger Effect isn’t confusion but, according to Dunning, a feeling of high confidence.

This extra confidence occurs anytime someone is misinformed and doesn’t know it. Not surprisingly, “...where people’s knowledge ends and their ignorance begins occurs frequently sooner then one would expect,” Dunning writes in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology.

Young Leader

To help someone avoid becoming the victim of the DKE, Dunning suggests a variety of options.

  • Use the Socratic method to test what people know through questions.
  • Don’t repeat or share false information, and if you do, emphasize repeatedly it is false.
  • If a staff member holds an incorrect belief with certainty, you can gain their ear by first emphasizing their talents. Once the staff member knows you see their worth in one area, they will be more willing to accept input leading to a remodel in another.

As your staff progress in their development, they’ll tend to stay with a similarly skilled cohort. What they know is only in comparison to a like group. You can force them out of their cohort through several methods.

  • Mix more experienced staff with less experienced staff during trainings, or when appropriate, on actual trips.
  • Help them find group rides and club outings, and introduce them to the outdoor social scene so they can find the higher level talent to test themselves against.

But, to enhance their “human skills,” not just their technical skills, you need to do something different.

  • Be your staff’s devil’s advocate—ask how they know, or if there is another way.
  • Videotape their teaching and have them and others provide a critique; I use this method with frequent success to help staff realize a need for improvement.
  • Ask them to force themselves to see something from a different view.
  • Additionally, coach them to seek advice from friends and strangers.

If you or a staff member aren’t willing or can’t find another way to do something, or dismiss ideas outright, you’re both suffering from the DKE.

The DKE works well with the 40-year-old “stages of competence model,” aka the Conscious Competence Model. Taken together, you’re able to see explicit signs of incompetence (i.e. blind spots) even with gains in competence.

Now we'll look at a stage-by-stage breakdown of the Conscious Competence Model combined with the DKE, using the chart below for reference. It’ll help you identify your staff’s developmental stage with specific, real-world examples and signs of the DKE.

As you use the list to identify observable DKE behavior, keep in mind that different skill sets progress at different speeds. Avoid only evaluating staff during a client trip or training program; if you don’t use everyday communication and conversations to glean clues to a level of competence, you won’t have a full sense of your staff’s confidence and competence.

DKE Model

Below, you’ll find examples of common observable traits that appear in the four stages of Conscious Competence, along with how the DKE might manifest itself at each level.

Unconscious Incompetence

Common Traits & Signs

  1. Unwilling to teach anything new (i.e. how to put a harness on, strap boats to a car)
  2. Avoids using the rental software or belaying at the wall
  3. More than happy to sit back and watch
  4. Does things with great vigor and energy to make up for the discomfort she or he has of “being in an expert role”
  5. Looks and acts a bit nervous
  6. Forgets what is supposed to happen and relies heavily on checklists (if present)

With the DKE

  1. The scout who knows how to tie a bowline, but only thinks of using it in a rescue
  2. Overconfident that she can do it, because she doesn’t know better
  3. Puts a harness on, doubled back, without realizing the leg loops are twisted and upside down
  4. Slides into the water with the spray skirt grab loop tucked inside
  5. Knows all the gear names but confuses who makes them or misattributes names to the wrong gear

Flipped Raft

Conscious Incompetence

Common Traits & Signs

  1. Willing to teach knots or routine matters such as putting on harness/life jacket/helmet to a fellow staff member but no one else, and wants to teach one-on-one
  2. Requires repeated verification from older staff or a director that they did something right
  3. Starts watching a lot of skill-based Youtube videos
  4. Wants to teach a certain skill set regularly to get better at it
  5. Easily frustrated if the skill doesn’t come easily and prone to giving up, particularly if another skill (e.g. skiing vs snowboarding) comes easily
  6. Is able to teach a basic skill but needs to rely on a teaching outline or prompts from a coworker for teaching the next part of the sequence

With the DKE

  1. Has spent enough time watching Youtube videos to obtain a sense of mastery but hasn’t spent time practicing the skill
  2. Willing to listen to anyone who has years of experience and speaks confidently, even though the experience may only be three-four times a year over 10 years. Think “Club Boater” or “Top Roping Tough Guys”

As you move into competence, the DKE will continue its impact, but with an additional twist to confidence. Up to this point, you can have unsubstantiated or substantiated confidence, but now as staff mature, they can develop unsubstantiated inconfidence. Unsubstantiated inconfidence occurs when a staff member believes she isn’t capable because she realizes how much there is to learn. Using checklists and external measures can help her determine she has the right skills for the position.

Conscious Competence

Commons Traits & Signs

  1. When watching someone, is able to see most of what is right and wrong and determine a plan to address the issues
  2. When managing a group, he will generally see what is about to happen but needs time to think of how to handle the group
  3. Generally knows she has a particular skill set but still requires some concentration to explain or teach the skill set
  4. Can’t explain a skillset while demonstrating the skillset
  5. Makes a decent model for a technique if they’re just told to climb, ski, or paddle
  6. Prefers to teach one-on-one vs. one-on-several. As greater competency is reached, will move to teaching to one-on-several, but usually requires prompting from older staff to help transition to one-on-several

With the DKE

  1. Tries using related but different skillsets, thinking they're the same—building trad TR anchors vs. trad alpine anchors; skiing front country “expert only ski terrain” with side-country “expert only ski terrain”
  2. Overstates the importance of one topic at the expense of another—focuses on keeping the head down during a kayak roll at the expense of working on the snap; focuses mostly on ski angle during turns at the expense of also focusing on the body's alignment to the fall angle
  3. Runs a river at 1400-1800 cfs 15 times so states that 2500 cfs won’t be a big deal
  4. Takes a guidebook “stick figure” map for a hike in a small state park, thinking he can’t get lost but does
  5. Able to manage a larger group of participants as well as less developed staff but isn’t looking far ahead; tends to address issues as they arise

Teaching Knots

Unconscious Competence

Common Traits & Signs

  1. Can explain and model behavior at the same time and if asked to model a more complicated behavior, is able to do it slowly and without pausing to think about it
  2. Teaching beginners is frustrating because they don’t remember what being a beginner was like
  3. At the more experienced end of this stage, able to see much of what is right or wrong in one take (i.e. watching a kayak roll, turns in skiing, or a climber forgetting to keep the core tight)
  4. Able to manage a larger group of participants as well as less developed staff
  5. A leader that has been at this stage for a while will see how a group is performing and will easily have several options mentally available without much thought

With DKE

  1. Common among instructors who grew up doing a certain activity but never had to teach it—they can execute the skill but don’t understand how to explain all elements of their skill and so give superficial examples or move on to new skills before the student is ready
  2. Fails to keep current with new methodologies, with a “ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality
  3. When working for a new company or program, less than willing to do something the new way, since it may require relearning skills

Use the above lists as a guide to types of behavior seen but remember that different skill sets progress as different speeds. Someone might be consciously competent for leading a group but consciously incompetent for the technical skills involved. The DKE Conscious Competence Model indicates a black and white difference between stages, but arriving at any one stage is nebulous, with often an “ohhh!” moment when realizing someone has finally grown from one stage.

Do not just evaluate a staff member (or yourself) during a client trip or training program, but use their everyday communication and conversations to glean clues to their level of competence.



Brad Beggs
Since his introduction to the world of human powered outdoor sports as an undergrad, Brad has dedicated his vocation and avocation to the outdoors life. After spending several years as a vagabond climbing guide and earning a Masters in Recreation Administration from UT Knoxville, he now directs the Adventure Program at East Carolina University. In his spare time, he’s writing a guidebook to paddling Eastern NC.


The opinions of contributing writers may not be the the same as the opinions of OSI.

Posted by

Brad Beggs

on 5/18/15
Program ManagementOutdoor LeadershipResource


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