Working Through the Learning Curve

Amanda is starting her first day at a customer service agency. She’s been working in the industry for the past five years and begins the day with a broad smile. But over the course of the day, her manager notices that Amanda’s smile tapers as she is told several times that what she is doing does not meet company expectations. Worse, Amanda has a lot of learning curvequestions but is embarrassed. Everything around her seems to be happening quickly. Instead of continuing to ask questions, she begins to feel stuck at the bottom of the learning curve. So, she resolves to observe her coworkers naturally and confidently achieving their tasks, while growing increasingly insecure.

Amanda’s struggles reflect what many new employees encounter, the workplace learning curve. She strives to learn as much as she can to become competent and successful, but this isn’t always enough. In these cases, it is in a manager’s best interest to notice where additional help is necessary.

Signs Your Employee is Struggling

  • Uncharacteristic disengagement
  • A sudden critical nature, complaining or cynicism
  • Silence or avoidance of coworkers and management
  • Lack of interest in goal setting or in company’s goals
  • Lack of energy entering work; eagerness to leave on time
  • Sudden drop in or inability to grow productivity levels

While the employee tries to stay afloat in a new pool of information, processes and culture, the manager has the responsibility of keeping productivity high and training new hires to become valuable long-term investments. If a new employee can’t overcome the learning curve, they may quit, costing both parties time and money.

The 4 Stage Learning Curve 

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As a new employee gains competence in their work, their confidence and productivity will improve and over time their skills may feel like second nature. The Four Stage Learning Curve helps managers understand where they can help new hires improve so that they feel confident and competent to continue their work productively.

1. Unconscious Incompetence

When new employees are “blissfully unaware” or “don’t know what they don’t know,” they may feel confident in their new role but do not understand how much they have yet to learn. To help a new employee gain competence while remaining confident, managers can practice organized onboarding and can talk to their employees about what to do to prepare for and manage the learning curve as their position develops. 

2. Conscious Incompetence

Remember Amanda, who felt overwhelmed by all she had to learn? Managers who see that their new hire is stressed, confused or anxious can calm them by providing ample time for quality training; encouraging and answering questions; and helping new employees set short term goals that prioritize what they need to learn. Managers may also give advice; allow new hires to job shadow coworkers with similar roles; or provide a timeline of expectations that breaks down the larger goals of the company into smaller, more tangible pieces.

3. Conscious Competence

At this stage, employees feel that they have a good foundation for what they are doing. They have learned a majority of what they need to know to accomplish their tasks with relative ease. Consequently, managers may encourage progress and show employees how to further their skills. 

4. Unconscious Competence

Managers may feel confident when their employees know their jobs so well that they are able to perform most of the necessary skills without consciously having to analyze how to perform them. Employees at this level also may feel that their ability to work productively comes naturally. 

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