Author: Michael Jones, Head of Internal Recruitment and Training, Hays UK&I
In my role, I train ambitious new starters on a daily basis. Most of them walk into the training room bright eyed, smile on their face and eager know all there is to know. But at some point or another during their first few weeks, I will see their enthusiasm start to wane as they come to realise just how much they don’t know. And I say, welcome to the learning matrix.
What is the learning matrix?
The learning matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Unfortunately, it’s nothing to do with futuristic sci-fi or Keanu Reaves, but it’s also not half as complex either! The matrix I’m talking about is a core part of how you have learnt every one of your skills, and how you are about to develop as a professional in your new job.
The learning matrix includes each of the below stages:
- Unconscious incompetence - you don’t know how much you don’t know
- Conscious incompetence - you realise how much you don’t know
- Conscious competence - you have bridged your knowledge/skills gaps and are aware of them
- Unconscious competence - your new knowledge/skills become second nature
Stage 1 would have been an “ignorance is bliss” phase for you and many others. You didn’t realise just how tricky it would be learning again from scratch. You were just full of beans and excited for your new job, and rightly so. Unfortunately, however, Stage 2 can naturally feel like a bit of a shock to the system, not to mention daunting. I have seen this pattern time and time again, and trust me, you will overcome it and feel confident in your new capabilities if you just follow my advice.
Overcoming your conscious incompetence
To begin, it’s important to understand and accept that it’s completely normal to feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable when you first start a new job. Everyone goes through the same feelings of fear and self-doubt during those first few weeks, worrying that you’re never going to get the hang of things and feeling stupid.
I remember feeling completely out of my depth when I started at Hays. I had been in my last job for five years, so I knew how everything in my company worked and was an expert at doing my job. Starting a totally new profession in a new industry and working for a new company was incredibly difficult. As a perfectionist with very high standards, I put far too much pressure on myself to get good at my job and achieve success straight away.
Beating myself up for not knowing how to do my job and feeling disappointed that I wasn’t getting instant results was incredibly counter-productive and meant I wasted a lot of time and energy in those critical first few months. I was miserable and felt like a failure until my boss reassured me that they didn’t expect me to be an expert from the get-go, and that it would be a good few months before I was up and running. Understanding the learning matrix and being aware of the natural process of learning something new would have certainly helped me back then.
- Ask questions – lots of them!
I’ve talked about the importance of asking questions in my previous blog but, I have to stress that this is key to becoming an expert in your new job. It can be very normal when you’re new to worry about looking like you don’t know what you’re doing, but you won’t learn if you don’t ask questions.
By not being inquisitive during your first few weeks, you also run the risk of your boss thinking you’re not interested in your new job or your colleagues might think that you don’t value their input. I can think of many instances in my new job where not asking questions got me in trouble, either because I misunderstood the task and therefore delivered sub-quality work or I alienated colleagues who felt I was cool and disinterested.
You can use open questions to encourage the person coaching you to provide lots of information. Closed questions, on the other hand, are useful for getting specific answers. Clarify instructions by asking for examples, especially if you’re unsure about how to approach a task, and use reflective questions to summarise and check your understanding, for example: “So, can I check with you that first I should create the order in the system and then I can process the invoice?”
Listen carefully and take notes to ensure that you don’t forget what you’ve been told and so that you have something to refer to at a later date if necessary – people don’t mind being asked questions but not the same ones again and again!
- Take accountability for your learning
In your first couple of weeks it’s likely that you’ll be provided with a host of different training materials and learning resources to help get you up to speed with your new job. At Hays that includes workbooks, e-learning courses and video tutorials as well as on-the-job coaching and formal classroom training. It’s important to make the most of these tools and resources and take accountability for your own development. If you don’t review the guides or complete the training then it’ll take longer for you to succeed in your new role.
All too often I see new starters that have rushed through all of their e-learning courses in one sitting “to get it over and done with” or failed to review their training workbooks because they were “too busy”. This means they don’t have the knowledge they need to master the skills required and it takes them longer to achieve success. It also frustrates the person teaching you your job as they have to cover the basics again and it feels like you’re not respecting their time.
Whether it’s starting a new job, excelling at sports or mastering a new craft you have to put in the time and effort to learn and succeed, so use the tools provided and do what’s required. You can also do extra research independently by reading books, journals or relevant industry blogs or searching online resources. I’m a big fan of shadowing others to see how they do things and I always recommend finding someone respected in your organisation and watching them as they complete their tasks and activities, paying close attention to pick up tips and tricks. Make sure to thank them for their time and for allowing you to benefit from their expertise.
- Take breaks and get lots of rest
Starting a new job can be stressful and those first few months will be difficult as you learn the role and try to become consciously competent. As I’ve mentioned in my previous blog, it’s important to maintain good health and avoid new job burnout. Whilst you might feel the need to put in long hours and show your dedication, this is going to backfire pretty quickly if you don’t strike the right work/life balance.
Make sure to get plenty of rest because a good night’s sleep is critical if you want to be focused and effective in your new job. Learning can be hard work and you’re going to need to be fresh and alert if you’re going to remember what to do. If you stop going to the gym, work too many hours, don’t get enough sleep and neglect your diet and mental health, you won’t progress through the learning matrix and get better at your new job.
Instead you’ll make silly mistakes, appear unfocused and make your boss question whether they made the right hiring decision – definitely not the first impression we want to make in our new job.
You’re competent – now what?
So you’ve worked hard and moved past the overwhelming feelings of self-doubt and confusion that typically accompany those first few months and you’re starting to get the hang of things – you’re done right? You’ve beaten the matrix! Hardly!
Experts never stop learning so even though you might now be at the unconsciously competent stage and working on autopilot you may have picked up some bad habits or have some more work to do.
Therefore my advice is to stay open-minded and accept feedback from colleagues. When I was new to Hays I was quite defensive when it came to receiving feedback, taking it as criticism or a sign that I was doing something wrong. My reactions and excuses made me look petty and ungrateful. As a result it took me longer to learn and succeed.
Nowadays I actively ask for people’s advice and feedback because I understand how valuable it is and how a different person’s perspective can bring a fresh approach to a task.
We’re always learning and there are constantly opportunities to further develop our skills and expertise. So next time you’re about to enter the learning matrix, remember the advice in this article and hopefully it’ll help you get to that expert stage again, and quickly.
Thank you for reading! For more useful advice and insights about the world of work, visit our dedicated blog page here or click on one of the links below.