From Unconscious to Conscious Incompetence

By Bizclik Editor

Contributed by Tamerlaine Beasley, Managing Director of Beasley Intercultural

As Australian businesses continue to take advantage of the commercial opportunities the Asian century is providing, some executives may not realise they are causing offence to the very people they want to impress and build a business relationship with. This is called unconscious incompetence and is the blissful state of not knowing what you don’t know.

For example, when Australian business people are engaging with potential Chinese investors, they may not realise the rules around the appropriate hospitality, and that a focus on relationship-building is vital, not knowing this can result in a lack of engagement or business progress.

From a Chinese business context, you need to know the people you invest with, not just understand their balance sheet and have a good legal document.

However, if the Australian business person is unconsciously incompetent, they may blithely focus on the figures, when really the potential investor is looking at the bigger picture of who the person is and if they can trust them.

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When working with people from other cultures, the journey from unconscious to conscious incompetence can be transformative. While it may sound unappealing to know your ‘blind spots’, being aware of your cultural position enables development and the building of capability, which ultimately leads to results.

Just as when we embark upon a physical fitness regime, we begin by benchmarking to measure weight, BMI and cardio fitness. When embarking upon a new intercultural business venture, we need to develop awareness of our starting position.

Australia’s business culture

Like a fish out of water, we often don’t realise we even have a culture until we are out of it. In Australia, some of our biggest cultural challenges come from the way we communicate, our lack of formality and how we treat those who are senior to us.

It’s easy to remain unaware of how different our culture is. Due to the impact of globalisation, it’s now possible to travel on a preferred airline, stay in our usual hotel chain, and remain connected to our preferred news and communication sources, regardless of geography. This means we are not immersed in a countries’ culture, even when we are there.

This ‘bubble’ can keep us disconnected from the realities of the local cultural context. For Australian senior executives in positions of authority when working in Asia or with Asian colleagues, it is also highly unlikely local staff will provide feedback on areas of incompetence or lack of awareness due to issues of face and hierarchy. 

How to become competent

The journey from unconscious to conscious incompetence is a necessary one if you are committed to building capability and being able to work effectively with people from a different culture to your own.

You can start this process by gaining feedback from a business colleague with experience in the region you are targeting, or by participating in an intercultural coaching or training program which can assist with raising awareness, and transitioning to ‘conscious incompetence’.

The good news is that ‘conscious incompetence’ precedes ‘conscious competence’ – the highly rewarding state of knowing what you are doing, and demonstrating intercultural capability.

Such capability means: knowing how to progress the deal, demonstrating the appropriate business process and protocols to gain confidence of potential investors, and navigating cultural issues to get successful business results.


Beasley Intercultural works with organisations in Australia and across the Asia-Pacific region to build global workforce capability for the Asian century.  We are the largest provider of Asia capable workforce solutions in Australia. We provide clients with the knowledge and capability to navigate the complexities of diverse and global workplace to get the results they need. 


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