“I am, as I’ve said, merely competent. But in an age of incompetence, that makes me extraordinary.” – Billy Joel
When it comes to achieving promotion in UK police forces, most cops start from a position of incompetence. Sergeant, Inspector and Chief Inspector promotion candidates often ‘don’t know what they don’t know’ when it comes to the police promotion process.
This is something recognised in learning theory and it’s good to recognise that there are often lots of ‘knowns and unknowns’ to the career progression of police officers through the ranks before you dive in.
What is Kolb’s Competence Model?
“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” – Donald Rumsfeld
I should explain we are talking here about Kolb’s learning model. Like Rumsfeld’s infamous ‘Unknowns’ speech, it can help you through the uncertainties of preparing for promotion. With this model, learners move from a stage of ‘unconscious incompetence’ through a cycle to become ‘unconsciously competent’. This is a cognitive process whereby a person progresses through each of the four stages. Kolb’s experiential learning theory works on two levels: a four-stage cycle of learning and four separate learning styles.
Where Are You Now?
“We do not have to know how to do something to be able to do it. We learned to walk, run, ride a bike and catch a ball without instructions.” – Sir John Whitmore
I see police officers come for guidance through all stages of Kolb’s learning cycle:
- Unconsciously incompetent: This is a stage akin to ‘blissful ignorance’, or Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’ – unknown only to the uninitiated of course! When people are very young and before learning to drive a car, they know little about vehicles or how they work: all they know is that they see cars go past with people in them. This is the most unfortunate stage if hoping to succeed in promotion; it alludes to simply ‘winging it’! Officers then often seek guidance from equally uninformed colleagues who, although well intentioned, may be similarly ‘in the dark’ about the in-force promotion process, desired leadership behaviours or even what wider guidance is available.
- Consciously Incompetent: Continuing the ‘learning to drive’ analogy, this is where a student is first aware of various controls in the car that have something to do with driving; the foot pedals, the gearstick, steering wheel and such. These are Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknowns’. This is about knowing where to seek support and recognising there is guidance out there (such as your force’s promotion framework or the 7 desired leadership skills promotion boards ALSO look for), it’s just you haven’t looked at them yet. You suddenly become aware of all the information you know you don’t know! But where to start?
- Consciously Competent: Navigating your way through these ‘known knowns’, smartly focusing on the right information, beginning to read, practice and prepare ahead is where you start your journey of competence towards achieving promotion. This is akin to the ‘Learner Driver’ grasping the idea of how the controls work and using them to drive, albeit ‘kangarooing’ down the road, adjusting the clutch and developing competence. Improvements start to show over time. With more practice they are ready to take their driving test. They conduct the test in a state of ‘conscious competence’; able to safely navigate the road ahead, but meticulously recalling everything they learned to date, like ’10 to 2’ and ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’. After success and regular journeys, they move towards…
- Unconsciously Competent: The driver is no longer a learner, not even needing a green ‘P’ to warn others they’re new to this. They drive as a matter of habit, able to use their inbuilt ‘autopilot’ while listening to music or having a conversation with passengers. Driving has become instinctive and intuitive. This unconscious competence is where promotion candidates should aim to be. It’s about moving from envisioning a promotion board, interview, assessment or application process as something to ‘dread’, instead to a level of confidence and excitement at the prospect of an opportunity to shine.
“You didn’t grow up driving, you figured it out.” – Gary Vaynerchuck
But why is all this useful to know? It is important because it is always the best prepared candidates who achieve promotion and get this, they learned how to do it! There’s a simple equation I emphasise at Police Promotion Masterclasses to summarise confidence in promotion boards:
Experience + Knowledge = Confidence
Most cops possess the operational experience. It’s the knowledge of how to apply that experience in the context of promotion selection processes where candidates often lose confidence. This is where most candidates benefit from support in moving through Kolb’s Competence cycle. Practice and reflection help bolster that knowledge further…
Know Your Learning Style
“The beautiful thing about learning is that nobody can take it away from you.” – B. B. King
To learn, we depend on our senses to process information. The three main types of ‘dominant’ learning styles are:
- Visual (seeing): Absorbs and retains information more effectively when presented in images, charts or illustrations.
- Auditory (listening): Responds best to voices, listening to podcasts, presentations or discussion.
- Kinaesthetic (feeling): A ‘hands on’ approach is the preference, using props, touching and feeling, aids the learning experience.
Kolb expands on these learning styles with some overlapping aspects, relating to the more immersive cognitive processes:
- Diverging (feeling and watching): These individuals are able to look at things from different perspectives. They prefer to watch rather than do, tending to gather information and use imagination to solve problems. They are best at viewing concrete situations from several different viewpoints.
- Assimilating (watching and thinking): The assimilating learning preference involves a succinct, rational approach. These individuals require strong explanation rather than a practical opportunity. They excel at understanding wide-ranging information and organising it in a clear, logical format.
- Converging (doing and thinking): Individuals with a converging learning style can solve problems. They will use their learning to find solutions to practical issues. They prefer technical tasks. Those with a converging learning style are best at finding practical uses for ideas and theories. They can solve problems and make decisions by finding solutions to questions and problems.
- Accommodating (doing and feeling): This learning style is ‘hands-on,’. It relies on intuition rather than logic. These individuals use other people’s analysis and prefer to take a practical, experiential approach. They are attracted to new challenges and experiences, and commonly act on ‘gut’ instinct rather than logical analysis. Individuals with an accommodating learning style will tend to rely on others for information rather than carry out their own analysis. This learning style is prevalent within the general population.
In reality we may adopt a ‘mix and match’ approach between these styles, so understanding your own learning preference helps support your choice of which methods you may adopt in your promotion preparation.
“That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.” – Doris Lessing
The process that brings everything together is the reflection period. Kolb’s model highlights the importance of reflection in the learning cycle, allowing the learner to process ‘what just happened’ during the experience. Stages are mutually supportive, and learners can enter Kolb’s cycle at any stage, but effective learning only occurs when accomplishing all four stages. Here’s a summary of how that works:
- Concrete experience: Having a concrete experience can change your perspective on the whole nature and topic of police promotion. For those attending a promotion masterclass for example, this happens a lot. Even taking notes helps cement learning.
- Reflective observation: Whether musing over digital toolkits, doing some wider reading as part of your CPD, or reflecting on tailored materials candidates receive at a masterclass, at this point officers experience ‘lightbulb moments’ on what they can do differently.
- Abstract conceptualisation: This is the joining together of ideas, the formation of thoughts and concepts about promotion, which hadn’t existed in that way before. Candidates can analyse the various sources of information and options, then draw conclusions about what to do next.
- Active experimentation: This new information can be used to test out hypotheses, for example through practice and rehearsal of interview responses. This results in new thoughts and experiences, while incrementally building confidence as you hone your preparation.
Here are some real-life examples that allude to the power of this reflective process. Can you recognise the various stages of Kolb’s learning cycle in these successful officers’ experience?
“Prior to the Masterclass I was very much focused on my evidence and me. I didn’t look beyond. The class helped me look at the bigger picture, think more about the organisation and how my focus should be about how my experience fits into the needs of the police service. It completely changed how I looked at everything and it was like the penny just dropped.” – Ann
“I applied for promotion three times with my force and was unsuccessful each time. From wanting to give up and thinking it may not be for me, I attended Steve’s promotion masterclass, where I got to grip with how and what I needed to do. I tried one final time, applying for advertised Inspector vacancies in three different forces; all had different processes. I was successful in each paper sift and was invited to interviews/assessment centres. Steve’s guides helped me prepare for my presentations, briefings and formal interviews. I passed all three promotion boards, coming top in two processes… going from three failures to a choice of three forces! I wish I could take all the positions offered but have to decide where is my career best suited!” – Deepak
“I am confident and competent operationally, but nothing in policing has taught me about police promotion interviews or what the role of Sergeant actually is. Naively, without Steve’s one to one session I would have gone into my board without knowing these things. However, with this help there were no surprises in the interview, and I was able to show with confidence that I absolutely knew what is expected of a Sergeant. These key elements undoubtedly helped me pass my board at my first attempt” – Jon
Kolb’s learning cycle describes the journey thousands of aspiring candidates undertake every year, seeking to reach a ‘state of readiness’ necessary to convert personal leadership aspirations into promotion success. Many fall short of the mark and never really discover why or even understand where they are in Kolb’s cycle. Don’t make the same mistake!
I hope you found this blog useful. For further support on your promotion aspirations or bespoke, intensive fast track support, please view the Rank Success support packages. You can also use code POLICEHOUR20 at checkout, to save 20% on any Rank Success digital promotion toolkits or bundles.