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Last updated on 1/17/23

Identify your level of autonomy

Now you have an idea of the issues around autonomy. Before going any further, take a moment to assess your level of professionalism and your need for autonomy.

How far have you got with mastering your own profession?

Your level of autonomy partly depends on your level of competence. Whatever assessment you make of your level, you'll be able to deduce from it the action you need to take.

To help you assess your level of professionalism (and perhaps that of your colleagues with whom you wish to work), you should know that the various stages of development of knowledge can be described along two axes, which will give you four levels:

  • Conscious / unconscious

  • Competent / incompetent

Although self- assessment is essentially subjective, it helps to be completely honest with yourself as to where you are currently. Remember, you are always evolving when it comes to career development!

The various stages can be described in the following terms:

1 - Unconscious incompetence

Unconsciously incompetent or “I don’t know that I don’t know”.

You are starting a new activity. You don’t know what it involves. This might be the case with a trainee taking a work course to change career direction. Upon signing up for the course, they are unconsciously incompetent as to the direction they will take.

In concrete terms, if you assess yourself as being at this level, wait a bit before launching yourself into autonomous activity; because you don’t know what you’re getting into! 😊

2 - Conscious incompetence

Consciously incompetent or “I know that I don’t know”.

You are aware of everything you need to do to acquire a new competence. This can be motivating (or not) for you, because it’s a new project, or else because you’ll meet new people etc.

Returning to the example of the trainee, this is the moment when they arrive at their place of learning, where they start to become aware of what their tutor is asking of them. They are consciously incompetent and motivated (or not) to acquire the expected competence.

In concrete terms, if you assess yourself as being at this level, give yourself the means with which to learn before starting out. You have an idea of what you need to acquire before being able to feel comfortable with your activity. Test yourself, discuss things, learn by watching etc.

3 – Conscious competence

Consciously competent or “I know what I know”.

You’ll have started to take action to learn. You’ll develop the necessary skills, but you also know that you need time to do so, that you’re not yet as fast as seasoned professionals.

In our example, the trainee is getting on with their job. They understand what is expected of them. They know how to find information, whom to turn to; they are autonomous for some tasks. They are quite conscious of the progress they’re making, and that motivates them. They are consciously competent (even if they know that they still have a way to go).

4 – Unconscious competence

Unconsciously competent or “I don’t know what I know”.

Your work over time, your efforts and your investment have brought you to the required (or a higher) level of competence. The automatic reactions are in place, and you carry out your work without thinking about it. You’re at ease, and you are conscious that it’s a pleasant feeling. In our example, the trainee was recruited after their course. They’ve been doing their work for two years now. They’ve completely forgotten the effort it took to get to their current level of competence. They're competent, they know it, but they don’t know exactly at what!

To recap, if you assess yourself as being at this level, you are autonomous! This may even be the time to delegate part of your activity, so that you continue to progress and to maintain the feeling that you’re learning.

What stage are you at in the development of your autonomy?

In your current situation, you’ve acquired a level of autonomy. This level will depend on your professionalism. You will also need to integrate it with the relationship of “dependence” upon your working environment.

This cyclic diagram can help explain the stages of dependency and help you plot where you currently find yourself. It combines the childhood stages of development and overlaps them with the experience of working in the workplace.

Adapted from: N. K. Symor, and V. Lenhardt, Cycle of Dependency
Adapted from N. K. Symor, and V. Lenhardt, Cycle of Dependency.

The four stages shown above can help you to position yourself:


A child is at this stage until they reach adolescence. You too will depend on others (sponsors, clients) when you start a new working environment. You'll need to find your place and understand the rules and customs. This can occur with each new assignment if you work independently! This could also be your situation if you're just starting your professional activity.

To progress to Stage 1, you will need to acquire knowledge and to start doing things for yourself. Compare your point of view with others and learn from your mistakes. 😊

Stage 1: COUNTER-DEPENDENCE (Going against dependency)

This is the first step towards autonomy, and it involves opposition! Using the example of the child, this is the stage of the adolescent rebelling against authority. At this stage you can complain, show the need to be recognised in your own right, to be able to express yourself and be heard. It’s also when you might begin to take risks.

In order to progress to Stage 2, you will need to question yourself. You will also need to stop complaining because people will find you hard to listen to. Take a step back, get perspective and express yourself rationally. Your listeners will probably respond in kind. Your self-confidence will grow, allowing you to progress, take risks, and dare to do new things. 😁

Stage 2: INDEPENDENCE, especially when dealing with authority

At this level, you can accept that some ties are still there. This is the adult who needs to exist independently and reassure themselves of their capability to do things on their own.

At this stage, you may want to challenge your knowledge and take risks. It’s not necessarily an automatic opposition to all forms of hierarchy. Perhaps it’s the need to feel that you’re responsible and committed and you want to demonstrate that to others.

You're close to being autonomous. In order to progress to Stage 3, you need to be recognised by others as their peer. To achieve this, ask as much of yourself as you do of others. 😉


Using the previous example, this is a young adult who becomes a parent who must then support their dependent child.

At this stage, you take responsibility for your actions and reap the rewards of your achievements. You look for ways to improve your performance. You may also need to create strong links with your environment, where you can fully commit yourself.

You are truly autonomous when you are conscious of the stage you are at, the latter varying according to your situation and context.

To see where you are with regard to these four phases, ask yourself the following questions:

In what ways do I need others in order to do my work?

What’s my need for recognition?

In what ways am I capable of taking risks?

What’s my level of knowledge of my actions: beginner? junior? expert?

You might either have become aware that your work environment no longer brings you total satisfaction and are preparing yourself to change, or you may have already taken that step and you are now becoming aware of what lies behind autonomy.

The good news is that, whatever the level of professionalism that you assess yourself as having, you can develop your autonomy.

Autonomy isn’t a state; it’s a process that’s challenged with each new situation. That process depends on your level of knowledge and your interpersonal skills.

Congratulate yourself on your work achievements thus far and be open to positive change. Self-confidence will help with this. ☺️

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Example of certificate of achievement
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