Influencing others: Lessons from Reg Revans

Reg Revans, the father of Action Learning, contributed so much to our knowledge and understanding of the learning process and, I would contend, one of his most significant contributions was his Principle of Insufficient Mandate, which states that “those unable to change themselves are unable to change what goes on around them.”

This seemingly simple statement captures the very essence of influence.  If I desire to influence a change in somebody else’s behaviour then I must first examine my own behaviour and seek to understand how I should modify my behaviour to effect a change in theirs.  Like the very best of approaches – simple and yet highly effective.

I recall, many years ago, being asked by the CEO of a large manufacturing organisation to help him with the way in which his Board were operating, or, more specifically, not operating.  His request was quite simple: my Board are not working effectively as a team – can you work with them and help them to be more aligned, more cohesive and more focused on collaboration and performance.  My first question to him was, “What are you doing to encourage or give permission for their current behaviours?”.  He replied that I must have misunderstood his request for the issue was with them and not with him.  And so began a conversation that has been repeated many times through the intervening years.  Initially he could not see the fact that he was directly and indirectly influencing their behaviours and, in all likelihood, providing permission for them to operate in the ways that he deemed to be ineffective.

Through a series of conversations we explored the nature of the team and the way in which he influenced them thorough his words, his actions, and, very specifically in this case, by not challenging certain behavioural patterns.  He came to understand that by not challenging he was, in effect, giving permission for the continuance of the very behaviours that he sought my help in addressing.

And so the conversations turned from working with his team to working with him to help him to be more clear, more focussed and more consistent in his leadership style.  Changes were noticed very quickly by his team and they began to modify their behaviours in line with  his new behaviours and expectations which were articulated as much in actions as they were in words.

The CEO came to a deep and insightful understanding of Revan’s mandate – he modified his behaviours and, by doing so, influenced those round him to modify theirs.  The change was aligned, consistent and sustainable.  More importantly, it was personally owned and led by the CEO, not issued as a directive to others that would, with no doubt at all, resulted in compliance at best.