A little secret to participatory leadership: the art of invitation

By Samantha Slade
Originally published in Enlivening Edge Magazine AUGUST 25, 2021

The under-estimated, under-utilized and inclusive potential of invitation

Invitations and participatory leadership

Invitations are part of being human. In fact, they are so rooted in our daily life that it is easy to forget the power and potential they hold. We invite one another to collaborate on an idea or initiative; to partake in events or special moments; to share information or a document. Despite appearances, invitations hold an underestimated potential in contributing to transitions into shared leadership or co-management. We will delve into four concrete ways you can better leverage invitations to cultivate a more participatory culture.

Many of us would like to include more people in our different projects and activities. The concern that often arises is “How can I open up without creating chaos?” or “Won’t it cause a lot of wasted time?” Therein lies a problem that hinders many folks from following through with a desire to work more openly and inclusively. Good invitation takes care of these concerns. Good invitation can actually be a catalyst of change.

But what do invitations have to do with participatory leadership and horizontal organizations? Everything! Invitations are an act of transparency. Making an invitation is an act of personal leadership and so too is accepting or declining an invitation.

Invitations require letting go of control and letting go of pleasing. Invitations are a way of being more inclusive, or reaching out beyond the usual groups you work with. In fact, the practice of invitation is a way of stepping away from some convincing, controlling and coercive habits, that many of us engage in, often without even realizing it.

So, if we start with that, we can look at invitations as something we want to have more of, and strive to create invitation in a way that doesn’t generate confusion, stress, or chaos.

How to recognize an invitation

Before we jump in, let’s clarify what an invitation is and isn’t. When you invite someone, it means that you are allowing full agency of the invitee to accept or decline, to say yes or no. You are not trying to get the person do something and you are trusting them to make the best decision for themselves.

This is completely different from a request or an order, and with it comes a different feeling. For example, I was organizing an online event and realized last minute that it would be better if I did not take both the technology role and the facilitation role. However, when I invited a colleague to take on the technology role, this colleague kindly declined, stating that she would prefer to be a participant at the event.

We unravelled that this was in fact not an invitation but a request. The request was then made, with the need clearly articulated and hence accommodated. All this to say that when I am referring to an invitation I am referring to real invitations, where it is truly okay to say yes or no. Working with discernment around invitation begins here.

I remember when I really learned this point. I was at a gathering, and a group of us came up with a brilliant idea to invite a few folk who had demonstrated their singing talent and effect on the group, to sing a song the next morning. I was the one who walked across the room to invite them. My ears were so surprised to hear that the answer was No; the invitation was declined.

I can still remember the inner shift I had to make to accept and integrate that this group did not want to sing on call; I saw in the moment the different perspective and my habit to try to charm and convince. I could feel their full agency in that No. It was healthy in so many ways. They taught me about invitation.

Can you think of a real invitation you have received recently? For me it was a social media invite to connect. What about that invitation made you feel good (whether you accepted it or not)? For me it was the little personal note that came with the invitation, words from the heart. Invitations are associated with intention, care and belonging, not coercion. Hopefully your invitation had all of that. Now, let’s hold that feeling as we proceed to the four tips to better leverage the potential of invitations: choice, clarity, community and criteria.

1. Choice

A good invitation conveys that you can CHOOSE without being judged or punished for your choice. Therein lies all the subtlety of what a real invitation is. This means that you need to make sure this is ultra-clear in any invitation you make.

If not, then don’t call it an invitation, call it what it really is, a request or attempt at obligation. Help the invitee feel that there will be no consequence based on their choice. Let them know that they are being trusted to make the best choice for themselves. People can determine for themselves what they care about, where they want to contribute, and what they want to make a priority. This is how we grow personal leadership. People show up differently when they choose to say Yes. Remember also, that making invitations to others is also an act of leadership!

I especially appreciate when I am invited and people say if I am unable to attend there will be a recording or notes for me to consult. That makes me feel that I really do have a choice.

Questions to ask: Does this invitation feel enticing but not coercive? Would the invitee feel equally okay responding yes or no?

Art of Invitation Clarity

2. Clarity

If the invitee is going to determine their own answer to an invitation, then they need to have the necessary information to make that choice: from elements of time and place, to what is expected of them. Do they need to bring something or prepare anything? Is there an obligation of any kind? Is there a cost? Do they need to behave in a specific way? What are they committing to? Can they arrive late? Can they invite someone themselves? So many questions! We can sometimes forget that an invitation can actually create anxiety for people.

Put yourself in the position of the person receiving the invitation can help to see if all the pertinent information is available so that they can self-determine if they will be declining or accepting. If all the information is present then you will avoid creating stress or generating requests for more details.

In general people are more inclined to say Yes when the purpose is clear and aligned with their values or because their presence will add value and their skills are acknowledged by the person who is inviting. For example, “I‘m inviting you to this meeting because you have a great experience to share on xyz.” You might want to test out your invitation at this point because it can be tricky to know what you missed, or to provide enough information without overwhelming people.

Since the pandemic began, I regularly invite people to play a personal leadership game on Friday afternoons. I send invitations to different people around the world and sometimes post an invitation on certain online groups. Those times I neglected to state up front that there is “no cost involved” I created confusion, as I learned from the emails I received.

Questions to ask: Does the invitee know what they would be getting into if they said yes? Do they feel informed without feeling overwhelmed?

Art of Invitation Community

3. Community

A good invitation builds community and is an act of inclusion and can create a sense of belonging. The wider we invite the more we are including people. Even if someone says no, they can still feel part of whatever it is they were being invited into. An invitee can feel pleasantly surprised and delighted that people had thought of them and that their involvement was desired.

Have a thought about who might feel excluded if they discover they weren’t invited. This means getting beyond our blind spots, biases and habits. An invitation is an opportunity to reach out to those who are on the margins of your community and to relate to others in a more empathetic manner.

It is not enough to just include someone though; it is all in the art of how we include them. Recently, I saw an invitation signed off with words we don’t see often in the workplace: “ With love, the exec team”. Such show of care and vulnerability can make all the difference. A warm authentic tone can go further than the cold tone we have come to think of as “professional”. You want your invitation to be sending goodness into the world. You can give a personal touch, for example, include a quote or an image. That shifts everything.

If we want more care in our organizations, and if mental wellbeing matters, then invitation is a natural space to grow a sense of inclusion and togetherness. People can feel seen and cared for. It might feel strange to reach out wider, but we should get better at being vulnerable and caring.

Questions to ask: Does this invitation make the invitee feel good? Does it contribute to their sense of belonging?

Art of Invitation Criteria

4. Criteria

I often see people making a list of who they should be inviting, rather than identifying criteria. The criteria serve as a means to make explicit the constraints or boundaries around who can come or how many can come. It is the responsibility of the inviter to clarify these boundaries. For example, “We welcome people who can commit to attending both events,” or “We want a balanced mix of people from within the team and from outside of the team”. In both these examples, the criteria is being set by the inviter that gives people all the information, as well as the agency to make their own choice.

Constraints and strategies are also part of being human and navigating culture. By providing criteria in your invitation, and allowing people to self-determine whether they are a fit, you are creating an inclusive culture. The thing about clear criteria is that it requires functioning transparently and it changes everything.

Many misunderstandings, exclusions, and projections can be avoided. People are able to understand the logic of why things are happening, and can determine their role (or lack thereof) in that situation and understand the why of the boundaries. This is how we avoid chaos.

I recently had to decline an invitation that placed a clear boundary. I was invited as a strategic advisor, but only if I could attend the full day of the event. It wasn’t possible for me so I had to let it pass.

Questions to ask: Are the boundaries of this invitation clear? Does this invitation help the invitee understand the wider context of what is going on?

What invitation creates

Invitations are a part of life and can be powerful tools to help your work reach its potential (and beyond) while growing a culture of belonging. Being intentional inviters makes people feel cared for, seen, and included, and it fosters community.

A strong invitation is at the core of building a culture of shared leadership, both on organizational and personal levels: it is a practice that can foster systemic change for a culture guided by conscious, courageous, creative, and collaborative values, be it in informal micro human moments or formal recruitment processes. In addition, the choice to accept or decline an invitation becomes an act of personal leadership, thus empowering individuals as active participants in the collective sphere.

There is a lot of nervousness about inviting in other people into our work. What if everyone comes? What if no one comes? What if people don’t really get what we are doing? These concerns can be taken care of with a good invitation using these four little invitation tips. They will help you to do the work, including inside yourself. Perhaps you have some habits of control, or remaining within your range of familiarity or biases? Working well with invitation can bring, not only inclusion and belonging but also serendipity and magic.

Remember, like all the practices I talk about, inviting is a practice. No need to get it perfect, just walk the path. Dare to invite when you see possibility or need. Question your reflexes. Seek feedback on your invitation before releasing it. Dare to bring in the heart. Trust. Invite more than you would usually, and see what happens. Live and learn from it. You never know what it might bring, beyond what you could have planned.

A little invitation to all

You are warmly invited to play a new and novel online game about collaboration: Going Horizontal Game. Live a playful moment of togetherness while gaining insights on horizontal ways of functioning and developing your listening skills, hosted by a member of the international Going Horizontal community, all for free.

This invitation is for people who are interested in participatory culture and horizontal leadership and are ready to engage in an interactive learning moment on the theme. All you need is basic ease with zoom technology and commitment to arriving on time and staying for the full 90 minutes to allow a rich experience for all who turn up. Bring your colleagues or friends if you wish! Interested? Register for your free session here.