The Invitation-Challenge Concept

We all know the old adage that when it comes to relationships, opposites attract. My English-born parents were no exception....

We all know the old adage that when it comes to relationships, opposites attract. My English-born parents were no exception. My introverted father with his PhD in Metallurgical Engineering did his math homework during art class in high school, barely passing the class. My extroverted mother, in contrast, is an accomplished watercolor artist, seamstress, decorator, and flower arranger who avoided math and science courses in her school days like the plague. Growing up with these two polar opposites, engineer and artist, meant that we never hired a plumber or an electrician, nor any other sub-contractor that I can recall. Furthermore, most of our walls were either faux finished, covered in incredible murals, or decorated with phenomenal framed paintings.

Wedding photoIn hot pursuit of the American dream, my dad emigrated to the United States from England in 1970 with my mom, $200, a six-month-old baby (me), and a brand new PhD. Once here, he set his internal compass squarely on success, allocating all of his energy to his business pursuits with very little left for our family. Like so many men of his generation, the driving force in his life was financial provision. This meant that my mother suddenly found herself in a foreign country with no extended family and initially no driver’s license, having to figure out how to run a household mostly as a single parent.

This isolated way of life, away from all family support, in a completely foreign culture, understandably had its challenges. I recall my sister and I would often get into conflicts that were exhausting for my mother. My dad would arrive home, randomly drop down the gavel with very few questions asked, and make a decision that, inevitably, was either unhelpful or downright unfair. This same man years later as a manufacturing business owner would emphatically declare that he would gladly deal with 40 machines instead of 40 human beings.

English or American, engineer or artist, introvert or extrovert, all of us have to interact with other people throughout our lives. Whether we see it in these terms or not, we all utilize a relational concept both at home and at work. At Five Capitals, we call this the Invitation-Challenge Matrix.

In its simplest form, all mature human beings either subconsciously or intentionally calibrate our personalities and approaches optimally according to the circumstances we are in and the people who are present. Extending kindness, grace, encouragement, or praise is known as Invitation. In contrast, offering correction, truth, confrontation or setting a boundary is known as Challenge. Interestingly, most of us tend to be naturally wired for one over the other. 

My dad was wired for high challenge while my mother, for high invitation. In order for us to be as socially and relationally intelligent as possible, we need to understand this Invitation-Challenge concept, know what our natural default setting is, and be skilled at calibrating our base inclination depending upon the situation. We also need to be able to discern the core wiring of the person or people with whom we are interacting in order to approach them in a way that is most effective and best received.

We can all think of that teacher in elementary school who was all invitation with their gentle dulcet tones, flexible deadlines, and low standards. Initially, we were all excited to be in that class, but eventually noticed that discipline was a daily struggle, and consequently, learning was affected. On the other end of the continuum was that dreaded teacher who ruled with an iron hand. They were known to throw their desk drawer across the floor of the classroom, slam their fist on the board, and raise their voice angrily to make a point. This approach certainly took care of the discipline problem but struck fear in the hearts of students and affected learning in an equally negative way.

Classroom with kids and teacher

Then there was that favorite teacher (clouds part and cue the harps). They were magical. Although my 9-year-old brain would not have been able to explain why, their approach inspired us all to sit up straight, smile, and fully engage. They had this intuitive way of being tough when needed, but always fair while extending grace and encouragement aplenty. I’m certain I learned more in their class by far, with their excellent crowd control skills and well-calibrated way of challenging each student within an invitational context of love and grace.

This also plays out in the workplace. Here’s our matrix that helps explain how this Invitation-Challenge concept works organizationally:

As we outline this concept, be honest with yourself about what kind of leader you are and what kind of corporate culture you have.

This matrix is divided into four quadrants. On the horizontal axis is Challenge, with low challenge to the left, and high challenge to the right. On the vertical axis is Invitation, with high invitation at the top and low invitation at the bottom. 

Let’s first take a look at the low Challenge + low Invitation leader and culture, in the bottom left quadrant. People working within that framework best describe it as boring. Their leaders neither inspire nor correct, functioning instead as if nothing really matters. Sometimes the people in those companies wonder if their zombie managers even have a pulse. It is not surprising that very little gets accomplished, and in this environment of abandonment, staff turnover is very high.

At the top left of our matrix is the high Invitation + low Challenge leader and culture. These types of CEOs make everyone feel like their best friend and team members are less like colleagues and more like family. No one ever worries about getting into trouble for lackluster performance, and the office feels like your living room at home. While personal connections are strong in this culture, everyone coasts when it comes to their work, and not much forward momentum gets achieved. High flyers leave fairly quickly, seeing the writing on the wall and wanting to get off the painfully slow-moving train to nowhere.

What about the leaders who are all challenge and offer scant invitation? Much like our classroom illustration, they rule with a heavy hand, relentlessly pointing to key performance indicators, goals and deadlines like a dog with a bone. By the time a target is reached, there’s not even time to stop, catch your breath or nod for praise or celebration. Instead, the goal posts are immediately moved farther down the field. Employees operating in these cultures are hyper-vigilant, exhausted, stressed and unhappy. They can be compared to the horses that pull tourists in carriages, spent and dangerously overheated.

The quadrant in which we all want to land is the top right: high Invitation + high Challenge. This is the sweet spot. These leaders cast vision and motivate their teams to accomplish great things with a sustainable, caring rhythm. They speak truth with kindness to correct unhelpful attitudes and behaviors, while being uber intentional about celebrating wins and doling out “atta-boys” and “atta-girls.” These cultures draw talented new hires into their high functioning healthy environments and hold onto strong team members far longer than any of the other four quadrants. Empowered and equipped, these fortunate staffers effortlessly tag team with one another to take the company elegantly over hurdles and across the finish line with time and energy to spare.

Abraham Maslow, the creator of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,  said, “What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.” In this spirit of self-awareness, as a leader, where do you land on this Invitation-Challenge Matrix? Are you more naturally wired for invitation or challenge? Can you think of an occasion, even within the past week, where you would have achieved a better outcome had you calibrated your approach differently?

We have two chalkboard videos that unpack this Invitation-Challenge concept further:



We also have a formidable team of coaches here at Five Capitals who would love to walk you through this concept and beyond. 

Join me in staying consistently invested in learning, growing, and thriving both at home and at work. If you have any questions or comments about this blog, you can reach me here:


Holly Cervini

Holly (one of Five Capitals' coaches)

Five Capitals Certified Coach Badge