Davos. Stafford Hospital. Ghana. Burundi.
Curious bed-fellows. And yet they were filling my head this Thursday morning.
Read about Davos and you’ll soon hear about the topic on everybody’s lips: Engagement. Not the latest, short-lived celebrity pairing, but of getting people to buy into the latest big idea or solution, or even just to vote. From politicians, plutocrats and business leaders, the talk was about how hard it is to get people involved and contributing. In their words, people are not engaged.
And then I realized. They are spelling it wrongly. It is not about people engaging, it is about people en-joy-ing. Our leaders see engagement as something to impose from the outside in.
So, the question I asked myself was this: what would cause people to want to be involved? I believe that engagement comes from the inside out, when we enjoy what we do. And, when did you last hear a world or business leader talk about enjoyment?
Of course, I don’t mean the shallow, marketing driven, pleasure of that guilty chocolate bar, or of freshly washed, forest-scented hair. I mean the deep joy that comes from connecting to what’s important to us. The joy of connecting with people and with our values. And, sometimes, to new ideas.
In my work, I am privileged to speak with people about what matters to them. I hear the powerful emotions in their voices as they talk about their family, friends, honesty, beauty, fun or just helping others to have better lives. I am often spell-bound by how much joy and meaning people feel when they give to others. I’ve never yet heard anybody talk about money or power or rules in the same way.
Our reality is a profit-powered world hide-bound by rules. Rules to avoid any risk of litigation by trying to reach unobtainable absolutes of safety and security. Rules that pretend we are not fallible and human. The knee-jerk response to every event is to demand a new law; set up a new regulator or create a new process. We are building a modern Malleus Maleficarum and paying for crumbling, unsustainable and unaffordable bureaucratic edifices that try to enforce the unenforceable. Measurement targets and mediocrity have replaced excellence and enthusiasm. With their mockery, criticism and coolness, media and co‑media‑ns play the part of Tolkien’s allegorical Wormtongue, sapping the health and vitality of our personal King Theodens, and of the world itself.
And so we allow old people to die of cruelty in hospitals so that targets are met. The grey, pinched faces of commuters in the world’s richest cities mutely convey our success to the happy, beaming faces of poor people in Ghana and Burundi.
To politicians, plutocrats and business leaders, I say: Stop trying to impose engagement. Stop making more rules for people to hide behind. Stop inventing more meaningless targets. Banish your personal Wormtongue, and recognise that we like you more when you admit that you are human and vulnerable. We are all fallible. Mistakes help us grow.
Let’s stop living in Scare City and go to A Bun Dance instead. Start letting us enjoy what we do. Help us to connect with what is truly important to us, so that work and politics are part of our lives, not something separate to be endured and balanced. Try it: you just may be overwhelmed by our creativity and enthusiasm.
And maybe, just maybe, we will all sleep better too.