It’s the kind of thing you associate with the Live Free or Die independent self-made, salt-of-the-earth American. And to the extent it points to someone running their small business, eeking out a living, they’re entitled to the full protection of the phrase. But when this gets coopted by large scale industry whose actions have significant and often dire consequence on the country and world they inhabit, that phrase don’t play. Over a certain amount of impact a nominally “private” company should be considered a public institution, subject to significant oversight by government, its employees, and the public at large. Any notion at this point in time that what ails this country is over-regulation of large institutions is the stuff of dystopian sci fi.

There’s a phrase that’s played well in many a movie: “This ain’t a democracy”. It’s a fun show-stopper. The character who says it is frequently the lead, fettered by some lily-livered nabob, a worry wart of some kind, or a clueless corporate weasel. The context is a crisis with a looming deadline before disaster. There’s no time waste. The job must get done.

Tellingly, I hear that a lot at in different work environments, particularly when the working environment becomes so mired and dysfunctional that people start speaking out. If you spend 8 hours a day, or in my case 10 to 16, the idea that “this ain’t a democracy” sounds is menacing. Are you kidding? A third – or more – of your daily life has no relationship to democracy? Back on day one we were all called into a meeting. “We want to hear from you,” said the company’s owners. “We need you to know that we value your commitment and value your input. Don’t hold back. Share your opinion. We want you to be proud, committed, and we need you to understand that this things works best when we all work together.” That’s day one. Day 3, when you see what’s up and offer some ideas about what’s wrong and what might be done now, while it’s still early to head off a looming catastrophe this is the typical reply: “I really appreciate what you’re saying, but right now we’ve got a lot to do, we’re over budget and behind schedule, so what I need from you right now is let’s just get through this. It’s not what we wanted, but unfortunately that’s where we are. We’ll get all that sorted out next go ’round.” If that happened once, I’d get it, but in my experience that’s the routine.

Later – not much later – as the advice not considered devolves into full blown crisis, the decision making goes inadequate to desperate. Steps that would have resulted in a few days overage explode into mistakes, do-overs, and ultimately massive overages and schedule delays. Frequently there’s well founded fear that the company is about to go under. Sometimes it actually does. Either way someone’s assistant gets fired, scapegoats protecting the way things are. At some point in the process, when someone with little authority speaks truth to power, it happens: “This is not a democracy”. It might be unstated, it might just be tone. In my experience they actually say it, and often. It gets a laugh, but it’s hardly a joke.

Eventually, as always, the job gets done. It’s a pale wan mess compared to the aspirations first put forth, but in the end the team is gathered together and offered these fine words: “Guys, I just want to congratulate you all. It was a tough job. We faced a lot of hurdles, but I just want to say you all really pulled through and I’m so proud of you all. You’re the greatest, and I can’t wait to work with all again soon.” Fist pumps and high fives.

With that the project ends, and the team hopes wonders whether they’ll indeed be hired again next go around. The finished product frequently doesn’t look that great on the resume, it’s nothing to be proud of, as much as we’d like it to be, but it’s money, and we all need to pay the bills. It’s not a democracy. Democracy isn’t flawless, but it works better than this.

How about a new phrase. It’s a little wordy: “That thing you made me help you produce is a travesty. It impresses no one. The way you run your company sucks. Somehow you’ve got the ear of an executive somewhere who protects your ass from the black-and-blue boot mark it deserves. About time we damn well tell you how the hell to run your sorry-ass business.”


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