'Devil' Boss All Too Familiar
Film's Stereotype Plays Recurring Role in Reality

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 9, 2006; F01

She called her new assistant by the wrong name but didn't care. Her coffee had to be on her desk first thing -- hot -- or else. She didn't want to hear an excuse, she just wanted it done. No matter what "it" was.

Thus are the traits of the devil boss in the movie "The Devil Wears Prada."

The film sparked just the conversations I expected. Walking out of the theater, there were murmurs and whispers that went something like this: "I had a boss like that. One time he. . . . "

Not a week goes by without e-mails from readers lamenting awful bosses who leave them cowering in a corner, weakened on weekends and wishing for a new job.

We can't escape the boss-as-devil, even if we don't (currently) have one ourselves.

Just think of all the horrid fictional bosses, past and present: Ari Gold in "Entourage," the crass, offensive, demanding agent whose loyal assistant, Lloyd, is beaten down episode after episode. Mr. Dithers, the abusive boss in the comic strip Blondie. We've got Montgomery Burns of "The Simpsons" -- evil as evil can be. Horrendous Scrooge from Dickens's novel. And don't forget Darth Vader. Not only is he an evil boss, he's also a loud breather. Ick.

Just how prevalent are evil bosses? A Monster poll says 70 percent of workers think they have a "toxic boss." Ken Siegel, an organizational consultant and psychologist, said evil bosses keep his profession alive. Siegel typically coaches executives who are finding it difficult to manage people.

"They are extraordinarily well-represented in the managerial ranks," he said. "Most devil bosses are relatively unaware of how they affect the people around them. That provides them with well-grounded excuses of their errant ways."

The most common excuse: Fear can be a motivator. Well, yeah. I'd probably try to get an unpublished copy of the new Harry Potter for my boss if my livelihood depended on it, as beleaguered assistant Andy Sachs does in the movie. But that doesn't mean I'd become a great employee.

Most bosses who are feared by their employees have mastered the art of "managing up," Siegel said. Those are the people who are able to align their beliefs and values with those of their bosses and present themselves as a representative of their people. But they aren't. They are good followers and will do anything to please those above them.

"People don't quit companies. They quit people," Siegel said. And quitting is the easiest and best way to take some power back from a boss, he said.

The AFL-CIO is holding a "My Bad Boss Contest" at http://www.workingamerica.org/badboss . There, people can post their boss horror stories. One entry describes a boss at a dental practice who charged his employees for not coming to work on Sept. 11, 2001, even though the patients all canceled their appointments. Another wrote about a gambling boss whose habit meant he sometimes couldn't pay his employees. One Friday, he presented an employee with slot machine payout slips. The worker had to drive to a casino to cash out.

But sometimes the overtly evil boss isn't as bad as the managers who are too laid back to motivate anyone or the passive-aggressive bosses. At least with the overtly evil boss, "you always know where you stand," said William Krug, professor of organizational leadership at Purdue University. "Basically, you can learn to live with them. If it's a consistent personality, you learn how to approach them, how to present ideas to them, what their hot buttons are so you know how to stay away from them."

Krug recalled a screamer boss he had when he was in the Navy. "At least he was a consistent screamer. I knew when to approach him or not," he said.

Krug categorizes bad bosses into four types: controllers, analyzers, promoters and supporters. Controllers are demanding and insist things be done their way; analyzers like a lot of information but have trouble making decisions; promoters are enthusiastic, dislike detail, make quick decisions but often lack follow-up; and supporters are seen as the "nice" bosses who consider their workers' feelings but can be taken advantage of.

Workers can use this information to figure out how to handle a bad boss, Krug said. (See box for his handy advice.)

Sure, in a perfect world, we wouldn't have to figure out when to tiptoe into the bosses' offices or think through how to approach them with a new idea. In a perfect world, everyone would be, well, perfect. That's not going to happen.

And so as much as the fabulous Meryl Streep portrays a demanding boss named Miranda Priestly in "The Devil," we might want to notice that the new assistant Andy, played by Anne Hathaway, isn't the perfect employee, either.

While no one ever is, Andy made some obvious mistakes -- some that would incur the wrath of the most cuddly boss.

Is Priestly (supposedly modeled after Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour) a horrid boss? Demanding, sure. Lacking any sense of generosity, oh yeah. An over-the-top meanie? Pretty much.

But what about Andy? Showing up for an interview at a magazine she didn't even read first? A magazine that is run by a famous editor of whom she knew not a thing? And wearing a sloppy outfit? That might pass for casual Friday in Washington, not a job interview at a fashion mag in New York.

Andy also complained that she wasn't praised for all the good work she did but was slammed when she messed up. But sometimes we have to keep in mind that we're hired because we are expected to be the best fit for the job -- not because a potential boss thinks we'll do okay every now and then.

Of course, a good leader understands which employee might need a little praise to be motivated, Krug said. But finding that kind of perfect boss is probably as difficult as locating a perfect employee.

Andy was told (by several people, several times) that a million girls would die for her job. And they had a point: Those who would die for this job would do so because it could lead to the career they knew they wanted. So they would put up with the skin-melting glances from the boss who made unbearable requests. But why put up with an unbearable boss if the job won't lead to what one truly wants to do? Or better yet, could one put up with a bad boss if it meant being in an industry one loved?

"Here's to jobs that pay the rent," toasted Andy and her movie friends.

Well, there is that. But as Andy discovered, there's a little more to the career than rent-paying. And she figured out whether to put up with the devil boss or to find a gig that better suited her aspirations.

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