Office-Politics Lessons from “The Devil Wears Prada”
Think you have the world’s worst boss? How does your boss measure up against the Boss-from-Hell? By Franke James, MFA The Devil Wears Prada will no doubt fuel some hot, haute water-cooler chat. Based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger, the film is a wickedly funny tale about working for a boss who is a tyrant (rumor has it that the book was inspired by Weisberger’s stint at Vogue Magazine working for Anna Wintour). Meryl Streep stars as Miranda Priestly, Editor-in-Chief of Runway Magazine. Think Cruella de Ville with Medusa eyes.
While the movie is an entertaining romp about the travails of working for a tyrannical boss, it raises some important questions: If you work for a Boss-from-Hell how do you cope? Is your boss a Boss-from-Hell? Is your boss bullying you or simply delivering a tough-love message? Are you a victim or just paying your dues? Does your boss thrive on chaos? Does your boss make impossible demands? Does your boss play the office politics game 1. Is your boss a Boss-from-Hell? Miranda quickly established her role as the ‘Master’ over her ‘Slave’ employees. She lived, ate, and breathed her career.
Work and life had merged into one unified and indivisible whole. She expected everyone to have the same devotion to Runway Magazine. Employees time with family and friends was an expendable commodity, a frill. Miranda refused to address her new assistant Andy (Anne Hathaway) by her proper name, and substituted the name of her other assistant. She demanded that Andy be on call 24/7 (without adequate compensation) She gave a long list of demands without allowing any questions and expected employees to know the details of each task, but did not provide any training.
She sent Andy on multiple errands, without clear instructions, and an impossibly short time-frame under threat of being fired if she did not deliver. She insulted her intelligence and mocked her style of dress, publicly and privately She forbade any employees from riding in the elevator with her, which further underlined a Master/Slave relationship. While some of these incidents, if taken alone, could be dismissed as ‘minor irritations’, collectively they amounted to psychological warfare.
All of these ‘power-plays’ shared one thing in common: a lack of respect by the boss for the employee. How to cope: Stand up for yourself You have to stand up for yourself to get what you want with a Boss-from-Hell. Remember that they are more concerned about themselves than you. They are the ‘center of the universe’. So don’t take it personally that your boss can’t remember your name, or won’t take the time to delegate tasks properly. Your best strategy is to be quietly persistent and firm. Repeat back what tasks have been requested, and the expected timeline.
If the boss is too impatient to listen, then send them a summary email or memo, before and after the task. Document everything. 2. Is your boss bullying you or simply delivering a tough-love message? No one likes to be ‘dressed-down’, especially in public. Miranda routinely demeaned Andy in front of the other employees by calling her insulting names, mocking her style of dress, her level of intelligence, and her ability to handle the job. The funny thing was that there was a grain of truth to Miranda’s criticisms. You can’t expect to work for a fashion magazine if you don’t know the product.
The belligerent delivery was inexcusable but the underlying truth was that Andy was ignorant of fashion and she would not survive without changing, learning and growing. Miranda’s criticisms (but not her bullying tactics) could be viewed positively as a tough-love approach. How to cope: Share the company values (or exit) Miranda was setting up a challenge to Andy and every employee: conform to my standards or you are fired! This is not as unreasonable or evil as it appears at first glance. It raises a question that every employee should ask themselves.
Am I not fitting in because I don’t share the company values? An extreme example: if you wanted to join the Hell’s Angels, you know that you’d have an easier time being accepted if you rode a motorcycle, dressed in leather, adorned your body with multiple tattoos, drank a two-four daily, and (perhaps) had some illegal activities on your record. Clearly if you are working in the fashion field then it is a safe assumption that you share the value that fashion is important. Andy rejected that value. She did not fit in because she did not wear the uniform. She knew it, but she didn’t care.
She thought her brains were what really counted, not the surface decoration. Showing up for work in outfits that look like she rescued them from a thrift store was akin to waving a red flag in front of a bull. Unkempt hair, shapeless argyle blend polyester sweaters, frumpy plaid skirts, and clumpy clogs labeled Andy as an ignoramus of the fashion world. Andy needed to embrace the fashion culture in order to survive, and ultimately to be accepted. Not knowing that a Manolo Blahnik is a brand of shoe is like a carpenter not knowing what a hammer is. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
But it does make for good comedy in the film. (Just don’t make the same mistake in your career. ) Since the product in this case was fashion, it was elementary logic that Andy should show respect by following the dress code. She was part of the Runway brand, as surely as the clothes-hanger models and glossy pages of their magazine. Andy’s career turned around in the second half of the movie after a fashion makeover. She finally accepted that she needed to ‘be the brand’ in order to excel at her job. She accepted the ‘shared value’. Miranda won a battle that should never have been an issue.
If you don’t accept the shared values of a company then that company is not the right place for you. 3. Are you a victim or just paying your dues? In the movie Andy frequently told her boyfriend (whose birthday party she missed), that she had no choice. She whined constantly, “But I had no choice! Miranda called! ” You don’t have to be a tyrannical boss to want to wallop Andy with a big designer purse and yell, “Don’t answer the phone! Turn it off. ” Andy was a willing victim. She chose to put her boss’ needs (and her career) ahead of her boyfriend.
She decided that to climb the ladder she needed to work 24/7. Was that wrong? Not necessarily (besides the boyfriend is about as exciting as a heap of half-eaten mashed potatoes). But for Andy, whose true dream was to be a ‘serious’ journalist, the pain was not worth the gain. How to cope: Decide if it is a reasonable price To cope with a tyrannical boss, the most basic question you should ask yourself is whether the price in aggravation and stress in exchange for your weekly paycheque is worth it. If it’s not worth it, then you have two choices. #1.
Create an action plan that will change the aspects of your job you find most difficult. #2. Ask yourself what better job you could move to — and what skills you need to acquire before you make the leap. 4. Does your boss thrive on chaos? Miranda did not have a well-oiled system. Things were constantly springing leaks. Tyrannical bosses need help — and not just psychiatric. At Miranda’s company there was a crisis every hour. Employees were running around in a frenzied panic. Sadly, Miranda demanded perfection but was unwilling to develop a system to train her employees.
Although many people admired her ability to run a fashion magazine, she was a poor manager of people. At the end of the movie she expressed relief that she would still be at the helm — saying under her breath that no one else could handle the job. Which was probably very true. She was irreplaceable because she ran the business on fear and chaos, and it would have imploded on her exit. How to cope: Create a well-ordered system To cope with the Boss-from-Hell, realize their shortcomings and compensate accordingly. In Miranda’s case, the company lurched from mini-crisis to mini-crisis.
A smart employee could have created systems to help run the place efficiently, smoothly and to minimize crisis. And then that employee would have been highly valued, and very marketable. 5. Does your boss make impossible demands? Miranda was forever making impossible demands of her employees. One hilarious example was when Miranda’s plane was grounded by a hurricane. Andy’s dinner with her out-of-town Dad was interrupted, while Andy tried valiantly to schedule another flight. Of course, the only thing that flew that night was the s–t hitting the fan when Miranda’s request for a flight was not met.
How to Cope: Can you think two steps ahead of the boss? Putting aside the truly impossible demands, how do you stay two steps ahead of the boss? Anticipate what the boss will need, before they’ve even thought of it. That was the key to Andy’s turnaround success. When Miranda asked for the impossible, a copy of an unpublished Harry Potter manuscript, Andy pulled strings to get it. But she proved herself to be a proactive thinker by getting the manuscript duplicated and bound (just in time for Miranda’s twin daughters to read it on the train-ride to Grandma’s).
The coping strategy in this is not to take your boss’ requests at face value. Think further down the road to what the next logical step is going to be. That devil-boss will be eating out of your hand. 6. Does your boss play the office politics game? Miranda is an expert office politics player. The climax of the movie occurs when Miranda becomes aware of an imminent coup that threatens to topple her (the magazine owner wants to give Miranda’s job to his sexy new mistress). But Miranda checkmates the move very effectively by threatening to steal ‘her’ high-profile fashion designers away to a rival publication.
The owner grudgingly allows her to keep her Editor-in-Chief job, and offers his mistress an alternate, if largely titular, job. An unlucky pawn caught in the crossfire is Nigel, Miranda’s loyal design assistant. His ambitions get decimated, prompting Andy to virtuously claim that she could never backstab someone like that. Miranda corrects her and says, “Oh, but you already have. You did it to Emily. ” This uncomfortable truth forced Andy to look in the mirror and make a decision as to what she wanted out of life, and how far she was willing to go to get it. How to Cope: Learn to play the office politics game
To cope with the Boss-from-Hell, employees need to learn how to play office politics, whether they want to or not. Burying your head in the sand will not make it disappear. It is in your best interests to be aware of the shifting agendas, imbalances of power, hidden motives, and swift-moving unseen forces that are shaping your workplace. You need to become a student of human nature, which is ultimately what office politics is all about. Oh yeah, and to survive the Boss-from-Hell, document everything… You never know when you may be able to turn it into a best-selling book or a hit movie starring an Oscar-winning actress.
About the author: Franke James, MFA is the site founder of Office-Politics. com, and inventor of the Office-Politics Game. Office-Politics lessons from “The Devil Wears Prada” © copyright 2006 Franke James. First publication: July 2006 ICFAI University Press, Institute of Chartered Financial Analysts of India. All photographs: The Devil Wears Prada – 2006 copyright 20th Century Fox. The Devil Wears Prada starring Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, Emily Blunt. Directed by David Frankel. Based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger.