Wednesday, July 26, 2006

ĎDevilí boss demystified
Amy Joyce

Illustration by Sandeep JoshiShe called her new assistant by the wrong name and didnít care. Her coffee had to be on her desk first thing ó hot ó or else. She didnít want to hear an excuse, she just wanted it done. No matter what Ďití was.

Thus are the traits of the devil boss in the movie "The Devil Wears Prada." Walking out of the theater, I could hear 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 canít escape the boss-as-devil, even if we donít (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. Montgomery Burns of "The Simpsons," evil as evil can be. Horrendous Scrooge from Dickensí novel. And donít forget Darth Vader ó not only an evil boss, but also a loud breather. Ick.

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

"They are extraordinarily well-represented in the managerial ranks," he says. "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, it can, but that doesnít mean you end up with great employees.

Most bosses who are feared by their employees have mastered the art of "managing up," Siegel says. 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 arenít. They are good followers and will do anything to please those above them.

"People donít quit companies. They quit people," Siegel says, noting that quitting is the easiest and best way to take some power back from a boss.

Bad boss contest

The AFL-CIO is holding a "My Bad Boss Contest" at, where 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 September 11, 2001, even though the patients all canceled their appointments. Another wrote about a gambling boss whose habit meant he sometimes couldnít 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 isnít 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," says William Krug, professor of organizational leadership. "Basically, you can learn to live with them. If itís 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 in the Navy: "At least he was a consistent screamer. I knew when to approach him or not."

It takes all types

Krug categorizes bad bosses into four types: controllers, analysers, promoters and supporters. Controllers are demanding and insist things be done their way; analysers 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 Ďniceí bosses who consider their workersí feelings but can be taken advantage of. Workers can use this information to figure out how to handle a bad boss, Krug says.

Sure, in a perfect world, we wouldnít have to figure out when to tiptoe into the bossesí offices or think through how to approach them with a new idea. In a perfect world, everyone would be, well, perfect. That wonít happen.

As demanding as "The Devilís" boss Miranda Priestly (portrayed by fabulous Meryl Streep) is, notice that her new assistant Andy (Anne Hathaway) isnít the perfect employee, either. Andy makes 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? Interviewing, in a sloppy outfit, at a magazine she didnít even read first? A magazine run by a famous editor of whom she knew not a thing?

Evil boss vs imperfect worker

Andy complains that she isnít praised for the good work she does but is slammed when she messes up. But we must remember that weíre hired because we are expected to be the best fit for the job ó not because a potential boss thinks weíll do OK every now and then.

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

Andy is told several times that a million girls would die for her job. Because it could lead to the career they wanted, they would put up with the boss who makes unbearable requests. But why put up with an unbearable boss if the job wonít 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?

"Hereís to jobs that pay the rent," Andy and her friends toast.

But Andy discovers thereís a little more to the career than rent-paying. And she figures out whether to put up with the devil boss or to find a gig that better suits her aspirations.

ó LA Times-Washington Post