IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

‘Prada’ spotlights the Nasty Boss phenomenon

In some entertainment industries, a harsh attitude is a status symbol
/ Source: The Associated Press

A famous designer throws a fit and hurls a pair of scissors at his assistant. The ladies room at a top fashion glossy is routinely filled with weeping underlings who’ve been dressed down. One boss enforces a starvation regime: You can’t go out for lunch, but you can’t eat at your desk, either.

These could be scenes from “The Devil Wears Prada,” the new film starring Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly, a capricious and fear-inspiring fashion editor. But they’re actual anecdotes from the fashion world. Insiders agree that the depiction of scary-boss excess in the film, and even more in the book, is dead-on.

But there are scary, capricious bosses in every field. Which raises another set of questions: Just why do they get away with it? And should they?

Some analysts say that in certain fields, particularly creative ones, a difficult, mercurial personality can actually be a status symbol.

It can even be “a badge of honor” to be a domineering boss in fashion or entertainment, says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a senior associate dean at Yale’s School of Management. “They stir up the pot. They are agitators for change.” Of Priestly’s young, fear-struck assistant in “Prada,” he says: “Did she think she was going to work for a librarian?”

Priestly, the fictional editor of Runway magazine, thinks nothing of ordering her assistant to procure an unpublished “Harry Potter” manuscript for her two daughters — or to conjure up a private plane to get her home in the midst of a hurricane. She calls her size-6 assistant “fat” and ends all conversations with a flick of the wrist and a curt: “That’s all.”

Who's the boss?Whether or not Priestly is based on Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour — author Lauren Weisberger, who once worked for Wintour, denies it — the book’s portrayal of the fashion world in general rings true with insiders.

“If you happen to be working for the wrong editor, you could find yourself doing their kid’s homework, or being yelled at, or crying in the bathroom,” says Liz Lange, a leading maternity designer who put in her time as an assistant at an array of New York fashion glossies. “People can tend to lose touch with reality.”

Yet Lange, who has 40 employees, doesn’t think such behavior is necessary to get the job done.

“Not to say I’m perfect, but I don’t think you need to be mean to get the next collection out, or the next issue,” she says.

Nor does Stanford professor Robert Sutton, an organizational psychologist. He’s developed a whole philosophy, presented in an upcoming book, on bosses who are, well, jerks: They’re a drain on society. They shouldn’t be hired in the first place, and if they won’t change their ways, they should be fired.

“The No-(Expletive) Rule” (fill in a vulgar anatomical reference that we can’t print here), coming out early next year, was born of a Harvard Business Review column Sutton wrote that drew hundreds of e-mails. He defines a you-know-what as “somebody who makes you constantly feel demeaned and lessened.”

Researching his book, Sutton Googled the names of top CEOs along with that you-know-what word. He says he found a whopping 60,000 hits for Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Computer Inc. and the largest Disney shareholder.

Jobs, Sutton says, “is highly effective at pushing people to perfection — and yet he goes insane over the smallest things. He can be extremely cruel.” Yet Jobs is so smart and successful, Sutton notes, that he fits into a chapter of his book entitled, “The Virtues of (You-Know-Whats.)”

Even people who resent his management style suggest that Jobs’ temperament is “a crucial part of his success, especially his pursuit of perfection and relentless desire to make beautiful things,” Sutton says.

Still, the costs generally outweigh the benefits, he says. He points to Hollywood producer Scott Rudin, who went through at least 119 assistants in five years, firing one for bringing the wrong kind of breakfast muffin, according to the Wall Street Journal. “It costs to replace all those people,” Sutton says. Other costs, in any field: wasted time, possible psychological abuse, mental damage.

Of course, if you’re a mean boss, it’s a lot easier in the 21st century to have your capricious ways exposed to the public. Internal staff memos find their way to the Web within seconds. Juicy anecdotes are e-mailed round the world.

Minimal damageBut the harm to these bosses from such bad publicity is minimal, analysts say. “Certainly, the behavior of nasty bosses is way more public than it used to be,” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. “But does it have consequences? I just don’t see it.”

Pfeffer, who teaches a course on corporate power, says he’s always trying to convince his students that their “just world” hypothesis — in order to get ahead, you have to behave well — is extremely naive.

“People don’t understand the extent,” Pfeffer says, “to which people simply want to associate with the rich, powerful and famous.”

And of course, people love being associated with a winner. Pfeffer recalls Steve Spurrier, former coach of the University of Florida football team, who once said: “Call me arrogant, cocky, crybaby whiner or whatever names you like. At least they’re not calling us losers anymore. If people like you too much, it’s probably because they’re beating you.”