What films teach us about workplace relationships: The Devil Wears Prada

prada2The Devil Wears Prada is an entertaining film which tells the story of the boss-from-hell and her young assistant.

Set in the high-octane, self-reverential world of fashion, it follows a comforting and familiar trajectory of antagonism, acceptance and re-assessment, in which eventually the values of kindness and humanity prevail over the evil forces of ruthless ambition and over-estimating the importance of Jimmy Choos in the grand scheme of things.

But the film does have some lessons for us all in considering relationships in the workplace.

Respect people

The boss, magazine editor Miranda Priestly, superbly played by Meryl Streep, is basically a bully draped in designer gear. She shows her disdain for her assistant Andrea, convincingly played by Anne Hathaway, and indeed all her assistants, by refusing to learn their names.

All assistants are to be known as Emily. They don’t exist as individuals, they are functionaries there to do her bidding. She never says thank you, never praises, but jumps on any mistake with ferocity. She rules by fear and intimidation.

Learn people’s names, and use them

Use the name by which someone wants to be known. If in doubt, ask. Always observe. It could be that only some colleagues use a person’s nickname. Some people dislike their name being shortened, others prefer not to use their full name.

Just as a hairdresser can always cut off more, but can’t put back what has gone, it’s easier to start on a formal basis and become more relaxed than it is to up the formality from a casual base.

Always say thank you and use opportunities to say approving things about what people do.

Learn the lingo

Every organisation has its own jargon. In every organisation there a hierarchy of people.

There’s a scene at the beginning of The Devil Wears Prada where Andrea makes it clear she has not heard of Dolce e Gabbana (no, it’s OK, you’re not expected to know them), which leads us to see her increasing familiarity with the big industry names as a sign of her assimilation into the new culture.

It’s a good idea to get to know the terminology and the names of your particular set-up and use them appropriately.

Understand your enemies

At the beginning of the film, Andrea shows her disdain towards the shallow culture of the fashion world. Miranda delivers a little lecture on its importance, linking Andrea’s (lamentable) choice of clothing to the fashion chain which begins at the highest end and filters down to the lowest, the bargain basement pile where she presumes Andrea found her poly-fibred cerulean blue sweater. (Cerulean, who knew?)

We see Andrea’s changed thinking when she tells her sceptical friends that literary heavyweights Jay McInerney and Joan Didion have written for the magazine.

Learn what makes people tick, particularly people who see things differently from you. Understanding what is important to them will help you to communicate more effectively, and will stop you causing offence. You can disagree without rubbishing what matters to the other person.

Don’t join the mean girls (or boys)

It may seem secure to buddy up with the in crowd, but alliances based on mutual fear of the boss and a desire to boost yourself by putting down others are not likely to work for long.

In the film, the members of Miranda’s team strengthen their bond and their fragile self-esteem by sniggering at Andrea’s clothes and personal presentation. In a sad reflection on the sisterhood, the one person to advise Andrea how to look the part is the (obligatory) lovely gay man.

Andrea becomes a mean girl when she takes the Paris assignment which should have been her colleague’s. She says she had no choice, but she did. There is always a choice, and there are always consequences.

She redeems herself by generously giving the colleague all the clothes she got from Paris – but hang on, she doesn’t need them in her new life as a proper journalist. Hmm.

Keep your values

In the film, we see the all-too-familiar clashes as work impinges on personal lives and relationships. While we battle with work/life balance and work/life merge it is important to keep our eye on the things that really matter to us.

For Miranda, that is her work, and she sacrifices her marriage for status and success. Andrea finally acknowledges that she cannot identify with the culture and mores of the world she works in, and sees the value in the life she was on the point of rejecting.

If you work in an environment whose culture challenges your values, you are likely to suffer some psychological stress in the process of adjustment.

One of the ways in which we deal with this discomfort is by altering our view of what is important by diminishing the value we place on one of the aspects. If your place of work rewards behaviour that you find questionable, you may reduce the internal tension by telling yourself that the behaviour isn’t so bad.

When you find yourself in this situation, it’s helpful to remember that nothing is entirely black and white, and that the oppositions may not be as extreme as you think.

Make tolerable adjustments

When Andrea’s pal takes her in hand, the switch from drab to diva is effected at a stroke. With the wave of a fairytale wand and the aid of astronomically expensive designer clobber, she becomes a visual mini-Miranda.

It’s a good idea to look the part, whatever the part is. In the same way, it’s quite a good idea to behave in ways which conform to the general way of doing things. These are small compromises which actually give you confidence and increase people’s confidence in you. If they stick in your throat, maybe you are in a place which is wrong for you.

Actually, I find there is something a little passive-aggressive in Andrea’s initial refusal to compromise. You know what? She could have ditched the cerulean sweater and the long skirt on the first day. Maybe at lunchtime.