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Surviving a "Devil Wears Prada" Boss

By InHerSight - Updated May 23, 2018 at 1:50PM

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You can thrive by managing your emotions and investing in your team.

This article originally appeared on, a website where women rate the female friendliness of their employers and get matched to companies that fit their needs.

Like clockwork, twice a week our boss picked someone to tear apart in staff meetings. Although she was a brilliant and visionary engineer and entrepreneur -- and she knew how to hire exceptional people -- her leadership and management skills left a lot to be desired. She skipped over the "love or respect" conundrum many female leaders face, and went straight to fear and domination. 

Since I had just moved across the country with my two small children to take the job, quitting wasn't an option. I wasn't the only one affected, either; the whole team struggled. Can teams succeed despite a toxic boss? We needed new coping skills fast. Here's our advice, based on what we did.

Boss yelling at employee

Image source: Getty Images.

Adapt to the reality and help one another

Initially, as the newest person on the team, I was paralyzed by the humiliation of it all. Continually terrified about losing my livelihood, I feared I would never gain my colleagues' respect under such circumstances. Building up my courage to talk about feeling ashamed was the first step in fostering personal and team resilience. 

Making connections helps to defuse the feelings of isolation that come with shame, according to Psychology Today. It's natural to want to withdraw, but it turned out that my colleagues felt the same way I did. Sharing compassion was calming and empowering. We learned to short-circuit one another's feelings of personal shame after staff meetings by reaching out to the victim of the day with empathy and humor. The phrase "Thanks for taking one for the team today" became our mantra. 

Pro Tip: Hard as it seems, it is possible to reframe embarrassment into constructive thinking. Need more help with this? Check out the strategies provided by the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace in Canada.  

Shift the focus

Once we got better at emotionally weathering the storms of our boss, we focused on eliminating the triggers for her outbursts. We concentrated on communicating the impact and results of our work and saved discussions about processes and problems for meetings without her. Of course, we kept her informed; we merely worked out the tricky issues without her, and presented her with solutions.

This approach gave our moody boss confidence we were getting things done. As a result, we were better able to focus on what was important to her. She could clearly see our high-performing team in action.

Still, it is especially hard to recover from an actual mistake when you're already tamping down defensiveness. Here's where you need to own your career and professionalism. If you messed up a task, admit your mistake and skip the blame game. Fix it as best you can and move on, behavior change specialist Bryan Falchuk advises on

Pro Tip: Harvard Business Review writer Carolyn O'Hara recommends focusing on the words of your boss and not her tone as a strategy for keeping your working relationship on track. That technique makes it easier to stay calm.

Prioritize relationships within the team

For us, personal and team validation turned out to be a key strategy for coping with our Devil Wears Prada diva. Thankfully, this is a skill you get better at with practice. It helped our group stay productive through some tough moments. We recognized the power of this technique and actively used it to onboard newbies who joined the team over time.

One trait of highly productive teams is trust among co-workers. The need for trust is especially real when dealing with a volatile manager. Use the "cone of silence" so teammates can vent and move on, feeling better. Make confidentiality and professionalism core values. Discourage gossip and rumor-mongering. Such breaches will backfire on you; it's just a matter of time. If gossip is rampant in your company, read How to Manage Gossip at Work.

Pro Tip: Build personal and team resilience by celebrating accomplishments, and actively contribute to the health of your organization. The principles of individual and group health in the workplace are universal. For seven ways to check if you and your team are on track to be effective team members, read Characteristics of Good Work Team Members. You might find, as I did, that despite the challenges of an ornery boss, your team thrives. 

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