Dealing with Prima Donnas

This post is about how managers can deal with people who are precious to your team but come with toxic behaviour.   Though my experience has been almost entirely in the software industry where this is a big problem, I think the problem exists in almost all fields.

Here are various definitions of the term “Prima Donna”:

  • a very temperamental person with an inflated view of his/her own talent or importance
  • a person who is difficult to please and who expects to be treated better than everyone else
  • a vain or undisciplined person who finds it difficult to work under direction or as part of a team

You probably see a few of them around in your organisation.

Prima donnas are Problematic

  1. They can damage the team spirit that you have so carefully built
  2. Others resent the special attention they manage to get – the unhappiness spreads
  3. They reduce your moral authority when you break your own rules to accommodate them
  4. They are a permanent source of irritation
  5. They create huge management overheads
  6. They set bad examples for juniors

But they are Precious

If such people were not precious to the organization, it would be easy to cast them aside.  The problem is, when such people possess unique knowledge, skills, and capabilities that make them indispensible.

While knowledge may be picked up by others, it is nearly impossible to replace these prima donnas who possess special but rare-to-find skills.

It can be a headache

When rules are bent to accommodate their demands it creates a bad precedent within the organization.  There is the hard working, team player who always puts the organization ahead of himself and does not complain.  He feels short changed when he sees the prima donna succeed in having his way.

Once, anxious not to lose such a prima-donna on my team, I offered him a unique pay package.  I then ended up spending the next six months dealing with simmering discontent within the organisation.

The problem is: you need both of them

You need the problematic specialist who can solve problems no one else can, as well as the team player who is always there when needed.

Here are a few tips to consider when a problem like this turns into a crisis and you find yourself between a rock and a hard place.

Short term solutions

  1. Reach out to your team through informal channels and tell them that you are aware of the problem, but also that you do not see an immediate solution; that everybody has to live with it in the short term.  Do not assume that the quiet, uncomplaining types do not feel hurt; reach out to them.  Assuage their hurt.
  2. Place emotionally strong and committed team players in the group.  Tell them explicitly that their task is to reduce the impact of the prima donna.
  3. Bargain hard with the problematic guy: give favours in return for good behaviour rather than task completion.  But do this very carefully.  Keep looking for opportunities to replace the guy as soon as you can.
  4. Keep yourself cool.  That sets an example for others to show that one can manage in spite of the situation.
  5. Assess the cost vs. benefits calmly. “Can I really do without the expert? Can I manage the destruction he causes?  How easy or difficult is it to replace him?”  Don’t rush to fire the expert in anger.  Don’t let fear overcome you either.

After much thought, a chartered accountant recently fired the only employee who was most familiar with his clients’ accounts, but had become impossible to manage.  He is living through the crisis but is delighted that he found his courage when he needed it.

  1. Accept the situation.  You may feel the guilt of not being fair with others.  Don’t be harsh on yourself.  It is ok.  You cannot be fair all the time.
  2. Don’t fall for arguments from the cynics.  Don’t let them make you feel that you no longer have the moral authority to enforce team rules.

Some ideas for the long term

  1. Create an environment where those who do not complain get as much attention as others. Set this culture in your team.  Remember that deliberate actions repeated over time define the way things are done in your team.
  2. Constantly try to reduce knowledge “dark spots” even when there is no crisis.  Encourage a culture of knowledge sharing.  Remind people that “Nobody cares about what you know, until they know that you care about them.”  Reward knowledge sharing as much as learning.
  3. Use tools and processes to simplify, share, and collaborate.  Sometimes merely enforcing transparency can do the trick.
  4. Tell people that they must have the humility to accept the Specialist for his superior knowledge or skills.  They will also have to tolerate his idiosyncrasies.  Set expectations amongst them such that the problem is manageable.
  5. Your time is precious and there is only so much to spend on “face-time” with team members.  But don’t let the loudest child hog the most time.  Spend good time with the committed but quiet people.
  6. Watch out for individuals who refuse to share their knowledge.  If you can afford it, set “buffers” around such people before the problem gets out of hand.
  7. Examine whether an executive coach may be of help to change the problem guy’s attitude.  Remember that coaching works only if the person himself is willing to change.

In some work environments and industries this problem will never go away.    This is especially so where the specialist has skills that others don’t.  What else can one do in such cases other than getting used to it!


One response to this post.

  1. you should add a retweet button for good stuff like this


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