Handling prima donna employees

Just about every company has its mega stars. High performing individuals who are capable of real breakthroughs and brilliant ideas that come out of left field. Unfortunately, some of them are prima donnas.
Prima Donna was the term given to the leading lady in Italian operas, the star soprano. Adored by the cast and fans, she always got special treatment. Like the late Joan Sutherland, and richly deserved too.

The prima donna in the office expects the same. They can make outrageous demands, they can fly off the handle at a perceived slight, they preen and they posture. But the problem is they are also star performers and you can’t just get rid of them. So how should they be handled?

Tim Gould at HR Morning says there are four types of prima donna: Joe or Josephine Cool - urbane, confident, knows everything and everyone and who never misses an opportunity to point it out to people; Vincent or Vivian Van Gogh, the one who is just so creative and who can’t be expected to follow the same rules as everyone else; the Founding Father or Mother who has been around forever and who thinks they have already done all the hard yards and doesn’t have to produce in the same way they used to; and Conan or Connie the Barbarian, the office bully who makes everyone miserable, but gets results.

But regardless of the category, they have two things in common: they’re not team players and they are full of themselves. Gould says it’s hard getting rid of these people but sometimes you just have to if they are more trouble than they are worth.

We’ve all known prima donnas and had to work with them. As one commentator says, they are a right royal pain. “Men and women of high achievement, sometimes brilliant, stubbornly insist on having their own way, often contemptuous of others. In many cases, absolutely no one else wants to work with this individual. This high performer is the one that is always relentlessly demanding of junior professionals and support staff. They continually ask them to drop everything they are doing; work on grueling assignments with little supervision, assistance, or feedback; and always expect that their client work should get top priority. They interrogate other professionals, criticise the work product, threaten to have staff fired, and behave as though no one is ever capable of meeting their obsessive standards. This is also, all too often, the individual who makes it his mission to be obnoxious, arrogant, coarse and rude to everyone around him. They irritate, criticise, bruise, blunder, push, ridicule, deflate, intimidate and otherwise generally make pains of themselves. They seem to mind everyone else's business but their own, and believe that holding internal firm matters in confidence means that you should whisper when telling others. They frequently interrupt the conversations that they weren't even involved in, and acts as though they were the acknowledged expert in all matters.”

Lous Dubois at Inc.com has a number of suggestions but unfortunately, they all involve high maintenance. It involves lots of mentoring and hand holding, making sure their treatment is commensurate with their performance, giving them lots of space to do their own thing, finding out what really drives them and making them accountable.

Commentator Joanna Krotz has similar suggestions. She says you need to work with them and give them lots of help, pointing out how they can change. And you need to be patient, she says, because it won’t happen overnight. But if they haven’t changed after a few months, it’s time to move them on. By then, you would have found a replacement.

Former advertising executive Ted Sherman says the only way to handle them is to make sure they deliver on deadline, regardless of the personality quirks and problems. He says he also used to make a point of stopping by their desks and talking to them about stuff like health, family and if there were any outstanding work-related problems. It was a way of building bridges without becoming too chummy.

But then, there are others who say prima donnas are just not worth it. David Maister, one of the world’s most respected management commentators and consultant to professional services firms, says it comes down to team work. And prima donnas are no good at it. “The most common prima donnas are people who don’t want to be team players at all. If they throw a fit about something, they are not really talking about anything specific: they just don’t want to have to fit in with others. If one person won’t fit in, the minute you are seen to tolerate their behavior, to tolerate an exception, you as the leader have just given permission to everybody else to do things their own way, too. You are better off without a prima donna if their actions ruin the teamwork of the whole group. If you want the benefits of collaboration you cannot afford to make exceptions.”

Or as Star Trek’s Spock put it, logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Do you work with prima donnas? What’s it like? What sort of demands do they have? How does your manager handle them? What’s the best way of dealing with them? Or are they more trouble than they are worth?