How To Handle A Prima Donna On Your Team

A prima donna is a diva: someone who acts like they are the star of the show. They often dominate the conversation and always interrupt when other people are talking. Prima donna is a term that comes from the Opera, and literally means first woman, in Italian.


A manager who has to deal with a prima donna employee may find it difficult to successfully manage them in any type of work environment. Finding the best way to handle an egotistical employee is essential for a harmonious and productive workplace for everyone.


Here’s a historical example of a prima donna:


Hugh Dowding was a British Air Chief Marshal in the 1930s. According to Michael Korda in his book With Wings Like Eagles, Dowding devised revolutionary ideas about the use of radar and military defense that probably saved England during World War II. But like many prima donnas, he had an enormously difficult personality – impatient, stubborn, argumentative, arrogant, and eccentric.


Prima donnas can provide immeasurable value with their exceptional talents but oftentimes possess attributes that can make them difficult to work with. Many HR managers have encountered their share of “Hugh Dowdings” during their careers. You probably even have one working for you now and if harnessed the right way, their thirst to succeed coupled with strong their self-confidence can actually benefit everyone in your company.


Here are a few ideas on how to deal with them:


1. Focus on the content of their ideas, not their delivery style

Prima donnas often possess brilliant insight and vision, but they can also undermine their causes with their delivery styles, which can be self-aggrandizing, confrontational, or both. As a manager, you need to put aside their personalities, swallow your ego, and focus on the value of their ideas when they have them.


2. Give prima donnas space. They will appreciate it. And so will everyone else

Many problems with prima donnas can be solved if you simply give them a lot of space and room to think on their own. Try to assign them projects that require a lot of thinking and little teamwork.


3. Put them in the right situation to flourish

Prima donnas often flourish in crisis situations where they can be heroes, and their creativity and skills are critical to you – say your CEO needs an A+ presentation created overnight for an unexpected opportunity to impress a client or your website is down inexplicably and you need a creative technology solution.


In those situations, you might be more willing to put up with their negatives and give the prima donna plenty of latitude to solve a problem. But for a complex project requiring strong collaboration and teamwork, you might want to find a different role for your prima donna.


4. Set personal performance goals and hold them accountable

Prima donnas are usually driven by a hunger for accomplishment. You can feed their hunger and meet your own needs by setting them to higher standards of personal achievement, especially in categories you can measure more easily – this can be sales leads generated or service calls managed. And then you should push them to exceed those goals.


5. Be realistic about what you can expect from a prima donna

They will probably not perform well in the ‘interpersonal skills’ section of the performance review. You would probably expect prima donnas to at least try to improve their interpersonal skills but don’t try too hard to change them. A leopard cannot change its spots.


6. Recognize them when they succeed

Stroke their egos. We all appreciate being recognized for a job well done but prima donnas live for recognition. A shout-out in an email goes a long way in motivating them to succeed. They also notice when their accomplishments are overlooked. You just need to be comfortable realizing that you’re going to need to give them more attention than other people on your team require.


7. Be sensitive

Take note of how prima donnas affect everyone else on your team. You might be lucky enough to have people on your team who can overlook a prima donna’s egotistical behavior but you’re still going to need to have your antenna up for signs of eroding employee morale.


8. In extreme circumstances, get rid of them

As mentioned earlier, it’s often the case that a prima donna is motivated by a desire to perform but simply lacks a sensitivity chip when it comes to interpersonal skills. Hugh Dowding, for instance, had a hard time getting along with others but was essentially motivated by noble goals.


However, there is another class of prima donnas who cannot be tolerated: those with toxic personalities. If a prima donna actively works to undermine your authority and destroy your team’s chemistry, then you have a different problem on your hands – one that will probably not be solved unless you are willing to let go of him or her.


Would you rather work with averagely talented people who work well together than have a prima donna on your team? What do you think about prima donna employees?


Written by Genevieve Craig