A friend of mine recently went through a legal battle with a former employee of his firm. No one wants to say “I told you so,” but the signs were certainly there.
From the beginning this guy had displayed all the traits of a “prima donna.” While he had certainly worked his tail off to bring the organization to the level of success it now enjoys, he showed little value for the others in the organization who made that success possible. While he had contributed good ideas, he belittled the ideas contributed by others. While he had been an effective spokesperson, he did not give credit to the people who were building the deliverable he represented. When the company reached a pivotal point in its growth, he believed his vote should count for more than anyone else’s. When he learned that was not going to be the case he blew up like the ticking time bomb he was.
Now, you might think I’m totally down on the guy. I’m not. He was a fantastic fit for the role and his contributions were significant. But he was a prima donna being treated as a performer, and a showdown was bound to happen. Prima donnas can be outstanding team members, if you know how to recognize and manage them.
Prima donnas believe their role is the most important.
The thing to know about prima donnas is that they often are top performers. Their ego drive demands that they do the work. The problem is that their ego also demands that their performance not only be valued, but that it be recognized as more valuable than anyone else’s even if the efforts of others are making their own success possible.
This is destructive to morale, even if the other people on the team just shrug and say “I don’t care about the spotlight, let him have it.” Because it isn’t just about the spotlight, it’s about recognition and compensation. And when that isn’t distributed fairly no one really feels like upping the ante on their contribution.
Had they set boundaries with this person from the beginning, that all contributions were essential to the success of the startup and that all team members had to be rewarded according to their contributions, it’s likely that the prima donna would have stuck in out and stayed in check. But as time went by and his demands for more recognition were met over and over he naturally believed his own press and concluded that he deserved a bigger piece of the financial pie as well.
Never feed a prima donna’s ego just because no one else minds. That’s like tossing your company’s capital into a black hole, because you will never have enough of anything to fill that void. Reward them fairly, but refuse demands that go above what you can extend to everyone even if no one else seems to care.
Do they refuse to be held to the same standards as the rest of your team?
Are you overlooking it when your prima donna doesn't attend mandatory team meetings? Not following systems and best practices, same thing? Are you adjusting procedures this person finds tedious and cumbersome?
The key with a prima donna, if you want to keep them, is to be fair but firm, and consistent from the beginning. Like children (and most adults) they’re fans of the “one inch is an invitation to a mile” theory. The difference is that getting the mile feeds their sense of being special. They do what they want and enjoy it, so having it taken away once they have gained it is a huge blow to the ego. If you don’t want to face a temper tantrum or pout fest later, don’t give them an inch today.
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Do they put their own achievements above the achievements of the team as a whole?
All performers care about their personal achievements and meeting their individual goals. But the prima donna believes that the structure of the organization should be designed to help them reach their goals, even if that compromises the ability of other team members to reach the goals they’ve set. Some friendly competition within an organization can be healthy, even fun. But with a prima donna it won’t be friendly or healthy, and you can bet it won’t be fun. You may find that your prima donna is most valuable, and even happiest, in a role with little or no interdependency with other team members. If that isn’t practical, just make sure you are consistently holding them accountable for both their performance goals and their impact on the goals of the organization.
Ultimately, managing a prima donna is walking a razor’s edge between protecting their fragile, needy ego without feeding it. But, if you can keep that balance you’ll find them to be some of the best performers you could ever hire.